The nostalgia of the long summer holiday is a staple of films and music. It stirs shared emotions in people, a reminder of carefree days that allowed us to explore who we are and the world around us without constraint.
In a classic film of the 1980s, Stand By Me, a group of young boys who went in search of a dead body but found themselves and their friendship along the way. In the film Dirty Dancing, it was Baby who found herself through dance and Patrick Swayze’s character taught her to believe in herself. There is something about the words of Bryan Adams’ chart topping hit Summer of '69 that delivers a punch. “Oh, when I look back now / That summer seemed to last forever / And if I had the choice / Yeah, I'd always wanna be there / Those were the best days of my life.”
As soon as you hit working age, that summer-long freedom slips through your fingers. If you can get a break it is carved out with relish from annual leave allocations, and in some ways, it can feel so precious that we can’t enjoy it with the same reckless abandon.
And then when kids come along, what was once a period of relaxation and delight can become interwoven with dread. After all, what is a parent – especially a working parent – to do for those many long weeks and months? How to keep them preoccupied while keeping at bay the endless repetitions of "I’m bored" or worse the parent-guilt of leaving them to TV and films?
I envy countries that have de facto shut downs in the summer. I look to France and admire that it is widely accepted that nothing happens in August. I turn to the Gulf and equally it is a shared understanding that people will simply be away in late summer, and even if they are not, it is simply too hot to have any expectations of anything much happening.
Yet here in the UK, we simply keep going during the summer. Maybe it is to do with the unpredictable weather, meaning we never quite know if it is summer or not (it’s grey and raining outside as I write this). Some years it will be sweltering, on the odd occasion, we’ve had a flurry of sleet. And when it is hot, it goes straight to our heads.
The month of August, in terms of news, is well acknowledged as the "silly season". Gems include then PM Harold Wilson falling off his dinghy on his summer holidays; Benson the most fished carp having been caught 60 times, eventually dying in 2009 earning the accolade “The Pavarotti of the fish world” for being 29Kgs. A 23-foot sunflower made headlines (“The Eiffel Flower”) as did Yvonne the cow that went on the run during August sensing she would be sent to an abattoir. Captured on September 1st she found a new home in an animal sanctuary.
Unlike other countries which shut down for the summer, the UK keeps going. Maybe it is our obsession with presenteeism in the workplace. Or maybe it’s that fabled "stiff upper lip" but we just plough on.
But I don’t think that we should. We also need a shut down, at least two weeks, when things can keep ticking over in the background but nobody has any expectations that anything will actually get done.
There are promising signs. Over the past two years of the pandemic and the lockdown, people have become more protective of their holiday time. Out-of-office replies are common. And the expectation is that not enough people will be around to get anything done. My view is that a break – official or de facto – is good for the physical and mental health of the nation, and ultimately will help productivity.
There is something of a multiplier effect of positivity when everyone is away together, rather than just the straightforward effect of a break. I notice this during Christmas, when offices are closed for about 10 days. Apart from retail outlets, nobody expects people to respond or that anything will happen. So when you're not working, you're not worried that others are working, or that you will have a mountain of work to catch up on.
I acknowledge that some people will still need to continue to work, and for those that keep the infrastructure going, I am always grateful. I can’t imagine the UK would ever shut down for a month, so perhaps those essential workers can factor in time off around a core "downtime" period.
The refreshing boost of the now widely accepted Christmas shut down period needs a counterpart in the summer to reboot the system and keep it going. If we’ve learnt anything in the lockdowns when our working and personal lives had the physical distinctions removed, it is the importance of enforcing those mental boundaries and carving out space for ourselves, to rejuvenate. Those might have been difficult summers, but perhaps we can take a positive legacy from them to protect and enhance our physical and mental health by reviving the unfettered freedom and joy of the summers of our youth.