With thanks to the publisher for providing this review copy.
Summer means different things to different people, it might mean hayfields and summer meadows collecting wildflowers and picnicking under old oaks, it may mean holidays in English resorts the scent of fried fish and screaming gulls. Long light evenings, blue skies and soft breezes are what we hope for when we think of summer coming, time to appreciate the natural world perhaps. This gorgeous collection celebrates summer in all its guises and in a variety of places.
“The richest, fullest time of year is when June is wearing to an end, when no one knows without the almanac that spring is over and gone. Nowhere in England is one more sensible of the change to fullest summer than in this low-lying corner of Hampshire.
The cuckoo ceases to weary us with its incessant call, and the nightingale sings less and less frequently. The passionate season is well-nigh over for the birds, their fountain of music begins to run dry. The cornfields and waste grounds are everywhere splashed with the intense scarlet of poppies. Summer has no rain in all her wide, hot heavens to give to her thirsty fields and has sprinkled them with the red fiery moisture from her veins. And as colour changes, growing deeper and more intense, so do sounds change: for the songs of yesterday there are shrill hunger-cries.’’
(W H Hudson, Hampshire Days 1903)
This anthology is the kind of book the reader can joyfully dip in and out of discovering a wealth of voices from past and present. A collection of short essays, extracts and poetry is difficult to review – but it encompasses all we love about summer. I have marked so many passages worth quoting that I hope you’ll all forgive me for allowing some of the pieces to speak for themselves.
“In late springtime the evening sun leaves a residue of light and brightness on sea, loch and river waters. Nights, still dark and starlit, become thinner somehow, and watery. Evenings lengthen, end of day airs are white and turquoise, amber and rose, insect-humming and bird filled. Winter still lingers in small patches here and there on our tallest mountains, while sharp, wild weather systems blow in angrily from the Atlantic and test the strongest hearts temporarily banishing spring with gales, battering rains and flooding. But in between these challenges the earth continues to warm, sunlight is richer and wildlife responds with considerable gladness: birdsong is exultant, plant colours are vibrant, scents potent, creature business is determined and busy.”
(Annie Worsley, 2016)
With new contributions from new to me voices like: Annie Worsley, Caroline Grenville, Jennifer Garrett, Simon Barnes and Jo Cartmell to name but a few (really there are too many to list) – and extracts from classic works by Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and Mary Webb, the collection is shot through with exquisite poetry too. Poets as diverse as Benjamin Zephaniah, Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin and Alice Oswald are included.
Here we have musings and observations about the natural world – hobbies, dragonflies, herring gulls, guillemots and razorbills, puffins, crabs and the hills and valleys of Laurie Lee’s Slad Valley all wait to be explored. I learned – with some delight that a bat used once to be called a flittermouse – why was it ever changed? Now no one could be spooked by a flittermouse surely? Observations of the natural world come from the diary of Reverend Gilbert White, who tells us from the year 1776 of the cherries that ripen, the bees that swarm and the missle thrush bringing forth their brood. Caroline Grenville (2016) tells of badger watching in May, while Clare Leighton (The farmer’s year 1933) paints a delicious portrait of village life in July leading up to the harvest.
There is nostalgia too – in some pieces, though not of a heavily sentimental nature. Memories of childhood summers, holidays, adventures with such things as a trail camera for instance.
“I remembered the words of the Water-rat – Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, as he told Mole about the river. ‘It’s brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing.
And when you’re on a river – the river as the Rat would prefer – in summer, when the livin’ is easy, then no other world seems even possible.”
(Simon Barnes – 2016)
For me the nostalgia came in reading extracts from old favourites like Far from the Madding Crowd, Cider with Rosie and Precious Bane.
The collection has resulted in (so far) just two kindle downloads, the aforementioned Hampshire Days, by William Hudson, such luminous descriptions, and The Journal of a Disappointed man – 1919. The extract the disappointed man of less than a page, peeked my interest, the voice of Wilhelm Nero Pilate Barbellion (not many of those in the phonebook) one I thought I’d like more of.
In compiling this collection, Melissa Harrison has beautifully captured the various aspects of Britain in summer.