The Big Question: the poet John Burnside celebrates the heat and eroticism of summer's true lease
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013
There is no denying its resonance, but I must confess that I have never understood L.P. Hartley’s contention that "the past is a foreign country." For me, what is foreign is the present; the past is poignantly familiar, a land where everything that was ever lost continues undiminished in a perpetual July of deep lanes shuttered with branches and little owls hunting in pairs along a hedge—and anything true or exact that happens now is immediately absorbed into the fabric of that eternal summer.
A ball game of some sort continues in the distance, children play hide-and-seek with their shadow selves, or with what remains of the pagan gods, in the ruins of old barns and water houses, clandestine lovers come together in the greenwood in "necessarye coniunction". This is the absolute of July, a month that never really begins or ends, but is resumed whenever the conditions are right: still afternoons of bone-deep heat, improbable shadows in the orchard. In that interim zone, on any patch of heathland or beach, everything is negotiable: solid form and hallucination; substance and shadow; too too solid flesh and weightless, polymorphous shimmer.
Postcards and calendars place July in ice-cream parlours and penny arcades, and it is true, up to a point, that we were all children in those places once upon a time. But absolute July happens elsewhere, around bonfires on waste ground or the stairwells of damp tenements, in the viridian borderlands of public parks and the dancing shadows under old stone bridges where nobody goes any more (or nobody but the curious and the perverse, remembering the bodies they should have possessed long ago, before they succumbed to an authorised version of deferred gratification and marriage and the mortgaged bliss of haplessly ever after).
These secret dens and slivers of no-man’s-land are summer’s true lease—and if April is the cruellest month, July is the most dangerously erotic. And that eroticism includes not just the boys on the promenade, or the women in print dresses building sandcastles on the sunwashed beach with their four-year-olds, but also the darkness in the pine woods and the massed presence of all life everywhere. It is a life that once seemed close and dark and intimate, but is now, in the foreign, degraded regency of the present, little more than a masque of rumours and echoes swaying around us in the July heat, feverish and distant and filled with unsayable longing.
Which month do you think is the best? Have your say by voting in our online poll. Read Charles Nevin on December, James Lasdun on April, A.D. Miller on May, Kathleen Jamie on October and Ann Wroe on Brumaire.
John Burnside is a novelist and poet who won the Whitbread Poetry Award with "The Asylum Dance". His latest novel is "A Summer of Drowning"