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Narelle Autio, ‘Before School’, © Narelle Autio, 2001.

When speaking to friends in the Northern Hemisphere it’s impossible not to be struck by the way they imagine Australia as a place where summer never ends. In part it’s wishful thinking: in the middle of an English winter there’s more than a little comfort in imagining a place where the sun shines and the water is clear, and blue, and warm.

But I suspect it’s also about the fact that for many British and European visitors, Australia is a place indelibly associated with their youth, with long days of travelling, and freedom, and a holiday that never ends.

For Australians the relationship with the land and its seasons is both more direct and more complex. But for most of us as well, there is something special about summer, some sense in which our idea of who we are is intimately connected to the summer months, the impossible glare of the light, the blue of the ocean, the smell of salt water and sunscreen.

In part this is about the manner in which for us, just as for our northern cousins, summer is a time shadowed by our memory of summers past, of the timeless sprawl of childhood holidays, of the aimless drift of adolescent afternoons and evenings.

But it is also because summer is the time when we are, in many ways, most ourselves, a time when the values and qualities that make us Australian are given their most eloquent expression. And, perhaps inevitably, it is also the time when the contradictions and illusions that lie at the heart of the way we imagine ourselves are most clearly on display.

Traditionally, of course, summer is defined by dates, spanning either the three months on either side of the summer solstice or the months of December, January and February. But in a very real sense summer is less a season than a feeling, a quality in the light and air. The temperature is part of it, of course, but it is about more than just heat. It is the time when the clement warmth of spring gives way to something more settled, when the nights fill with frogs and crickets and the days shimmer with the metallic din of the cicadas. It is a time when the scent of smoke is never far away, when hot nights give way to hotter mornings, when cockroaches come seething from the drains to skitter across the footpaths in the dark. It is about the smell of drains and dust and rot and heat.

I suspect this is something we all understand, intuitively at least. Yet it is difficult not to wonder at what this gap between formal definitions of summer and the way we actually experience it says about our culture and its relationship to the land, especially when we contrast our European notion of a year divided into four seasons to the manner in which most Aboriginal cultures divided the year into six seasons, defined not by the movement of the stars or the moon, but by the flowering of certain trees, the arrival of migratory birds, the patterns of the winds.

 Nor is summer something that is experienced in the same way across the country. In Sydney it is really only two months at best, beginning with the arrival of the humidity around New Year, and passing away almost like clockwork with the end of February and the bacchanal of Mardi Gras. In the southern states it is longer: although it comes earlier now, in the Adelaide of my teenage years it used to arrive with the last weeks of school in November and linger on into March, its somnolent weight filling the air with the smell of dry grass and eucalypt. And in Brisbane and further north, it arrives with the humidity in December, and lingers on into March, a long, suffocating torpor lit by storms and sudden rain.

It’s not accidental that summer is so powerfully associated with feeling and sensation, nor that it is so shot through with memory. For however strongly we associate other seasons with smells and sensations – that particular scent of damp earth and wet wood I remember so clearly from childhood winters in Adelaide for instance, or the feel of floating in the warm water off McKenzies Bay looking up at the light leaching away into the colourless sky of Sydney’s autumn evenings – the sheer intensity of summer lends its sensations an immedicacy other seasons cannot match.

But I suspect it also has something to do with the fact that for most of us summer is a time of relaxation. Released from the pressure of our work lives even the least reflective of us cannot help but give way to reverie, or to become aware of details that might usually pass us by. How many of us can spend time by the beach and not be put in mind of holidays past, or watch our children swim without being reminded of our own childhoods? And how many of us do not feel in those moments not just a sense of loss but a reminder of the ways our past binds us to a place and a time, shaping what we are? There is a reason, after all, that evocations of summer in film, music and literature are so often associated with stories about youth’s ending and the loss of innocence.

Yet if there is one thing that symbolises the Australian summer more than any other, it is the beach. So deeply ingrained is it in our psyche that it is almost impossible to imagine ourselves without it. It suffuses our literature, art and iconography, from Max Dupain’s iconic images to Narelle Autio’s more contemporary celebration of coastal life or Tim Winton’s reimagining of the beach in novels such as Breath and Dirt Music

But the beach is more than a place, it is an idea. The night of the 2007 election was notable for many things, not least Kevin Rudd’s awkward, passionless victory speech. But to my mind the highlight of the evening was the speech by then Minister for the Environment, Malcolm Turnbull. As always with Turnbull, it was a speech delivered with one eye focussed firmly on the future, but it was notable for the way it sought to reclaim the Labor Party’s lien over notions of fairness and equality. Describing his own childhood, Turnbull recalled visiting Bondi with his father, and celebrated the deliberate classlessness of its society, evoking a place where bricklayers and barristers lived and played side by side, a place characterised by what he called, with typical Turnbullian flair, “the democracy of the surf club”.

