Ever since Boris Johnson announced in February the “roadmap” for easing lockdown, the words “21 June” have taken on new meaning, of that impossible-seeming thing: a return to a pre-Covid, restriction-free life.
As a gardener, and someone who marks out their years by the seasons, it’s been a funny thing to hear discussed – on the news, by excitable Radio 1 DJs anticipating “the club”, in dozens of social-media memes. For solstice watchers, 21 June has always held significance: the longest day, the tipping point, the start of summer.
In the upper reaches of the Northern Hemisphere, the longest day is a cause for weekend-long celebrations under a sun that barely sets; the eerily blue skies of Ari Aster’s 2019 film Midsommar played on the flowers, maypole dancing and feasting that Swedes still observe. Over the centuries we’ve weakened our tether to summer solstice in this country, but those feverish celebrations linger in the delirium of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
This year, if restrictions are eased, is that not what we are letting ourselves in for – a lost evening of hedonism, messy affairs, missed identity and general puckishness under a sky that never truly turns dark?
Perhaps it will unfold too among the plants, which have had as strange and reluctant a spring as many of us. Storms in May, drought in April; a chill in the air throughout. It’s a cruel trade-off for the abundant sunshine and warmth that ushered us into lockdown last year – and a confusing one. Everything seems, by a rough estimate, two weeks behind. In the swell and vigour of late spring that can either be a gift (a little more time to sow courgettes and scatter hardy annual seeds) or a frustration (everything is so stubborn to grow, with no let-up from the slugs). So far, it’s been an excellent year for tulips and daffs, and a very bad one for wisteria. I wonder what the summer will hold.
For all the excitement of its arrival, there is something melancholy about summer solstice: the days will only get shorter from here. Gardening becomes about maintenance and support – staking dahlias, cordoning tomatoes, feeding everything, worrying about water – rather than about the anticipation that fuels those stretching days between March and May. I spent much of spring waiting for things to grow. I shall spend much of summer deadheading, cup of tea or G&T in hand.
But here lies a chance for those who garden to exhale, too. Much of that early nurture, the fretting over frost, is done. The plants have reached a kind of independence, entering into that constant cycle of flowering, seeding and decline. The theory goes that now we stand back a little: the seeds sown in October are finally coming into flower, and we can sit and enjoy it – with maybe a little note-taking on where to be better next year.
For what it’s worth, I can’t remember the last time I marked solstice in my own growing space. I’m usually at Glastonbury, or at a birthday party. On one occasion I saw dusk draw in through the skywards hole in a James Turrell sculpture, long after the park gates had shut, in a champagne haze. This year, I’ll be away from home again – probably on the Pembrokeshire coast – to watch the longest day come to a close and bring summer with it, thinking of the nightclubs reopening, of the overdue weddings taking place. The end of so many strange springs, and the start of something unpredictable and new.
Next week: Nina Caplan on drink
This article appears in the 09 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?