You know that awful, gnawing, depressing feeling you’ve got right now? The one that notices how shockingly early the sun is setting and how shabby and played out and autumnal the borders are looking and how listless and flat everything feels what with no holidays to look forward to and the house empty of kids? The one that groans at the thought of all those uncompleted tasks and the mountain of hassle and nose-to-the-grindstone grimness which must be negotiated, somehow, between now and Christmas?
Well, I hate to say this but I haven’t got it. For possibly the first time in my life since my parents shipped me off to that horrid, spartan boarding school I called Colditz, I’m experiencing early September without the faintest urge to want to kill myself. I’m not thinking back wistfully to those calamari in the taverna by that secluded inlet or the fat, red ripeness of those Italian tomatoes or the azure stillness of the Mediterranean on that first morning dip because this summer hols, for once, I didn’t do any of that stuff.
I didn’t even have a holiday in England or Wales or Scotland. And that’s my secret. If you want to beat the September blues, stay home all summer and just carry on working. It won’t make you feel better but that’s not really the aim. What matters is that by the end of a summer at home, you’re inured to the pain, like the old lag in the POW camp, watching the newcomers arrive from their freshly crashed Lancasters, their silk scarves still fresh and clean from Blighty, their eyes bright with the prospect of camaraderie and imminent escape. ‘Hah! Let’s see if you’re so cheerful after a night on a bed where all the wooden slats have been removed to prop up the tunnels,’ you mutter.
Don’t worry: what I’m not going to do is wax lyrical about the secret amazingness of England in August, whose hidden gems we tragically overlook when we fly off to the Med. That’s because England in August is dreary as hell. The fields round where I live, so fresh and verdant and beguiling in June, have turned yellow with nasty scratchy spindly grass that even the sheep won’t eat and thistles whose spines work their way into your socks. Walking the dog is a chore because of all the seed heads you have to spend hours afterwards working out of its ears. Anyway, it’s too hot to go on very long walks. Unless, of course, it’s raining — which it does more than you think because, face it, August is fake summer. It’s more like early autumn.
What’s great about this, though, is that you don’t feel bad about staying indoors sitting at a desk. On the contrary, you rather enjoy the virtuous sensation of carrying on, holding the fort, while all your comrades have deserted their posts. Better still, though it’s work it’s only pretend work. No one achieves anything in August. Everyone assumes everyone else is away on holiday and adjusts their expectations accordingly. So: all the kudos for putting in the hours, but only half the effort.
Because everyone is away, you feel under no pressure to have any kind of social life. For most of the year, I find it really stressful trying to think up compelling excuses for turning down invitations. But in summer they dry up completely, leaving you with a calendar so boundless and bare that you suddenly become liberated, itchy of foot and quite adventurous.
For example, this August, noticing that we had an entire month of weekends (and weekdays, come to that) free, I decided that finally the time had come to accept a long-running open invitation to visit a mad Twitter friend and his family at their country retreat in Scotland.
Normally, as is the way with long-running open invitations, this would never have happened. (The Fawn: ‘But who are these people? You don’t know them. You can’t say yes to some random stranger just because he likes your Spectator column!’) But because it was August, everyone’s resistance was low, and I had no problem whatsoever dragging my family on a five-hour drive north of the Wall to hang out with this crazed Corbynista I’d only ever encountered on social media.
To be fair, though, that was the sum total of our August excitement. The rest of it was just a daily reminder of why it is people go away in August. But oddly, as I flicked through their tweets about the lovely places where they were staying I didn’t feel remotely envious because I knew — as they all knew — that no matter how exclusive their resort, how talented their private cook or how ancient their château, the time would soon come when they’d be queuing up with all the other Ryanair and easyJet passengers, worrying whether they’d put in the right collection time for the airport meet and greet, wondering if there’d be anything edible in the fridge when they got home and fretting about all the news they’d missed.
The late Frank Johnson used to write a regular column busting the myth that nothing happens in August. But I’m going to have to disagree. I’ve read lots and lots in the newspapers about stuff that has purportedly been happening: unprecedented fires in the Amazon caused by President Bolsonaro and global warming, mass protests against the prorogation of parliament. As soon as you start examining the detail, though, you realise it’s all fake news cooked up to fill space.
Anyway, enough whining. I’m off to the beach. The thing I forgot to mention is that though I didn’t take a holiday all summer, I have just popped down to Devon for one now. It’s great: summer weather at autumn prices — and emptiness. You should try it some time.