When the living is easy

<em>Summer Special</em> - Kathryn Hughes feels uncomfortable in her skin from June to September

I have never been able to stand summer. From the beginning of June to halfway through September, I feel wrong in my body and out of my right mind. When I tell people how I loathe this season, I can see the panic in their eyes, as if I am trying to spoil the party for everyone else. Hence the anxious hypotheses that come tumbling out. I must hate summer because I burn in the sun? (Actually, no, I have the kind of skin that would turn nut brown if I wasn't skulking indoors, waiting for the evenings to draw in.) Maybe it's hayfever or some kind of allergy that makes me hate hot weather? (Not at all; no matter how toxic the stew of pollen and pollutants, I've never experienced so much as an itchy nose.)

What there is never time to tell these people, given that they always abort the topic with an abrupt and hurt "How strange!", is that I hate summer because of the way, when I was a child, it messed with my mind. Each year as I was growing up, adding a layer to my sense of who I was, along came summer with its sneaky suggestion that nothing about me was quite right. From September to May, I was left alone to unfold in my own way, finding the places and activities that suited, discarding those that didn't fit. But once summer came, my own authority was no longer good enough. Instead, I was obliged to pour myself into a ready-made mould of what a child - any child - ought to be.

At a single turn of the calendar, all the things that made me me were no longer allowed. Going to the cinema became a crime against the gods of good weather. So did reading a book indoors. And needing to be on my own was nothing short of deviant. Instead, I was hustled into the garden with my brother to play a lame game of shuttlecock that neither of us wanted. At school, girls suddenly produced skipping ropes and cricket wickets, or else lounged under the oak tree threading daisy chains. It was as if they knew, instinctively, what was required of them by summer. I, by way of muffled protest, insisted on staying in the shadow of the classroom and wearing my winter uniform right through until July.

When I entered my teens, summer continued to disturb my foundations. It was exam time, for a start, when the natural order of things was upended and moral chaos reigned. Bright but careless people - the sort that talked a bit too loudly and copied their homework on the bus - suddenly zoomed to the top of the class, turning in papers that put the rest of us in the shade. At a single stroke, all the patient, committed bookwork that had sustained me during the cold, dark months counted for nothing in the cruel light of a muggy summer's day. There was a new intellectual elite and, for the first time in eight months, I couldn't count on being part of it.

And if the exposure of mental dud spots was hard to bear, how much worse was that feeling of being stripped naked and put on view for every bus conductor, builder and friend's brother to scrutinise (this was the Seventies, and men still looked). It wasn't just breasts, bottoms and legs that suddenly become public property, but all sorts of other parts that normally went unremarked. Tops of arms, toes and, weirdly, ears all became urgent subjects of conversation and competition at school during that post-O level lull when summer started early and went on even longer than usual.

Ever since then, I have found it hard to live in my skin during the summer months. In my twenties, I flapped through hot weather in London dressed all in black, which my boyfriend said made me look like a pale Greek widow. These days, I try to acknowledge the coming of the sun by lightening up a little, but nothing will ever persuade me to do that current thing of showing one's bra straps (I spent years fiddling around with safety pins to guard against precisely that effect). And I will never feel anything but a porn star in a bikini (the deliberate covering of erogenous zones with bright fabric serves only, it seems to me, to make them more obvious - you might as well use a highlighting pen to show people where they should be looking).

Summer is a sneaky, treacherous time. It creeps up and whispers in your ear that who you are doesn't fit with who you are supposed to be. It tells you that you will never be one of those people who know how to lounge and laugh and do nothing very much. The one saving grace is that it doesn't last very long. Come mid-September, the earth turns and the world settles down once more into something that makes sense.

Kathryn Hughes is a biographer and critic

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Ulster enters the endgame