The lure of the picnic is great but illogical, at least so reckoned Alan Brien in a piece dissecting the summer ritual. “I cannot imagine how the phrase ‘no picnic’ came to mean a particularly difficult task”, he wrote, since, for him, a picnic was less a pleasure than an ordeal. It involves much heavy lifting, a paucity of ideal eating spots, sand “a great infiltrator and saboteur, the Vietcong of natural enemies” in the sandwiches, uncertain weather and a host of other inconveniences. Rather than tramp for miles with an assortment of folding chairs and tables, blankets and baskets and all the paraphernalia of the meal, wouldn’t it better, he pondered – perhaps not entirely in jest – to picnic at home, swapping outdoors for indoors whenever it became too hot, or vice versa if too rain?
Much amusement was registered, not so long ago, at an international conference in Geneva when it was announced that our Foreign Office delegation had gone off on “a working picnic”. That has always seemed to me the trouble with picnics – they’re all work. I cannot imagine how the phrase “no picnic” came to mean a particularly difficult task. The origin of the word itself is unknown (though a borrowing from the French) and it seems first, in 1748, to have signified a fashionable social entertainment to which everyone present contributed a share, like a glorified bottle-party. Now, according to the OED’s quaint governessy language, it is “a pleasure party in which all partake of a repast out of doors”.
The simplest, most sensible, kind of picnic I know is where half a dozen walkers sit down in an attractive spot to eat and drink whatever they’ve been carrying stuffed in their pockets or down the front of their sweaters At the end, they are heavier inside and lighter outside, with nothing left over to hump along, except perhaps some empty bottles. You need no implements, apart from a knife and an opener. This is a primitive, but convenient, arrangement which can happen anywhere, at any time, on the route from one place to another. Everybody usually turns out to be overstocked with some item which then can be bartered around until a balanced diet is achieved.
It seems to be only when the picnic has to be staged in one particular spot, as the centre-piece of a day’s outing, that it starts to become an elaborate endurance test. I have rarely met a child who did not adore the idea – and almost never a father who did not detest it. The worst place for a picnic is the beach. Sand is a great infiltrator and saboteur, the Vietcong of natural enemies. It furs the children’s hands like gloves of grit, coats any dropped titbit with its peppery dressing, silts up the bottom of teacups and turns the dental plates of oldsters into instruments of torture. You cannot stand up or sit down, reach over or cross your legs, without sending up a volcanic cloud of its tiny, glittering, rock-sharp fragments. The only advantage that can be claimed for sand as a picnic surface is that it is good to spill things on.
One of the joys of family tea at our local seaside, inside the deck-chair corral formed by dozing aunts and uncles, was pouring the last of your lemonade on to the bleached white, parched dust and watching how the bubbles foamed like glass beads over the dark-brown, molten-snake patterns. In those days, we always had sandwiches, partly, I suspect, because the bread filled you up cheaply. But also partly because its soft, spongy, damp wrapping protected the fillings, and stopped them dropping or popping from the incredibly clumsy hands of the young. Bread is now out-dated and unmodish as a picnic staple (as you can gather from the hard-selling posters all over town). Working as well as middle classes now tend to replace it with fruits and vegetables, cooked meats and packaged carbohydrates, cheese and hard-boiled eggs. The number of things that have to be carried by the parental packhorses have proportionately increased.
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On our beach, there seemed to be enough, God knows, especially for adults, who had first of all to lug the clinking canvas bags of plates and cutlery, teapots and water jugs, blankets and raincoats, on to a bus or tram, then trek across miles of ankle-twisting sand, as the children danced ahead rejecting spot after spot until they found the perfect oasis. Picnic by motor-car means that, as you set out, you have the illusion there is no limit to your freightage capacity. Why not take the folding table, the barbecue oven, the insulated ice pack, the deck chairs, and a few enormous, unholdable, stuffed toys as well? It is only then you discover that the absolutely marvellous place your friends recommend is inaccessible on wheels, and the choice is three boring hikes or one coronary inducing stagger.
The British picnic of my boyhood was like a refugee flight during the last days of the Fall of France, or an Oakie emigration to California from The Grapes of Wrath. But at least the grown-ups knew that we had to keep within sight of the promenade and our supply line to the little shops providing hot water, chips and ice cream, without which no picnic could function. Now it more nearly resembles a French picnic, which is a kind of sedentary safari, Scott Fitzgerald rather than Hemingway, at the end of which a small, chic restaurant is erected, worthy of at least a small-print mention in the Michelin, complete with striped umbrellas, checked tablecloths, hot casseroles and frosted bottles. It is no wonder that many Anglo-Saxons, leaving the house here with such a picture in mind, eventually give up and settle for the corner of a lay-by, six feet from the oily roar of passing lorries.
The best place for a picnic (I know exactly the spot in County Clare in Ireland) is on a large, flat, sun-warmed rock by a shallow stream among the sand dunes. The car is hidden in a hollow just there, a damn sight nearer to you than the kitchens are to the dining-room in Buckingham Palace. The water is at your toes for washing feet, bands, plates, knives, glasses, while it also serves as a moving belt for disposing of half-eaten apples, pie crumbs, melted ice cream and other innocuous debris. After the meal, you stretch out on your former table, like a couple of crusaders on a tomb, and sleep off the blow-out while the children, in perfect safety, follow the stream down to where it runs prattling into the jaws of the green Atlantic. Though, perhaps, an even better picnic, come to think of it, is when you don’t have to cart anything anywhere but eat out on your own doorstep.
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There is something extraordinarily satisfying about being able to step instantly from one environment to another, from the cool, silent chiaroscuro, with its Rembrandt shadows, of the house into the noisy, oven-heat of the outdoors, robbed of its colour and depth by the searchlight of the sun, like an overexposed photograph. Here it is impossible to forget some essential – whatever you need in an emergency from a box of matches to a sticking plaster is waiting there in its proper, reassuring place. If the weather switches off, you can make your own climate, summoning up a TV programme or a hot bath to distract the little, restless minds. You are not condemned to depend unconditionally on the continual sunshine but can dip in and out of it as in and out of a swimming pool. And when the picnic finally ends, you are home already instead of having to join that wearying, fractious, sweaty pilgrimage back from Arcadia through the traffic jams of a featureless suburb.
Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).