The British weather is just like the worst boyfriend. The kind that keeps you in a state of permanent insecurity over their intentions. ‘See you later,’ they say blithely on departing in the morning, a comment that could equally well mean after lunch, or sometime in the second half of the year. Our programming for disappointment is so deep that even during the recent weeks of sunshine it’s been hard to feel completely safe in making future plans. Supper tomorrow in the garden? A picnic next weekend? Is that hubristic? Should we have a plan B?
Of course when the days have turned out to be glorious, just as when the nightmare lover is at their most charming, the experience is hugely enhanced by the fact that we can’t rely upon it. As soon as good behaviour can be taken for granted either from the skies above or our fellow humans, it loses some of the thrill that uncertainty promotes.
We have been spending some time in a rented flat in Aldeburgh, just down the road from where Wilkie Collins wrote the underrated No Name. The windows face the sea over a row of rooftops, home to many seagulls perched on the chimneys. Their family life is remarkably like that of humans. They fight, have sex, feed and then bicker again. After nesting under the chimney stacks, small brown chicks emerge, all fluffy and adorable, turning into leggy mottled teenagers, unable yet to fly but clearly frustrated by being stuck on the roof. Now most of the kids have left home but there is still one who can’t quite achieve lift-off and who is making a noisy fuss about trying to get away.
Everyone talks of the last hot summer of 1976. Or they do if they were born by then. That summer I got my own taste of freedom from the family through my first job. Coincidentally it was in Aldeburgh, where I was employed as a mother’s help for two little girls. I must have been the nanny from hell as I did very little other than drink the gin and tonics offered by the hospitable grandparents who I was meant to be helping, let the children get sunburn as I sprawled on the lawn slathered in Hawaiian Tropic, and listen to Thin Lizzy and Rod Stewart on Radio Caroline from my bedroom at the top of the house.
Shortly after we moved into our flat in the town, one of the children I had failed to look after back then got in touch and I was able to learn what had happened to their lives in the past 40-odd years. I was also able to find the house where I had spent that summer. As it turns out it is one of the best houses in the town, perched on a hill with spectacular views out over the marsh and sea. Of course as a 19-year-old this privileged location was completely lost on me since, having found my freedom, I was wishing away the days until I could get back to the familiarity of London.
That August I would have received my A-level results like several of the students at the career masterclass I recently gave for IntoUniversity. This terrific charity works across the country with young people from financially disadvantaged families, to support them in their schooling and help them achieve university places when their home set-up may not be able to.
The plan was for the students to design their own magazine covers for imaginary magazines after my short talk on journalism. I was fascinated by the ideas for magazines they came up with, almost all to do with turning the conventional notion of physical perfection on its head. Their cover lines dealt with slut walks, gender politics and body fascism — examples ‘Last night I had sex. What did you do?’ and ‘A modern woman is a social construct.’ They were articulate, opinionated and as keen as everyone else on monitoring their appearance in the selfies we took at the end of the afternoon.
One young woman asked what I thought of modelling as a career. I gave her my usual spiel: it’s a great job for the few who become top models but for many it is an unrewarding business where you are only judged on your physical appearance and it can be supremely boring. But, I concluded, not wishing to be a total downer, if that is what she wanted to do, then I wished her the best of luck. I expected her to thank me and ask if I could recommend a model agency she could see but instead she laughed dismissively. ‘No. Not me. I’m going into the law.’
Alexandra Shulman is a former editor of Vogue.