The truth about picnics

IT would be interesting to know how many people who go on picnics enjoy them as much as they expect to. Picnics are an integral part of British life, but life, as we know, is full of disillusions, some of the biggest, surely, being English alfresco meals. The perfect picnic spot nestles happily in our dreams for practically the whole of our lives, but it usually takes hours of traveling and a lot of heated discussion to find anywhere even to sit down. And although bits of the dream sometimes come true -- the view is splendid, the woods are superb, the ground is dry, the midges asleep -- it is a rare thing for joy to be unconfined.

The whole point of eating out of doors is that it is uncivilized. It answers some basic urge in man, an urge to fling off formality, to forget for an hour or two the tiresome trappings that society has imposed on his eating habits. True, somebody has usually brought a knife -- to peel that plethora of apples that people always bring to picnics -- and a bent spoon with which to stir the wasps into the strawberry jam. There are also some cups. But on the whole, bona fide picnickers are expected to r ely on their fingers and teeth for implements, good primitive weapons with which to tear at the tepid quiche and the ham sandwich, to grapple with the chicken leg and the slice of Dundee cake.

It is true that some picnickers sit by their cars on the very edge of the highway, having brought their civilization with them in the shape of collapsible chairs and tables. But true picnickers have nothing but contempt for their effete ways: They have not (which is the whole point of a picnic) ``got away from it all.'' Yet we, who have followed a lark up a high hill and spread our cloth on a bee orchis, we are the ones, dreaming of escape, who have a lot of questions to answer.

For instance, can we in all honesty say the ground is as nice to sit on as a chair? Can we pretend, for all our lying back in the warm sun after a scrappy meal, that Nature is a restful place, what with spiders tearing across shins, ants marching in neat files round ankles, caterpillars lowering themselves into hair and mosquitoes humming into ears? Not to mention inquisitive cows and predatory flies that have to be shooed away?

To commune with the good earth is the happiest of ideas: To eat simple food in the company of butterflies while birds sing songs in a fresh green world is an idyllic notion. But if the truth were told, would not three-quarters of picnickers, sprawled in cramped positions across the countryside, sausage roll in hand, prefer to be eating a decent meal on proper plates off a proper table from respectable chairs in a cool, collected room?

One wonders.

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