Britain is a wet, cold country that often wishes it wasn’t. So our relationship with the outdoors is complicated. We don’t trust it, but we long for it. In summer, we want as much of it as possible.
This year the pandemic, and the government’s response to it, have made being outdoors almost a national duty. With indoor contagiousness one of the few agreed facts about Covid-19, parts of our homes, villages, towns and cities have been turned inside out. Gardens have become living rooms, pavements have become pubs, roads have become seating areas for restaurants. Meanwhile indoor spaces that can’t be replaced, such as shops, have tried to blur the distinction between outside and in: leaving doors ajar, opening every possible window. It’s been a big change for a country that usually worries about draughts. In June, the government called for an “alfresco revolution”.
In some ways, the change has made life better. London, where I’ve spent lockdown, has felt a little less private and more open than usual, with more of its life happening unselfconsciously in public. Since lockdown began, frequent stretches of warm, dry weather here and across Britain have made outdoor living less of a fantasy than usual. Arguably, the novelty and pleasures of this have protected the government from the full consequences of its catastrophic incompetence. Why worry about Britain’s dire Covid-19 death figures when you can have another beer in the sun?
The part-escapist, part-essential move outdoors also fits a trend that has been building in Britain for decades. It’s a trend that might give our insular, nationalist government pause for thought, not that it seems terribly inclined to to pausing or thinking. The modern British shift towards outdoor living has involved acknowledging that other countries – often other European ones – sometimes know how to live better.
We used to resist such conclusions. In 1973, on the day Britain joined the EU, the Daily Mirror published a survey about our appetite for “Common Market customs”. Only 11% of people wanted “more pavement cafes”; three times as many did not. Alfresco drinking and dining were so rare in Britain that areas specialising in it, such as Charlotte Street in London, were seen either as slightly foreign enclaves or islands of sophistication.
Yet cheap jet travel and British popular culture were already changing our assumptions about what the outdoors was for. The 1969 film The Italian Job is usually seen as a nationalist fairytale – cheeky British crooks pull off a heist in Turin – but it also featured alluring shots of ordinary Italians dining outside in the sun. The same year, the British garden designer John Brookes published Room Outside, an influential book which innovatively treated the garden as an extension of the indoors. During the 1960s and 70s, Britons came back from holidays in Spain and built patios.
Nowadays, both high-end and mass-market British retailers sell a vast range of products to domesticate the outdoors: garden heaters, gazebos, hot tubs, fire pits, pizza ovens, outdoor kitchens, outdoor sofas. One of the most popular features of new houses and home extensions in Britain over the past two decades has been large glass doors. The lifestyle suggested isn’t solely Mediterranean any more, but Californian or Australian. Outdoor living in Britain has never seemed more full of potential – as long as you don’t think about what global heating may ultimately have in store.
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Changes to public space have also improved our outdoors. Since the 90s, towns and cities have acquired better street furniture and imitation piazzas, farmers’ markets and food trucks, open-air film screenings and rooftop bars. As urban private space has become ever more expensive and unequally distributed, at least public space has become more fun. In Soho in central London, half a dozen linked streets have recently been closed to traffic in the evenings to allow restaurants to reopen during the pandemic. During the hot evenings earlier this week, above this maze of outdoor tables, most of them occupied nonstop, there was an excited hum – one of the happiest sounds I’ve heard since the start of lockdown.
But there was a fragility about the scene, too. Some people looking for tables pushed past each other, almost touching, as if the mere fact of being outdoors was an antidote to coronavirus. And there were no awnings over the tables: it wasn’t clear what would happen when it rained.
When autumn comes, we’ll see whether the “alfresco revolution” is sustainable – or just another of the government’s overoptimistic, short-term fixes. And when when the Brexit transition period ends in January, we’ll see whether trying to live more like continental Europeans feels quite the same once we’ve cut ourselves off from the continent. In the meantime, it might be wise to buy a warmer coat.
• Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist
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