Most days I allow myself a few minutes of fantasy exploring a zone chosen at random on the large globe on one side of my desk. I pause to wonder at the amount of land in the northern hemisphere and the wide expanse of sea in the southern one – a seemingly chance distribution of terra firma that has dominated world history. It was far easier for centuries to explore by hugging coastlines. Now it is midsummer in the northern hemisphere with the longest feast of daylight in the year.
Midsummer madness is the theme in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. I am writing this on Midsummer Day, near enough, and tomorrow I shall be thinking of the play when guests come to a Midsummer party. Midsummer madness fuels the parallel frolics of upper and lower class characters in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream when the drama tilts their different worlds out of kilter. Six months have passed since the misrule of New Year misrule, when, in the dead of winter, servants become masters and masters their servants, for a short, crazy but tightly defined slice of time. Midsummer with the maypole to dance around and the morris dancers with bells tied to corners of scarves and kerchiefs and decorum joyfully discarded. Journey into the farthest hidden corner of the British countryside and you might happen on an almost Shakespearean low plot scene of Morris dancers, some all male or female, others mixed, dancing to the beat of drums and bells on their garments with occasional other instruments joining in. They came to Beverley recently dancing in the two market squares and at the centre point where the three main roads meet between them. Some shoppers snigger, most stop to stare and clap. Midsummer madness?
This is the time of year when a young painter despaired. Gertrude Jeckyll had, a century ago, set her heart on becoming a painter of the countryside and gardens, but she was losing her sight. So she adopted flowers as her palette and set about creating gardens with architectural guidance from the younger Edwin Lutyens. Imagine them charging down sunken Surrey lanes with a pony and trap, fast enough to go places but slow enough to note the plants, bushes and trees with all their gradations of colour and shape. Gertrude Jackyll was one of the first garden designers to create the herbaceous border – a far wider bed than before filled with flowering bushes at the back, then lower ones in the middle to edging ones in the front. All were carefully colour coded with lighter blues, pinks and whites at the far end to give the impression of length, and packed with perennials as far as possible. She was rebelling against the Victorians’ love of flamboyantly coloured hothouse annuals when gardeners were plentiful and cheap. This was not so after World War I in the Twenties and Thirties when Gertrude, was creating her first gardens. Perennials may be less colourful, but they do not require greenhouses where seedlings were nurtured of annuals, planted out to flourish in spring and summer only to wither and die in late autumn, never reborn in springtime.
Now at Midsummer in my garden, there is a symphony of colour without a discordant sharp red or orange note. Long languid dappled days sipping cool drinks and nibbling dainty delights, all the more cherished when rendered dramatically uncertain by the vagaries of the British climate.
Midsummer is the time of exuberant gardens. They are fading by the school holidays in late July and August, timed traditionally so children can help with the harvest. I remember gathering potatoes after the plough had loosened the soil – a grubby, back-bending job but fun afterwards when eating huge meals with the other pickers. Or earlier, we helped pick raspberries and strawberries. Later on, in August we gathered elderberries for mothers to make a light sort of wine. By late August the flowers had gone to seed and instead autumn asters – we called them Michaelmas Daisies – and chrysanthemums, also dahlias which I didn’t like as much (too garish, too Victorian) were out. But now rose petals are patterning the paths and lawns in Midsummer, the longest days of the year.