"Picnic spots are always better further on." I haven't, in fact, been on a picnic for a while. Well, years actually. But this pithy and profoundly metaphorical observation rings true to me.
I came across it this morning in " 'Haud Yer Wheesht!' Your Scottish Granny's Favourite Sayings," a wee paperback that happens to reside on our bathroom shelf along with all the other books of apothegms and maxims that gather there. (The seeker of knowledge and wisdom in our house might do worse than pay a visit to our bathroom.) This granny saying recalled for me a familiar childhood sensation - that feeling of ever-mounting but continually dashed expectation as the parental department searched for the right place to picnic.
First one and then about six or seven perfectly acceptable picnic spots would be inspected, discussed, and rejected by the People in the Front of the Car.
The place was too noisy or too crowded, too near the traffic, too bumpy, too muddy, too close to a herd of potentially wild Friesians, too shaded by ancient elms, too near a housing complex.... The reasons were legion why a remote roadside gateway, a rural cul-de-sac, a delightful meadow, a sandy shore by a blue lake, or even an enchanting grassy lane was unsuitable for a picnic. So off we'd drive some more.
The wonder is that we ever stopped at all. But we did, at last, manage to spread out our rug on the fibrous and spiky grass. And then the large basket would be opened.
The chosen spot was never very satisfactory, either, but by then we had agreed that we simply had to stop at the next place. We'd gallantly ignore the wriggling caterpillars bungee jumping from the oak tree overhead. We'd turn a blind nostril to the farmer's recent distribution of silage and a deaf eye to the previously unnoticed gasworks that loomed on the immediate horizon. We'd even pretend that sporadic water drops on our foreheads and a slatey blackness in the western sky couldn't possibly hint at an approaching maelstrom. Picnics were fun, right?
I am not entirely certain that picnics are my thing. I can't, for instance, claim to have ever woken early on a bright sunny morning to discover myself brimming with a piquant urge to go for a picnic. In Britain, a picnic, like a barbecue, is unquestionably weather dependent. Some of the more recent picnics I've experienced as a grownup have been sensibly staged near enough to a barn for hasty retreat. A few have been held in the car. Ah well, when it comes to preferred forms of communal eating, I truly enjoy tables and roofs and even - unless it's an unusually clement British summer - some form of central heating or hot water bottle.
Yet I must admit that there is something appealing about eating in the fresh air in some unknown place. I can still smell and taste the pleasure of our childhood picnics. We drank diluted Kia-Ora orange drink (this postwar brand's connection with real oranges was not what you'd call intimate, but we liked it). We munched slices of succulent ham smeared with fierce English mustard and sandwiched between generously buttered slices of white bread.
There were burstingly ripe tomatoes (probably home-grown) that spurted messily as you tried to eat them. Mum, the world's most efficient picnic maker, brought along a little container of salt in which to dip them. Then came the peaches. We always had peaches. For some reason they had to be scrupulously peeled before eating - a tricky and also very juicy business.
The only photo I still have of my dad is a small Box Brownie black-and-white snapshot of him - on a picnic. Actually, it must have been taken just after the picnic proper had ended. He would have been happy it was over. Picnicking was not his scene. In the photo, he's stretched out on a blanket trying to enjoy 40 winks. He wears a sports jacket, a tie, black leather shoes, wool socks, and flannel trousers held up by braces - hardly heat-wave wear. The picnic blanket is spread haphazardly under him. His arms are akimbo, his hands prop up his head, and his trilby hat is tilted forward over his eyes to shade the sun. What can be seen of his face makes me chuckle because it reminds me very much of my own. The expression he's wearing is one I might be guilty of having, had I just been through a trying family picnic experience.
I do recall one picnic with unqualified pleasure, however. It was in Slovenia, where my wife and I were on holiday. It was on the sunniest of alpine banks, high and remote. There was dry turf wonderfully velveted by ages of grazing. The afternoon was warm, cloudless, bright. Birds wheeled below us in the lucid air.
Strangely, I forget what we ate, but it was undoubtedly better than the communist food served at the hotel. That alfresco lunchtime stays with me as peaceful, restful, and wonderfully our own. I feel absolutely sure that when we came upon it, we both unhesitatingly agreed that this was by far the best spot we'd seen that day for a picnic.
And it was also the first.