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Losing my son and the end of my life’s summer

For nearly 20 years, all my summers came at once. And then my luck ran out

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

Growing up in the West Country in the 1960s and 1970s, summer left me cold. There was only one place where I could bear to be when the sun shone — the lido at Weston-super-Mare, the nearest coastal town to my Bristol home. Unlike most of the banal backdrops to my childhood, it seemed a suitably grand place in which to plan my escape to get to That London and be famous.

I would swerve my companions — at first my parents, then later my friend Karen — and hide on the upper level of the lido, slipping in and out of sleep in sunshine, dreaming of freedom. There was always voiceless music blaring from speakers — my favourite was a tune which I later discovered to be Dimitri Tiomkin’s ‘The Green Leaves of Summer’, which sounds happy but I later learnt is about living and dying and all that sobering stuff.

I did escape to London at 17. There I lived by night, writing and becoming notorious; days were for sleeping through and the only difference in the seasons was that spring and summer days were unpleasant to have hangovers on, while autumn and winter ones were delightful. I got married, but then in 1995 I fell in love with a girl. During the subsequent divorce, I was surprised to read my husband’s statement that I had had ‘a string of lovers of both sexes’ during our marriage, when I could have sworn he knew I’d only had the one; I lost custody of my beloved son, Jack, and left London for Brighton in order to chase my girlfriend’s younger brother (now my husband of many years) — thereby going some way, admittedly, to establishing my estranged husband’s imaginative claim that I was a depraved person and unfit mother.

In Brighton I’d bought a beautiful big house with a gorgeous garden and a swimming pool in the next street to a good school, as I was sure I would get custody of my son at some point. ‘I don’t mind being an only child because you’re not just a mum, you’re like a sister too,’ he had said when he was seven — that’s how much fun we had together. I was sure there had been some dreadful mistake on the part of my husband and the law which would be rectified soon. Still, we had the weekends and the school holidays — and during the summer, when we visited my parents in Bristol, we’d often hop on the Weston-bound train and go back to the lido. Except it wasn’t the lido any more; they’d concreted a lot of it over so that it was a quarter of the size, and demolished the Art Deco diving board, and amped the water up to bathtub temperature and installed a wave machine and called it The Tropicana. It would have been easier to get a decent swim in a spittoon — but Jack liked it, so I was happy.

When Jack wasn’t with me, I got into fun in the sun in a big way for the first time in my life — it’s very hard not to be a hedonist in Brighton. My existence became a blur of pool parties, seafront bar-crawls and beach boozing; indeed, I became a frantic ray–chaser when the English summer was absent, racing from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean to Tel Aviv in pursuit of some five-star vitamin D. For nearly 20 years, all my summers came at once.

And then my luck ran out. In the five months leading up to my son’s suicide, I’d been on holiday to Barbados, Madeira, Benidorm and Israel. I hadn’t seen him since the summer of 2014, when we had spent a lovely day in the sun — just like old times, before we were so cruelly sundered. When I heard that he had killed himself, I was whooping it up at an eye-wateringly expensive resort in Crete. Even before I got the news, it felt strange being in a place where we lived like lords in our gilded cage, yet found the ATMs empty and the singularly welcoming Cretan people sad whenever we ventured out into the nearby villages. Greece was about to go bankrupt — and so, in another way, was I.

This summer started so well, too. At the start of June I was working on a secret project for the artist Banksy, who had told me in an email that I was the first person who had made him proud to come from Bristol, and mid-month I finally recorded a radio pilot — it has long been my modest ambition to have a radio show with a mate — with my friend Suzanne Moore. During it, I played Donny Hathaway’s song ‘I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know’ for Jack; when the music ended, I was crying. By the time the show was aired, on the final summer bank holiday, he had been dead for two months, so he never heard it. A month after his death, I attended the opening night of the Banksy project — a huge dystopian installation called Dismaland, set right there on the abandoned site of Weston lido, the very place where I spent my childhood summers lazing around dreaming of being rich and notorious.

Banksy Unveils Dismaland Bemusement Park In Weston-Super-Mare
Banksy’s Dismaland (Photo: Getty)

And now I was. And everyone I loved who I had come here with was dead — not just my parents, which might be expected, but my beloved son. I held Karen’s hand tight (she was now a grandmother!) as we stumbled from attraction to attraction — from the dying fairytale princess to the sun–seeker attacked by seagulls, to my own updated Punch-and-Judy show (Punch and Julie, Banksy had renamed it) in which Punch suggests they cut their baby in half in a grotesque inversion of the Judgment of Solomon. Truly I was living the dream.

Yes, I’m done with the summer, I reflected a few days later as I walked to a taxi in the early morning rain, carrying my ancient, adored cat Sox to the vet for the last time. (I’d always wanted to feel ‘grown up’ even as a ten-year-old, and there are few things which make you realise that your ambition has been achieved more than being the one who must take a much-loved pet to be put out of its pain.) And maybe it’s done with me, forever. I know that the best summer is always the next one, but what if at some point you just have to face up to the fact that you’re in the actual autumn of your life and all this sun-chasing is simply inappropriate?

Blaise Pascal said that ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’ and I’m starting to think he had a point. I write this on the last day of summer 2015 — the worst one I’ve ever had — and now, finally, after all these years of fun in the sun, I’m going to go back into my bedroom and read. I may be some time. On the other hand, Tel Aviv is lovely in September.

Julie Burchill’s most recent book is Unchosen: Memoirs of a Philo-Semite.

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