Last weekend, I marked the change of season in three different but equally significant ways: I wore shoes for the first time since October, instead of boots. I exchanged my heavy Swedish winter coat for my ‘summer coat’ (surely an oxymoron) and I even went for a run wearing only a t-shirt. Usually I can’t get myself out the door without a windproof jacket, even if I take it off five minutes in.
Spring flowers, being much hardier than me, have been out for weeks. As a child in Australia, I read Enid Blyton novels in which children were very excited to find the first snowdrop. I had never seen a snowdrop, much less lived through a snowbound winter. (Neither did I know any children who would give a sh*t about seasonal flowers, but that was a different matter.) I recognise daffodils, but I had to look up the purple and yellow flowers that carpet the Meadows from late February each year (crocuses). This is apparently earlier than usual, because of global warming, but it’s hard to feel sad about spring flowers whenever they appear.
I’ve only just taken proper notice of the slim bunches of tightly furled daffodils for sale in supermarkets at this time of year. Cut flowers are expensive and unnecessary, like £30 bottles of wine, and I edit them out of my line of sight when I go shopping. The Japanese writer Hayashi Fumiko, in her 1931–1932 Paris diary, bought cut flowers for her cheap hotel room, which this censorious early 21st-century researcher thought extravagant for a budget traveller.
The daffodils stems sell for £1, bloom within a day, and wilt shortly thereafter.
I never properly understood spring until I moved to the UK. In Australia, the days just gradually warmed up, an interlude of mild, reasonable weather before the blast furnace of summer. This, too, has changed because of global warming. In Britain, winter drags on for months: the dark, the cold, the general grimness. In Scotland, add another month, at least, at each end.
When spring comes in the northern hemisphere, the air suddenly changes. Only a few degrees warmer, but palpably milder, newly fragrant: earth, flowers, all sorts of smells that were formerly muffled by the cold. I want to gambol like a spring lamb in a meadow, without the tragic ending. There is a sense of fresh possibility, of burdens lifted along with heavy coats, a general lightness.
In Edinburgh last weekend, I strolled around the Meadows. In the astonishing 17-degree warmth, there was an atmosphere of gaiety and release, like a medieval carnival. People were splayed out on the grass, children rode scooters, cyclists wounds around pedestrians. Dogs scurried ahead of their humans, busily sniffing and pissing and sniffing, inhaling spring along with the scent of other dogs. A small gathering around the Ukrainian and Scottish flags; a man spoke, followed by sombre singing. Elsewhere, on the grass by the busy tennis courts, a group engaged in what seemed to be a team-building exercise, involving tyres and boxes of random equipment, watched over by presumably well-paid consultants or ‘trainers’. In the grassy bowl on the Links, several blokes in home-made armour bashed each other’s shields with sticks. Every so often, I copped a sweet whiff of weed, without any obvious source.
This shared enjoyment of spring in a common space lifts my spirits. I’m usually wary of the general concept of ‘shared humanity’, which has negative as well as positive connotations. Rather, our common animality, our longing for warmth and sunshine after winter, draws us out together.
Everywhere I’ve lived in the UK—London, Sheffield, Edinburgh and Glasgow—has public gardens and parks. People who live in flats, without any private outdoor space, use them as communal gardens; none of this French pelouse interdite nonsense. I’ve always considered lawn as outdoor carpet, a domestication; it doesn’t exist in nature.
(Obviously, easy access to such open spaces depends on where you live in a city.)
Where I grew up, in the suburbs of rural Australia, hundreds of kilometres from the coast, parks were sad affairs. Treeless and shadeless, with blasted dead summer grass, mown low in spring for snakes. A ziggurat made of logs for climbing, a swing and a picnic table or two, all made from the same splintery wood that weathered badly and was never repaired. No shared public life took place in such parks, which were usually deserted. Life in the suburbs was privatised: from your own garden, you’d hear but not see the splashing from a neighbour’s swimming pool, the drone of their lawn mower, the hum of voices or the thump of music if they were entertaining outdoors. And all those BBQ smells stinking up the washing hung out to dry in the blistering sun.
Early spring in the UK has a counter-intuitive chill: it’s not as warm as it looks. The bare skin that suddenly appears, mostly young women wearing sleeveless frocks and tiny shorts, is often goose-fleshed. Also, the heating stops coming on in the morning and it feels colder indoors rather than warmer. As soon as the sun goes out or down, the temperature drops and you reach for the thermostat or, given current wartime fuel prices, an extra jumper or blanket.
Anyway, it isn’t really spring yet. In Scotland, warm weather is always provisional. Hopes are raised then dashed by fake spring, like the fake summits that give you hope on a steep mountain path, until the next one looms, even higher. This week, there is a forecast of snow. Casual conversations for the last few days have gone like this: ‘Lovely weather!’ ‘Yes, but it’s going to snow this week.’ Shared sighs of resignation. Someone will, inevitably, say, Ne’re cast a clout until May be out. We should know better, we’ve all been telt.
(Update: it did not snow, but this morning it is three degrees.)