“To be free-minded and cheerfully disposed at hours of meat and of sleep and of exercise, is one of the best precepts of long lasting. As for the passions and studies of the mind, avoid envy, anxious fears, anger fretting inwards, subtle and knotty inquisitions, joys and exhilarations in excess, sadness not communicated.” –Sir Francis Bacon
“Cambridge has no summer” they said. “Cambridge is a wet blanket,” they said. “Prepare yourself for seasonal absence disorder” they said. “We’re going to the south of France to find summer,’ they said. Even then, I did not buy the rhetoric. First, because it is an insult to our city—pure continental bias. If Cambridge does not have a summer, why the temperature rise? Why the billion leaves and fattening seed pods? Why the moist brow after a cycle? Why the pool openings? Why the almost-tanned residents? Why the rotting lichen at the head of Jesus Green canal? Why the turn from signets to swans? Why the mature mosses turning the river to proto-swamp? Why the hordes of tourists? Why the armies of sightseers? Why the blinkered summer schoolers? Why the lack of blear-eyed students? Why the weary tolerance on the faces of permanent residents? If Cambridge does not have a summer, I thought, this is a sad excuse for a winter.
And if, I thought, for the sake of argument, this is not summer, it is a six-month spring—a repeating newness, never weary of surprising, always keeping cards close to chest, now warm, now cool, now wet, now dry, now furious, now soothing. And if one runs away from such a season, it is not because the Cambridge summer is too weak, but because it is too strong and he is too weak to love it. These were my thoughts two weeks ago, as I eyed the rain lashing our apartment windows and turned on our boiler for some relief from the cool.* But, as the week progressed, the clouds cleared; the forecast changed; the barometer rose; a thermal dome sealed above southern England, and heat began collecting, first in open spaces—the greens, the roads—then it slipped between trees, crawled underneath parked cars, slid between ill-sealed frame and window, ghosted through single-paned glass, filled the city to the top of castle hill, and finally, embedded in the soil and made the earth itself a kind of terrestrial radiator, hot to the touch. Escape was impossible, and doubly so because the air in Cambridge is largely unconditioned.
So, on Tuesday, when the needle had reached the nineties and I could bear the swelter no longer, I took up my work (a pen, a notebook, a tome on Adorno, an essay on Sabbath sacred time, and Tennyson’s collected poetry) and stumbled through the haze of heat to the one place that I knew had a stash of cool—the Jesus Green Lido, a long, narrow channel of blue that, if it were but a bit longer, might qualify as a man-made river. Any pool in these parts is necessarily a niche business—on normal days, a dipping-place for the brave, the warm-blooded, or for those who own wet-suits. But on this day, locals—sun-screen slathered, slung with pool towels smelling of storage cupboards—formed a line fifty yards outside the Lido, chattering, sweating, waiting for the veritable booster shot of Vitamin D that awaited on the far side of the turnstile. I joined and passed the time mulling strategies for keeping my library books dry.
It is not that I had to go to the pool. I suppose I could have sought and found some cool nook in Vanity Fair**—bought a smoothie, slapped on headphones to drown out the tired-old imported American pop voices echoing through its lonely, pale hollows, and accomplished as much work. But, I thought as the line inched, the scholar should not always be the pale building-dweller. The healthy scholar should, every now and then, step outside. He should climb a tree. He should dive into a river. He should toss a football. He should lift and throw a large rock. He should sprint. He should tear a rotting limb from a tree. He should tuck into an eggs and bacon breakfast. He should burn in the sun. He should remind himself that the brain is of the body and the body of the brain—that hands may form thoughts, that feet and arms and legs and neck may participate in a stronger kind of memory, that trains of thought run along every one of one’s nerves, down to the toes and back again.
Now, study is my bread and butter. In many ways, I live the life of the scholar—the piles of books, the ever-cooling hot drinks, the misplaced notes, the mussed hair, the sore-backed hours in desk chairs, the sequestered days cultivating eye-wrinkles and near-sightedness. Yes, I have given my eyesight to the academy and will give more e’er the end, but I refuse to hand over the burning lung-ed pleasure of a long, striding run across a field or down a road, or the full-blooded sense of strength and clarity of mind one feels after hoisting or curling some weight. And this day at the Lido, I felt profoundly unwilling to give up the sun, that star that has turned the pale sailor swarthy and raised the mightiest oak.
A woman scanned my card. I heard a sound. She nodded, and I stepped through the turnstile into the light. I found a comfortable spot in the sun and opened Tennyson. The afternoon was a series of boiling study-sessions’ body temperature rising, hydration falling, followed by short, gasping, deeply refreshing dips in the still-icy pool, a head shake, a return to study, an air-dry, a re-baking. After one of these plunges, I moved from Tennyson to Sabbath sacred time—a natural transition if there ever was one—and sidled over to a shadier spot on a grassy bank opposite.
The noise of the place was a din, but a din without a ceiling and without a numbing rhythm or crying shrillness, and it was almost as good as silence as a background to study. Every now and then a whistle would warn some rowdy youth whose enthusiasm had outstripped his sense of safety, but I forgave both the whistle and the youth on the spot. My goodwill glowed like my sunburn. I forgave them all with sweeping generosity for their noise and splashing, for their eyeing and shoving and sunning and running and diving and tricks. For I was a scholar not merely living through summer but in it. I had come out of my scholar’s hole and renewed my bond with the outside world.
The afternoon waned. After-work swimmers circled the lap-side, and shade sat in leaf-shaped patches on faces, backs, and chests. I stayed on, reading of the Sabbath and moments of thick time, of existence as existence, of time conquered by time. I thought then and I have thought since that, perhaps, this was a kind of Sabbath moment—a sudden thickening in the midst of a thin season, a gift to these Cambridge people of a southern summer day, a day to exist outside and yet within this northern town.
R. Eric Tippin
Corner House, Cambridge (with a paragraph at Bridge Street Medical)
July 22-30, 2016
"Gorleston-on-Sea, Norfolk (British Railways carriage print original)"
Oil on Canvas - Date Unknown
Fredrick Donald Blake
* To no avail, for, it turned out, in the spring interregnum, its pump had given up the ghost.
**Cambridge’s downtown shopping mall. Its builders named it the “The Galleria,” but even in my first moments in its over-perfumed, price-tagged, glutted halls, I knew it had been mis-christened.