Summer camp

Did any of you ever go to a summer camp as a child? Could anything better summer camp? For anywhere from one week to two months, whoever you were at home — whether you were the youngest in a family of eight, a nerd with no friends, or just a regular boy looking for a change of pace — none of that mattered. You could completely reinvent yourself because you were with people who didn’t know you from Adam.

Your friends at camp weren’t the type of people you usually hung out with; they were just the guys who happened to be in your group, or the guys you were assigned to activities with. As far as they knew, you were the most popular guy at your school. You could actually be cool, for a week or so.

Gav got married a few years back, and his wedding was about as close to summer camp as this adult will ever get. On the grownup hand, everything was gorgeous, the bride looked ravishing, the food was fantastic, the reception was at this Devon hotel with a stunning, picturesque vista, or something. On the other hand, it was one big huge tequila-soaked party. That’s my kind of wedding.

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Will is American and in some sort of sales. He went into greater detail about what exactly he does the night of the rehearsal, but it was loud at the bar and I couldn’t really understand him. He spent a lot of time on his mobile, though, talking about accounts and end-of-the-month sales goals and quotas and dammit, Joanne, just file the papers, file the freakin’ papers. Will is an excellent golfer, nearly bald, and lives in Philadelphia.

Josh is about to get engaged, I think. I’m told he’s in a serious relationship, and it’s only a matter of time. I couldn’t tell you what he does for a living. Something in engineering, maybe. Josh is a terrible golfer, even worse than me, is rather tall, and lives in Ireland.

That pretty much sums up all the personal information I have on each. Oh, and Will has this really loopy father who wears tweed jackets, writes books on American history, and actually tells knock-knock jokes with a straight face.

And for four days, Will and Josh were as close a group of friends as I’ve ever had.

Will and Josh were the other two ushers. Gav’s brother was the best man. (Isn’t meeting lifelong friends’ siblings a fascinating experience? If my friend Gav had chucked the corporate life and became a long-haired primary school teacher, he would be his brother. It was like Bizarro Gav.) But he brought a date, and, as tends to be the case, he was preoccupied with her most of the weekend. (Gav’s brother aside, considering his girlfriend was pretty and nice, I ask, why do we bother bringing casual dates to weddings? They’re always more trouble than they’re worth.) Will and Josh were dateless, like me. So, essentially, it was summer camp. Three guys, with everything paid for, with endless fountains of alcohol, scrubbed up real nicely and ready to stir up some shit.

Whatever you do when you’re home, when you’re thrust into the decadently formal chaos of being an usher at an out-of-town wedding, the normal rules of engagement no longer apply. It’s a world of endless free booze, attractive women in tight, sparkly dresses, and everyone in a raucous, joyous mood. The outside world doesn’t matter anymore.

And it was basically the three of us. Gav was busy, you know, getting married, so we were on our own. Almost immediately, it was us against the world. There was a wedding going on around us, but we were in our own world: three guys, drinking, talking girls, sharing old stories about the groom like we’d known each other forever.

We picked enemies, whether they deserved it or not. Most of the other guys in the wedding party were the brides’ friends, not the groom’s, and we, not to put too fine a point on it, found them insufferable idiots, total snot-nosed kids whom we ultimately labelled “The Yahoos.” We joked about which bridesmaids were the hottest. We sucked tequila shots off the table. We sat in the corner and snidely mocked anyone, really, who wasn’t us. Because we were the only cool ones.

It had the feel of a locker room. To be honest, it was a lot like a sports team, actually, to the point where we even started using sports clichés to describe what made us such excellent ushers. We talked about “giving 110 percent” and “leaving it all out there on the altar.” We stayed up late and blabbed every night. All we were missing was towel snapping.

Hanging out with Will and Josh helped me to understand why people join fraternities. Just a bunch of fellas, causing trouble, being guys.

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The night before the wedding, after the rehearsal, the entire wedding party shambled over to a nearby watering hole and commenced more heavy drinking. Will and Josh settled in with a group of attractive women, of course, and I caught Gav’s eye. After a few shots of tequila, we decided to go outside and get some fresh air, and, the night before his wedding, talked for about two hours, man to man. When we both came to London, around the same time, we were the two single guys with no girls around, ever. And here he was, almost a married man.

You know that point when your friends make that leap into true happiness? When they put themselves in a position where you know they’ve got it, they have it all figured out? When they become a man? That was Gav that night. I’d never seen a guy just grin like that. It was all he could do not to start jumping up and down, twirling about, shouting, “I’m getting married tomorrow! To her! Me! Woooo!”

