Summer in London is one of the very best things about living here. As May creeps in and the nights get longer, the light yawning closer and closer towards 9PM, something appears in the capital's air – giddiness, lager fumes, the heat rising off the concrete – that makes this place, which can sometimes feel oppressive and lonely, turn sort of gilded and magic.
This year, however, things are necessarily different. In 2020 there are few of the simple pleasures of a London summer. No fidgeting on the top deck of the bus on the way to work, consciously uncoupling your T-shirt from your sweaty chest as you rest your head against the window and smile at the sparkling view from London Bridge; no packed out pub gardens; no ill-fated park barbecues. Summer is an expulsion of energy as much as a time of year – but right now, we've got a lot of energy and nowhere to really put it, other than in the direction of calling Dominic Cummings a cunt on Twitter. So: what do we do?
The answer seems to be: focus our attentions on one man and his palpably summery vibe. Paul Mescal is the 24-year-old Irish actor who stars as Connell in the BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestselling, Booker-nominated novel Normal People, watched by a much-cited 16 million people. Mescal became an instant talking point, both for his strikingly emotional performance in the show (I should say, I don't mean to gloss over that here; he really is incredibly good), and because he is, in the eloquent words of my colleague Emma Garland, "hotter than God".
Soon after Normal People aired, the specifically gentle but unyielding sexuality that Mescal exudes as Connell drew in touch-starved self-isolators like pigs to shit. The neck chain that Connell wears in the show got its own Instagram account (166k followers and counting), while fans have gone on record to inform the press that they would, and I quote, "shag him to death".
Since then, Mescal has been the subject of countless interviews, cover features and, more interestingly, a small cottage industry of pap shots and accounts of sightings of him living his life as the summer has unfolded, as though he were east London's own sexy Loch Ness monster. This seems to have emerged out of a fascination with Mescal the man, which is quickly overshadowing the appreciation for Connell the character – due, apparently, to his unadulterated "would give you a cig in the smoking area and laugh when you say 'No thanks, actually' because he's offered you a straight" energy – and hit a zenith yesterday.
Sometime in the afternoon, a photo emerged of Mescal wearing sunglasses, O'Neill's shorts and a jacket that looks like the sartorial embodiment of the phrase "got any on ya?", while carrying two pink gin-in-a-tins, a Crabbies and a packet of prawn cocktail crisps.
You do just fundamentally have to admire the sheer bollocks of how class this photo is. A big part of the reason why people reacted to it so viscerally, I think, is because of the chesty pangs of longing for summers past that a casual corner shop haul of cider, canned cocktails and crisps – all obviously intended to be consumed in the park – so obviously induces in so many of us at the moment (how many of us, upon seeing it, wished dearly to see our friends?).
But the other big part is just the fact that Paul Mescal looks fucking cool. To pull apart the reasons re: exactly why, I've made some annotations so we can really take in what we're seeing here. That image again:
a) Prawn cocktail crisps
Buying prawn cocktail is the mark of someone who is not worried about being divisive, who simply marches to the beat of their own drum, and for that I say fair play to him.
b) Crabbie’s cider
Weird flex but OK. Again, the move of a maverick, and it is important to respect mavericks to an extent.
c) GAA shorts
In the way that girls found Connell's chain sexy, I feel like guys are going to go absolutely nuts for Paul Mescal's Maynooth GAA shorts. These are the legs that will launch a thousand "O'Neills football shorts where to buy" Google searches from men who wear precisely one ring and have line drawing tattoos, but who have equally been empowered by home workouts to show thigh. You just wait until the pubs open again. Unimaginable, legs-out carnage.
d) Pink Gordon’s gin and tonic in a can
Is there any symbol of pure pleasure more potent than a can of pink gin and tonic? Is there any drink more indicative of a good time than this? The pink G&T is the centre of the Venn diagram where "the funniest boys in the group" are on one side and "mams who have wooden signs with pithy phrases about Prosecco up in their homes" are on the other, and is, therefore, unquestionably, the Official Drink of Having a Laugh. A fine choice.
There is, then, much to say about this photo, at a time when a lot of us have time to do so. When I saw it yesterday – sat at my crap WFH desk, littered as it is with Trek bar wrappers and notepad pages, with three hours of the working day left, despite the fact I could easily have fallen into an eight-hour sleep at any moment – it was honestly just fun and nice to see that at least someone still seems able to conjure the feeling of summer, and to talk about that for a bit.
Mescal is obviously isolating like the rest of us, but every press snapshot of him, including this one, seems to exude something joyful and hopeful. He recently told The Times that the period he has spent social distancing in London since Normal People aired "have probably been some of the happiest weeks of my life".
I don't want to read too much into one paparazzi photo (she says, composing over 1,000 words of assumptions based on one paparazzi photo), but it is genuinely warming to see someone talented so clearly on the cusp of wonderful things, and so obviously enjoying life and summer in London in the ways that he can, and in ways a lot of his new fans can relate to. I just wish it didn’t make me want to chuck my work laptop out of the window and drink the nearest 12-pack of Stella so badly.