Longest Day Blues

Posted on: 26 June 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Mark Sampson bemoans the end of the summer solstice.

So far, it’s been a summer fit for bindweed, but not for humans. Still, it is summer and one should be grateful for that.

For a few days every year either side of the solstice, however, I go into mourning. My wife and daughter have learnt to handle me with care.

Dutifully, they respect my annual suggestion to “appreciate” the last few protracted evenings before the 21st without ever questioning what “appreciation” entails.

It’s hard to put it into words.

I tend to stare mournfully out of the window as the last tenacious half-light slips into darkness some time after 10pm, while humming William de Vaughan’s soul classic, “Be Thankful For What You Got”.

It’s nothing to worry about - just a case of acute melancholia.

My gratitude for and love of all things bright and beautiful are forever tinged with the sadness of knowing that all these things must pass.

Kidding myself that the hour in advance of GMT gives us a precious extra hour of daylight in France offers scant compensation.

The solstice simply equals the end of the best part of summer and the beginning of two mad months when you can’t move for holidaymakers.

When everything and everyone wilts in the heat.

It means: Wimbledon must follow, then the British Open, the Oval Test Match, the Last Night Of The Proms, September and bye-bye blue skies, here comes winter.

Fortunately, the mood dissipates.

For one thing, I sensibly elected to share my life with a perennial optimist.

Where I might stare glumly at a half-empty glass, she rejoices in what’s left. While I see a world stripped bare by voracious humanity, she sees richness and abundance.

It’s hard to shake off a lifetime’s pessimism, but bit-by-bit I’m learning to see things in a healthier perspective.

Something else helps me over the hump - the longest day coincides in France with the national Fête de Musique.

Back in the UK, druids, pagans and dedicated ordinary citizens wend their way to Stonehenge to do whatever they tend to do within the ancient stone circle.

The French cluster in towns great and small throughout the land to eat and drink and listen to music.

It’s a lovely tradition and one that’s catching on apparently in other continental countries.

Nearly 20 years ago, I first stumbled upon it as a holidaymaker one sultry evening in the sleepy medieval town of Argentat-sur-Dordogne.

Ella Fitzgerald accompanied us on our romantic evening wander via a network of municipal speakers suspended from trees and lampposts and the eaves of buildings.

It was “de-lovely”, if be-wildering.

Now we take to the streets en famille with everyone else.

Of course, you’re at the mercy of the elements.

A few summers ago in Brive, torrential downpours rained off all the long-planned outdoor concerts and we were left to throng aimlessly with hundreds of others in search of… something. We ended up buying ice creams and going home.

But last summer, the sun shone. We took our daughter to nearby Martel to see her school band play under the remarkable parasol-like roof of the 18th century market “hall”.

Locals ate their collective picnics at the trestle tables set out around the square, while the pizzeria plied the drinkers.

The headmaster was there to support his group of final-year pupils.

Compared to the grunge outfit from the nearest lycée that followed, they were positively slick.

No one, however, moaned about “the racket”. Not a mouth was puckered in disapproval.

Everyone was there to enjoy the occasion and celebrate life out-of-doors.

So I take strength from the Fête these days.

Rather than brooding on the relentless march of time, I’m trying to see the 21st symbolically as a gateway to all the concerts and festivals (for which there’s never enough time) that are crowded into the ensuing months of a French summer.

After all, as a child, the solstice represented the imminent end-of-June and the beginning of the long school holidays.

When I get "dem ol’ summer solstice blues again, mama", I remind myself that Blues, the music, is born of suffering but celebrates life.

I know that my pessimism and melancholia will be under control when I learn to “appreciate” every evening on earth, protracted or not.

Mark Sampson, June 2008

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