It was really something to see. I felt honoured to have the opportunity.

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Ultimately, the wedding came and went, we all drank, I had the strange experience with a tennis player, and we folded into the hotel room. I was quite intoxicated and, thanks to my recent breakup, rather depressed.

OK, a lot depressed. By the end of the night, with Josh, Will, Will’s wedding hookup, and another friend in the room, I had decided to lie down on the floor between the air conditioner and the bed because “I didn’t deserve to be anywhere but on the floor, like the pathetic worm I am.” Many of my friends would have left me there, or tried to reason with me, or told me about how they’d had troubles with women too. Not Josh. He walked over and blurted in his Irish brogue, “Jeezus, David, get oop. Christ.” And I did, and we talked for three hours, and he pulled me out of it, and the Ushers reigned triumphant again.

The next day, everybody left to go back to their lives. I shook Will’s hand, then Josh’s. I made them promise to invite me to their weddings, eventually. I’m sure they won’t. I’d be surprised if I ever see either of them again, to be honest. But, for one weekend, we were the Three Ushers. We left it all out there at the altar. We pushed ourselves to be the best. And we drank. Oh, how we drank!

I was chatting with Gav and asking after the other guys a few days ago which is why, perhaps, this whole piece has the feel of a postcard, a note containing nothing but in-jokes that only those involved would understand. That’s fine. That’s the way it should be. That’s summer camp.

S.O.S.

This is a piece I wrote some years back before the advent of Journeys Into The Night. Seems appropriate for today!

For sun-lovers, it has begun: the unofficial start of the UK summer is here.

It’s that time when hopes soar and hearts warm in eager anticipation of a new season. The swimsuits, shorts and sandals are on display. Gardeners are flocking to nurseries and greenhouses. Owners of summer cottages are sweeping away cobwebs, airing out rooms and restocking pantries. Newspaper ads are promoting barbeque grills and patio furniture, camping gear and luxury vacation packages. What fantasies these ads inspire as summer-lovers dream of sunlit hours relaxing with friends, reading long-awaited books, cultivating bountiful gardens and walking beaches or woodland trails.

But for me, these fantasies have long been elusive. With the exception of one or two recent summers, this time of year now ranks as an endangered species of a season, its already wildly fluctuating and fleeting days made shorter by invisible thieves, subtly diminishing the season’s glory.

These gremlins begin by stealing time — precious golden hours — through long workdays and “working vacations.” They also rob us of comfort. Across the country, Britons spend summer days shivering in over-air-conditioned offices, restaurants and stores. Permanently closed windows block out bird songs and gentle breezes. Summer also slips away as overzealous merchants start dressing mannequins in wools and wintry colours in July.

It all stands in sharp contrast to my memories of childhood in the Caribbean, where the sunshine stretches endlessly. There was always time to watch fireflies blink in the twilight. And time to watch Monarch butterflies emerge from pale-green cocoons.

The American poet May Swenson captures the mood when she writes,

Can it be there was only one

summer that I was ten? It must

have been a long one then.

Here in the UK, this Incredible Shrinking Summer calls for a new set of resolutions. New Year’s resolutions, serious and purposeful, centre on self-improvement. Summer resolutions, by contrast, focus more on self-fulfilment. They offer well-deserved rewards for the months of hard work that precede the season.

We need a summer preservation society. As the self-appointed president of the just-formed group Save Our Summers, or SOS (current membership: 1), I offer a few resolutions to preserve the pleasure of these essential months:

First, resolve to leave work earlier. Not early, not even necessarily on time, which these days is tantamount to leaving early — just earlier than usual. I used to remain in the office sometimes as late as 6.30 p.m. Now I’m on “summer time” and I leave no later than 5:30. Even half an hour helps…

Second, resolve to take a walk every day. Short or long, slow or fast, a walk offers an escape from Arctic buildings and a way to reconnect with the natural world.

Third, resolve to read part of a book every day. Remember those summer reading programmes at the public library when you were a child? After finishing a certain number of books, you’d get a certificate. Make a list of books, then reward yourself at the end of the summer for reading them.

Above all, the message floating on summer breezes is this: Resolve to slow down and catch the rhythm of the season. Pour a tall glass of lemonade, grab a book, find a comfortable chair, put your feet up and r-e-l-a-x.

But hurry. The start of summer clearance sales and back-to-school ads will be here before you know it. So will the August hum of the garden insects, the surest sign of all that autumn is approaching.

Remember the new battle cry: Save Our Summers. S.O.S.