Thursday, February 21, 2008
Possibility of a picnic?
Vancouver is no means the chilliest part of Canada, but freezing nights are normal in the winter. About now, the nights are getting slightly less freezing and snowdrops are beginning their daring early-spring show. This report from the natural world is confirmed for me by my garage-door opener. As in practically every other household in the land, my garage door rolls up and down thanks to an electric motor and an arthritic system of tracks and chains. In winter, the grease on the tracks becomes a little sticky and the underpowered motor can't quite do the job. It fights valiantly of course, and then collapses into an asthmatic humming. I have to push to help the door on its upward journey. About now, the weather is warm enough for the motor to perform its task unaided. So, perhaps spring is here?
If that is the case, the opportunity to save a little money and give Marcel yet more childhood memories is at hand. I'm talking of course about the chance to have picnics. And not the messy habit of eating in the car, but a full-blown picnic, done with style. For me, there's nothing quite like it. The planning, the preparation, the wicker baskets, the anticipation…and the weather.
My childhood memories are littered with picnics, most of which didn't quite turn out as planned, despite the valiant efforts of my parents. It's hard to keep four boisterous kids under control on a horse-blanket in the corner of some damp field. The ones we had on beaches were more successful, although even for those the chief memory is of gritty tea. There's a poem, Trebetherick, by John Betjeman which exactly captures the post-war picnic:
Sand in the sandwiches
Wasps in the tea
Sun in our bathing dresses heavy with the wet
Squelch of the bladder-wrack waiting for the sea
Fleas around the tamarisk
An early cigarette.
There's something about the relaxed atmosphere of a picnic---the lounging about, the open air---that leads, at least in my mind, to the hope of romance.
In my late teens I took the then girl of my life out for a picnic, on a field near a river. A perfect bucolic setting. A bottle of wine cooling in the water, shade under a fine chestnut tree, carefully chosen food. All was going well until we heard heavy breathing behind us. It seemed like every cow in Bedfordshire had gathered for the show, and they seemed unhappy with the performance. I shouted and waved my hands, danced around, but they were not impressed, and edged even closer. Fortunately we had brought, in the best English tradition, a big black umbrella. Opening and closing an umbrella seemed to be the only thing that repelled them. We pushed everything into the basket and fled. But I forgot the wine, left cooling among the rushes at the water's edge. When I went back two days later it had gone.
I like to think of the person who found that bottle, and his or her theory of how it might have got there. I also think about the girl who was with me, and whether she ever casts her mind back to a picnic which came a little too close to nature. I hope that the bottle-finder enjoyed the wine, and the girl still laughs at the ridiculous sight of a young man fighting off cows with an umbrella.