It was not a speech without its ironies, especially to someone like myself who has recently moved away from Bondi because it was no longer affordable on a writer’s income. Certainly one would be hard-pressed to find many remnants of the old, working-class Bondi amongst the gleaming Mercedes Benzes and multi-million dollar apartments that now line the bay.

But there is little doubt Turnbull was right to home in on the way the myth of the beach speaks to our belief in the democratic temper of Australian society. It is not just that the beach is a meeting place, where people of all backgrounds congregate, it is that its various institutions all emphasise community and comradeship over class. 

Something similar might be said about that other summer institution, the beach holiday. To my mind at least there is something pleasingly Australian about this tradition, not just because of the modesty of so many holiday houses, the way they hark back to a time when our material wealth was less, but because of their communality, the way groups of families holiday together, sharing space and responsibility, or the odd, transient communities that fill caravan parks up and down the coast, the temporary friendships between children and adolescents. Whether it was about a genuine desire for normalcy, a deliberate desire to nurture his image as an ordinary man, or some combination of the two, there is little doubt John Howard’s annual family holidays in Hawks Nest captured something of this, both in its sense of cherished routine and its ordinariness.

And yet like so many of the ideas that sustain our sense of who we are, the notion of the beach and its classlessness conceals a more complex truth. Every Victorian understands the complex social gradations that separate Dromana from Portsea, just as Sydneysiders understand the difference between Maroubra and Bronte. Nor are these divisions entirely about class, as the riots in Cronulla in 2005, and the scenes of youths draped with Australian flags and chanting slogans like “We grew here, you flew here” demonstrate.

Robert Drewe, probably our most astute observer of the contemporary Australian landscape and the liver-spotted, sun-bleached libidinousness of our coastal culture, captures something of the same contradiction in his remarkable memoir, The Shark Net, and its account of the serial killer Eric Cooke’s hurling himself into the darkened waters of the Swan River in front of the members of the Perth Yacht Club.

Perhaps more disturbing though is the manner in which material wealth is erasing even the better parts of these traditions. Where once the beach house was a modest affair, they are increasingly afflicted by the same gigantism that has turned our outer suburbs into ghost towns filled with vast McMansions. And while the traditions of communality and shared recreation that once distinguished beach holidays still exist, it seems difficult not to feel the intrusion of barbecues that cost as much as cars does not diminish them in some way, robbing them of their modesty, making them less democratic.

Of course one might say something similar about our experience of summer in general. My father grew up in Adelaide in the 1930s and 1940s, and has many memories of the city as it was then. Many are not so much stories as scenes, but there are two that have always stuck with me. One is a description of being driven through the streets of the city one hot night in the 1930s. Back then the square mile of the city was more populous than it is now, a maze of worker’s cottages and narrow terraces, and in the heat the families who lived in them had spilled out onto the streets in an attempt to get cool, men in their singlets, women in loose dresses, seated on doorsteps and chairs on the footpaths. The other is a description of families sleeping on the beach at Glenelg in an attempt to escape the heat, something that was not uncommon well into the 1950s.

No doubt anyone who has experienced the full force of the Adelaide summer will feel in these two fragments something of the sense memory I do, the way they conjure forth not just the heat of the summer nights in Adelaide but the strange, slightly unsettled wakefulness they bring, of the retreat to the streets and beach in search of cool. Likewise I suspect most will feel a shiver of unease as well, a queasy sense of the dangers incurred by roaming the streets or sleeping outside at night.

But it is also difficult not to be struck by the way in which they remind us of the manner in which summer has always brought people out into the street, breaking down social barriers and allowing freedoms not otherwise permitted. Whether we are losing this is an open question, but there is no question the hangar-like houses that now fill our outer suburbs, with their blank walls and double drive-in carports are transforming summer into a time when we retreat from our neighbours, rather than engage with them. 

 This sense of loss is itself at least partly about summer, the way it bears within itself the promise of its own ending. But it is also a reminder of the way the changing nature of Australian society, its newfound wealth and growing materialism is changing us in subtle and unexpected ways. Where that process will lead is unclear, though it is difficult not to suspect the tension between our increasingly uncritical celebration of wealth and luxury and our deepseated belief in democracy will become more acute in years to come. But simultaneously these stories remind us of how deeply summer, its shared experience of the heat and the pleasures it entails is wound into our cultural DNA, and of the ways those pleasures – and the communality they involve – continue to define so much of who we are and how we imagine ourselves.

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, December 2010.