Out in the world, everything is subtly altered. It’s as if I’m wearing glasses that have the wrong prescription. At a seaside hotel for the weekend, I found leaves in the pool; there they floated disconsolately, awaiting a net-wielding person who was plainly never going to arrive, the staff shortages of which we’ve already heard quite a lot now obvious pretty much everywhere one goes. On a terrace for lunch, there were more (terrifyingly aggressive) seagulls than waiters; in the evening, I watched a lone barman struggling to fix cocktails for at least a dozen guests who sat waiting, unmasked but still strangely blank-faced, on sofas that were dotted around the room like distant islands in a sea of carpet. “Lara!” he called, at one point. “Lara!” Alas, Lara did not appear, and nor did some people’s gin and tonics.
Meanwhile, I appear to be turning into a person I do not recognise. As I write, it would be foolhardy to try to book a holiday abroad, and Britain is like Bethlehem at census time. A friend who lives in the Lake District tells me that most hotels have no availability whatsoever until next spring; self-catering visitors hoping for dinner out pretty quickly realise they’ll just have to make do with something nice from Booths heated up in the unpredictable ovens of their rental cottages. What to do with the rest of the summer? The mind turns, slowly and grumpily, to days out and, inevitably, to picnics. Yesterday, to my horror, I spent half an hour – it might even have been more – browsing tartan blankets online. It seems likely that I’m not, after all, going to end my days without owning a cooler box.
I love eating a sandwich halfway up a fell, when you’re so hungry even the greasiest cheese is very heaven. But I’ve never been a great one for picnics. In their book, Cooking For Occasions, Fay Maschler and Elizabeth Jane Howard note that while some people like nothing better than to attack a pork pie and piccalilli in a gale force wind, others regard a picnic as “a sort of organised emergency” – a description that fits me precisely. If cool boxes make me feel slightly queasy on various olfactory and aesthetic grounds, Thermos flasks have always induced panic. When, long ago, I went walking with (Massive Name Drop Alert) Robert MacFarlane, I remembered too late that tea poured from a flask always tastes distinctly weird, and spent the half hour after I’d given him a cup panicking that he’d go down with botulism or something, and thus that I’d be responsible for robbing the world of his next masterwork.
But isn’t necessity the mother of all kinds of mad and delusional convictions? Having found a lovely vintage wicker basket on Etsy, I’m now intent on filling it, not with supermarket sausage rolls and Breakaways, but with loads of utterly delicious and quite spectacular homemade stuff. In my fevered imagination, it’s as if I’m hosting an Edwardian shooting party, minus the guns and the dead birds (though not, perhaps, the fortified wine). What I’m after, as Agnes Jekyll (1860-1937) puts it in one of her Kitchen Essays, is “unruffled enjoyment” against a delightfully frothy backdrop of green fern and purple scabious.
Maschler and Howard devote a whole chapter to bum-on-the-grass (or-a-blanket) eating and while some of their suggestions seem a touch challenging – would I be able to pull off Scotch quail’s eggs? – others shout achievability. Forget cheese and pickle. What about a sandwich filled with Creme d’Isigny and chopped walnuts? (Brown bread, of course.) Yes, it’s tempting just to chuck a cherry yoghurt or two in the cooler and hope the tubs don’t split en route, but how much nicer and more chi-chi to hand out individual summer puddings, or geranium creams served in little pots with a triangle of shortbread. Naturally, I know all this sounds vaguely fantastical: silly, at best; ostentatious, at worst. But I won’t be put off. We do not know, yet, what lies ahead, for which reason it seems obvious that we should all be as sybaritic as we can, whenever we can – though if your idea of picnic paradise really is a slice of red leicester and a banana, that’s more than OK, too.