Daily Life


Warming to hot, sunny summers

It helps to have known marrow-freezing cold to fully appreciate what Australia offers, Ian Warden writes

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One day in January 1961, and just 16 years old, I suddenly turned green.

My horrified mother hurried me, through streets white with snow (we were in England and it was the bleak midwinter), to the doctor.

''It's nothing to worry about,'' the canny old quack diagnosed. ''You've heard of people going green with envy? Well, that's what's happened to Ian. Something's made you envious, hasn't it son? Very common in teenage boys. Probably, very understandably in his sad case, envy of another boy's bigger penis. Ian, try to avoid thinking about whatever it is and your complexion will be back to its usual peachy loveliness in a few days.''

''So what are you feeling envious about, lime boy?'' mum quizzed me as we slithered home on icy pavements.

''I don't know,'' I muttered through green, frost-numbed lips.

But I was lying. I did know. It wasn't penis envy at all. I was envying Australians' hot, sunny summers.


Just a few days earlier, I'd gone out (wearing three pullovers, seven balaclavas, five pairs of gloves and nine pairs of socks) to the village cinema, where, during the newsreel that was a feature of cinema shows then, there was footage of the Australian Davis Cup team winning the 1960 Davis Cup final (played between December 26 and 28) at White City, Sydney, in dazzling sunshine. How the lightly-clad fans were basking! How Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Neale Fraser, all in white, glowed and shimmered in the brightness, as if lit from within by incandescent Austral light. Meanwhile, back in dingy, frostbitten, England, we'd had no glimpse of the sun for ages and had no promise of ever seeing it again. By inclination an outdoorsy, tennis-playing boy, I was cooped up by the bitter weather. Australians, meanwhile, were in sunlit heaven. Envying them, I had gone the rich emerald colour of the White City's lawn courts. Thoughts of migration to Australia burrowed into my mind then and never went away. Just two English winters later, I fled to these sunlit colonies, my fare paid by discerning prime minister Robert Menzies, who knew that, once my organs were sun-warmed, I'd make a strong Anglo-Saxon genetic contribution to his nation's gene pool.

Clinging to the tennis connection but leaping forward in time, to January of 2007, once peach-complexioned Ian (now made leathery by decades of Australian sun) found himself courtside as a reporter at the Australian Open tennis in Melbourne. The same sort of Australian summer he had dreamt of, in England, almost 50 years before, was baking the tournament. Out on the show court this day, David Nalbandian and Janko Tipsarevic were tottering in the terrible heat (it got to 42C but players already on court had to finish their matches), each waiting for the other to give in, perhaps by dropping dead. Watching them was a horrible experience, like watching wounded gladiators. At 2-1 down in the fifth set, ''Tipsy'' chose to give in rather than die for Serbia on some foreign, Plexicushion battlefield.

But this was an Australian summer extreme and, otherwise, how has the Australian summer lived up to the promise made in those Davis Cup newsreels? Well, in a world, a life, of false promises, it has turned out to be one of the most genuine, one of the best-fulfilled promises of all. Love of Australia seems to be inseparable from love of the Australian summer. Perhaps one needs to be a migrant from a place with scant summers to fully appreciate Australia's big, generous, beautiful and terrifying ones. Perhaps one needs to have known marrow-freezing cold to feel the full gush of gratitude for that Australian summer sun. I will never take for granted a sunny warmth that penetrates deep into the body and warms every giblet, even the notoriously frosty and hard-to-reach prostate.

I am writing this on the afternoon of a summer day, the golden morning of which was spent in a bush garden in Australia's bush capital.

The unique sounds and sights of the Canberra summer! The cackle of the Noisy Friar Bird, the wistful yodel of the Olive-backed Oriole, both of them such summer junkies that they desert Canberra in winter and go away to find other summers elsewhere.

Then there's the way, when you water a plant in a very big terracotta tub of very dry earth, the tub begins to bubble and gurgle (as the water displaces the air trapped in the dry nooks and crannies of the soil) like a witch's cauldron.

Then there's the way the warm summer weather sees one's dogs and cats, having spent the winter sleeping in compact, curled-up balls, sleeping stretched out as far as they can go, obviously a clever torso-cooling adaptation that exposes as much of the body as possible to the air. Suddenly, one's once-compact cats are different animals altogether, stretched out like hairy pythons.

English summers always seemed brief, brisk and businesslike, but the Australian summer, to which we graft an enormous Christmas-new year holiday, is a long and languid thing that seems to close the nation down.

This doesn't suit everyone and, as a journalist, this time of year, in which nothing happens and in which one suddenly writes about things one would normally ignore (perhaps about a potato someone has dug up that looks a bit like Tony Abbott), can be frustrating. One has some sympathy with The Bulletin columnist who, 100 years ago (during the 1912-1913 Christmas hiatus) gnashed his teeth over all of this. With his weekly's motto being ''Australian for the White Man'', he thought we should spend this time of year being especially alert to the Yellow Peril.

''At Christmas time, Australia has a good time or it is its own fault if it doesn't. And it is just there that the troubles of this big island mostly come in. It is so good a place for getting glad that, with a huge section of the people, life is all tangent and no circle. The sun is so bright that men find it difficult to take the old wheel of life seriously. That it must go round and that someone must supply the motive power is evident, but the weather is altogether too pleasant to seriously tackle the question as to who should get busy about the job.

''There is the matter of a White Australia and of an army and a fleet to defend it, of straight railways of uniform gauge to make that defence possible, of populating the rich country that lies most open to occupation by a possible enemy … All these matters are urgent and want attending to without delay … But the sun is warm; the gum leaves turning up to let the light fall through them are enticing; and so, let the confounded things wait.

''The Roman Saturnalia was probably of two to five days duration. The Australian political Christmas holiday may officially last for a week or six weeks: in practice, it seems to extend over 52. Who cares? As long as there is beer for John Smith and ice-cream for his daughter Cissy, why worry … Some enthusiastic Asiatic may yet make the old wheel spin again, and John and Cissy may be underneath! But such a possibility is quite outside the realm of the practical. It can't possibly happen before next week! So, what's the hurry?''

The striking thing for the English-born connoisseur of the Australian summer is its utter reliability. It almost always happens, and on time. In England, though, summerless summers, or summers that came and went while one's back was turned, were commonplace.

Here, to finish, is an Australian poem about an Australian phenomenon as rare and as unlikely as abduction by bunyips. The poem by FOE (again published in The Bulletin in the summer of 1912-1913) is an Australian nightmare.

Summer goes missing

The gale it whistled a dreary tune:

The fine sand flies on the wind-whipped dune:

Summer has gone from the furrowed sea

And the white wave-teeth gleam savagely.

The black clouds, trailing their robes of rain;

Sail up like grief from the south again.

And veil the rage of the troubled sea

That snarling runs like a pack set free.

There's nothing doing on the coastal bars,

Where king waves lift to the watching stars:

The summer boarder [a chap holidaying at the seaside] looks very blue,

For, lacking summer his life is vain:

With nose pressed close to the streaming pane

He stands on watch, with a vacant stare,

And whistles a strange and dismal air.

In blue December 'tis very weird

To see each sea with a Christmas beard,

And hear the icy wind piping shrill

By wet-faced headland and sun-browned hill

The winter wraps from the moth snatched back

Are thick in the streets. Umbrellas black

Remind us of wowsers, coughs, cold feet,

Where has it gone our Christmas heat.

Oh! for a dentist, hearty and gale,

To draw the teeth of the Christmas gale!