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27 July 2022

What summer in London taught me about loss

As a child newly arrived in the capital from Nigeria, the season seemed expansive and intoxicating. Now I realise that English summer is a false dream.

By Tomiwa Owolade

Three in every 100 people in the UK are believed to suffer from seasonal affective disorder (Sad), a depressive condition that is triggered by a change in the seasons. We typically associate it with the onset of autumn and winter, but 10 per cent of people who suffer from the disorder do so in the summer months as well. Symptoms of “reverse Sad”, or the summer blues, can include irritability, anxiety, fatigue, loss of appetite and insomnia. I am not personally afflicted by the condition, but I understand its force: no other season so perfectly evokes the sensation of loss.

For me, summer is England’s saddest season – but that wasn’t always the case. My earliest memories of England are tied to summer, and they were innocently blissful experiences. Before I moved to London from Osogbo, south-west Nigeria, when I was nine, I spent three summers in the capital. I visited the London Eye, Madame Tussauds and London Zoo. I ate crispy fish fingers and warm sausage sandwiches. In Nigeria, by contrast, I had experienced the country’s two seasons: wet and dry. English summers, fleeting and intoxicating, were new to me.

When I became a resident of the capital, in Charlton, Greenwich, I saw how summer brought out the best in London. I played football in Charlton Park from dawn to dusk with boys whom I’d barely spoken to before; in the magic of those few weeks, we became a convivial pack. I relished the bustle of outdoor activity – in shops and parks, on public transport – as the city eased and became more sociable. Liberated from the daily routine of school, my mind could be lax and loose, too.

In “The Whitsun Weddings”, Philip Larkin captured the expansive feeling of summer: “All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense/Of being in a hurry gone.” But looking back at my early, carefree childhood in the capital, it is diminution, not expansion, that I feel. My first London summers felt long and open-ended. But gradually, as I became an adult – and more rapidly over the anxious period of the Covid lockdowns – I came to realise that the English summer is a false dream.

Much of the art I associate most closely with the feeling of loss is also about summer: 500 Days of Summer, The Virgin Suicides,the films of Richard Linklater. I think of Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness”, Gershwin’s “Summertime” – and Don Henley’s 1984 song “The Boys of Summer”. Henley describes a man driving through his old neighbourhood – “Nobody on the road/Nobody on the beach/I feel it in the air/The summer’s out of reach” – remembering a girl he once loved: “I can see you/Your brown skin shining in the sun/You got your hair combed back and your/Sunglasses on”. Later in the song, though, he ruminates: “Those days are gone forever/I should just let them go.” But the seductive allure of summer won’t let him go, even as the reality of his loss presses in.

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There is a Portuguese word, saudade, which roughly translates as a yearning for a time or place of sweet happiness. Saudade, expressed most potently in the musical tradition of fado,can refer to something both real and imagined. It is a continual longing for moments of happiness, and the accompanying fear that such precious moments, once experienced, can never be fully recovered.

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When I think of playing football with friends in the English summers of my childhood, I am struck by the painful knowledge that I will never have those experiences again. I remember stretching out on the grass at the end of the game, the light purple clouds announcing dusk, and gently nudging my crumpled socks down to my ankles and opening a bottle of Lucozade. The world felt wide open before me.

A few weeks ago, I was walking through a park on a dry, hot day on my way to a party. The park, with its scorched patches of mud, set against a landscape of tower blocks and council estates, reminded me of the Charlton Park I knew as a child. A group of boys were playing football together and the ball escaped in my direction. I controlled it with my right foot and passed it back to them. Immediately after doing so, I felt a swift and powerful desire to join in with them so as to reconnect to those old memories, as one might after bumping into a former lover. But I kept walking – I was already late for the party.

Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings” starts with a striking description of a “sunlit Saturday” and ends: “We slowed again,/And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled/A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.”

For me, as for many of us, summer is the saddest season because I still cling to the sunlit days of my younger self. Those days are out of sight and somewhere the rain is falling.

[ See also: The building that remade London ]

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special