Every year it returns, and every year we struggle to cope, writes John Summers.
The Sunday Essay is possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand
Original illustrations by Toby Morris.
We kid ourselves in this place. Spring turns to summer, and suddenly every road leads to the beach. The country wants you to buy an ice cream. We forget that it is fleeting, that for so much of the year the fields are sullen, the sun as dull and feeble as a one-bar heater on the blink. The wind carries all the cold of the mountains, of Antarctica even. Trees shudder, the exotics bare. Mist rises from the grass. How do we cope? Poorly is the usual answer. Many of our homes are unable to keep out that cold. We pull a jersey on, although are wearing shorts, even jandals still for reasons we cannot explain. And when the washing machine chirps complete, we drag a laundry rack into the lounge and festoon it with our damp socks and undies.
Those racks are one of the more depressing sights of New Zealand life. There is something wholesome about sheets flapping on a line outside, but the same cannot be said for these arrangements of plastic-coated wire that sit in our living rooms, a reminder at all times of the most boring, administrative parts of life, and a symbol too for the way we do winter: damp, makeshift, temporary. We behave as if it were a one-off, not to be taken seriously. New Zealand is like a childhood – we remember it as always summer. In our literature it’s often both. Mansfield’s At the Bay, David Ballantyne’s Sydney Harbour Bridge Upside Down, Kirsty Gunn’s Rain and Bruce Mason’s End of the Golden Weather all centre on a childhood at the beach. They involve endless days, baches and sand. These are things by which we define ourselves. And yet, in some ways winter belongs to these stories too. It is what makes them great, their circling of the possibility that these sunny, innocent days can end. It is never described.
In earlier works of fiction, the propaganda written to lure colonists here from England, we opted for flat out denial. Our climate was compared to that of France, to Portugal and Italy even. Having read this, what did those colonists think on arrival? Did they curse this stuff as lies or, like tourists who spent too much on a package holiday, tell themselves it wasn’t so bad, warm mostly? Did they keep telling themselves this, their descendants too, so that in 2021, on a government website aimed at enticing migrants you can read that “Our temperate climate means weather is fairly consistent, so year-round you will find it easier to enjoy a healthy, outdoors lifestyle.”
Maybe our problem is that accurate descriptions are hard. In many parts of the country, winter is indistinct. It doesn’t always have the hard markers of snow and ice. In Wellington, where I now live, the borders are especially blurry. The wind blows cold anytime it likes. There are whole months of arbitrary rain. Looking out the window to grey, pelting skies might mean that June is here. It might mean it’s forecast to turn right this afternoon. It is hard to prepare for something so undefined, and so we don’t. But for rugby, we have few winter traditions. Even our Christmas takes place on a hot day. By contrast, in Japan, where I once lived, there were activities that were clearly matched to each season. As soon as it was the official end of summer, vending machines were switched from cold to hot, rolling out cans of coffee that were scalding to touch. A few years back the world went wild for the Scandinavian notion of hygge which roughly translates to embracing cosiness and mostly involved, from what I could see, wearing big socks beside an open fire. These are small things, but still they are ways of acknowledging winter, of adapting and even enjoying it.
Our winter may not be as extreme as the those found elsewhere, but wind and rain create their own type of cold, a grey, wearying cold. Our lack of preparation adds to this, enhances it and makes it all the more oppressive. I grew up in a house where some mornings I woke to see my breath rising into the air. I have since lived in places that were better but none I would describe as warm, my current residence included. Glancing up from these words, I see the dreaded laundry rack in a corner, my drying clothes sending damp to the hard-to-reach corners of the house. In the early days of lockdown, before people figured out how to blur their surroundings or replace them with a picture of palm trees, you could occasionally spot these racks lurking in the background of a Zoom meeting. It could have been cheering – proof we were all in the same boat, especially when it belonged to someone older and better paid. But I never got any reassurance from this sight. If this was a part of their life still, then there was no hope for me. I’m likely to be wrestling that thing into the lounge for years to come. Of course, I should get a dryer, but the price of running one terrifies me and anyway, when summer returns, the thought passes and winter becomes just a bad dream.
Once, I tried to break this cycle. I moved to China, taking a job as an English teacher in a city described as one of that country’s ‘four furnaces’ because of its extreme heat. I would wear shorts year around I figured and packed mostly light clothes. As promised, the summers were hot and humid. Bananas grew on campus. I basked in this heat, hardly running the air conditioner, determined to soak it up like a lizard. But I would discover that winter did come to this city and, when it did, it wasn’t all that dissimilar to the one I had tried to escape. There were cold, wet winds. The sky was steely. I went about with numb hands, the cold bit through the down jacket I had to wear at all times, because, another discovery, this place did winter even worse than we do. Just as I imagined that this city would have only summer, the Chinese government enjoyed its own magical thinking, deciding that central heating is only needed in the north. The country is divided in half, with the northern half kept toasty over winter, the southerners forced to endure the cold. We would sit in restaurants where everyone wore a coat and hat, steam rising from their noodles. It snowed for a few days and on one I had to oversee an exam in an unheated classroom, the students sitting on their hands while they considered the questions, snowflakes fluttering by the windows. On these days I thought of New Zealand. I was thinking of summer.
So here I am, back again, panicking as another winter looms and writing this. Adopting the royal “we” in my panic, attributing my hang ups about cold weather to the whole country and making bold claims. It’s not entirely true, for instance, that we lack winter traditions. I omitted Matariki for one. I can remember learning about it years ago, at a time when I lived in a small town and commuted to the city by train, leaving the house when, in winter, it was pitch black still. The town slept as I stepped out on to the street, frost crunched underfoot. I turned to look up at the sky and tried to find those stars, a sign that we were on the other side and although there would be many cold days yet, I had made it through the worst and was on a path now to summer. Not once did I ever find them, not that it mattered. The thought was enough.
John Summers’ new collection The Commercial Hotel will be published in July 2021 by Victoria University Press