There’s a hell of a lot more to a heat wave than a perennial disco classic from 1977. OK, so it was very warm yesterday and I was out in the worst of it. Being of Northern extraction, one of my ancestors was probably a raping/pillaging Viking, so it’s no wonder I’ve never been a fan of extreme heat. But let’s get things in perspective. We all know it won’t last. India, for example, is currently experiencing its most devastating heat wave for thirty-five years. Although estimates understandably vary, official statistics calculate more than 2,500 people have so far died; the highest temperatures recorded to date have been in Churu, a city in the desert region of Rajasthan, measuring 48.0 Centigrade, which in old money translates as an unimaginable 118.4 Fahrenheit. India’s dry season usually reaches a peak around April/May, although the climate remains stifling until the autumnal Monsoon cools things down a little. This summer is not only stretching the dry season way beyond its normal lifespan, but way beyond anything the Indian people should expect from what it is an annual climatic feature of their country.
One cannot help but wonder what the Mail and Express would make of a similar scenario being transplanted to this country. If a warm day provokes the familiar scaremongering warnings of old people and children dropping like flies as tabloids herald the imminent apocalypse, I suspect Brits undergoing a genuine Indian summer would result in every copy of the Mail and Express bursting into flames the moment they come into contact with human hands. No bad thing, mind. Anyone over the age of around 43 will of course recall 1976, forever enshrined as the benchmark by which all subsequent hot summers in Blighty have been measured. For those who weren’t around (which I wouldn’t imagine is a category that regular visitors to here fall into), what happened is as follows…
The summer of 1976 was the hottest in this country since that oft-cited landmark moment, ‘since records began’, so hot and so wide-reaching in its impact that it takes it place alongside all the other calamitous events to have characterised what was something of a turbulent decade. The only distinction it has in relation to the Three-Day Week and the Winter of Discontent is that most people actually enjoyed it, with the exception of those who had to queue-up to get their water supply from standpipes. Four rivers in Sheffield ran completely dry; reservoirs fell to such low levels that in some cases the ruins of the buildings that had stood there previously were visible above the water line; 45 days passed in some South East areas without any rainfall at all; spontaneous forest fires destroyed thousands of trees; a plague of ladybirds descended upon the nation like Biblical locusts. One of the hottest days ever recorded in this country occurred at Cheltenham on 3 July, with temperatures soaring to 96.6°F. Things got so bad the government appointed a Minister for Drought and vans patrolled the streets of the nation to enforce a hose pipe ban and inform the public when the water was being switched off. Watch any archive footage of that year’s Wimbledon or the England Test series against the West Indies and it looks as though the sports are being played on sand, so scorched is the playing surface.
But, amidst the panic, the British people chose to forego the newly fashionable package holiday to the continent and instead flocked to home seaside resorts, giving at least one aspect of the economy a boost when so many others were buckling under the heat. One didn’t have to travel to the coast, however; young ladies were evidently ‘beach ready’ in cities a long way from the sea that summer. I suspect more than one Raccoon regular probably lost something they were more than happy to lose in 1976, if you know what I mean.
When we’re all dead and gone, I think the summer of ’76 will still be talked about in the same way that 1816 is still talked about – the so-called Year Without a Summer, courtesy of the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia), a cataclysmic event that cast a literal shadow across the globe and even inspired a young romantic runaway to pen the first recognised work of horror fiction in English literature.
Severe weather conditions are nothing new; at the opposite end of the scale, Britain used to experience winters that put more recent ones firmly in the shade, back when the arches of old London Bridge would affect the flow of the Thames so that any harsh cold spell would lead to the freezing of the river and the consequent staging of the famous ‘frost-fairs’ that were a regular tradition in the capital throughout the ‘Little Ice Age’ that spanned the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The last one was held in 1814, before the climate grew warmer and a new London Bridge was built, along with the Victoria Embankment, something that reduced the width of the river and consequently made the freezing of the Thames less likely. Even the legendary winter of 1962/63 didn’t see the return of the frost-fairs, despite the fact that it was the coldest on record for 300 years.
Over the past decade, the winters have been relatively mild and the summers likewise; the only notable dramatic development in terms of the weather have been the floods that have almost become annual events in this country, the kind that send newsreaders to affected areas so they can read the headlines knee-deep in dirty water. Why the BBC feels the need to dispatch poor old George Alagiah to stand in effective sewage perhaps says something about British broadcasting that I’m sure some would be more than willing to elaborate on.
In fact, for those of us who remember the particularly bad winters of 1981/82 or 1990/91 (and even 1962/63), it’s hard not to shake one’s head and laugh when the media goes into an apoplexy every December or January, when a couple of days’ snowfall prompts ominous predictions of how we’re about to enter into the worst winter since (add applicable date). Within a few days, those of us who reside south of the border usually wonder what all the fuss was about and why so many wusses decided to take the day off work just so they could post photos on Facebook of them building an anorexic snowman with their kids – who also didn’t turn up to school because the teachers decided it was too chilly for the precious mites to sit in classrooms. Get a bloody grip! I remember being in a class of four during the winter of 1981/82, only because my serial truancy prior to that winter meant I’d still have been sent to school by my irate parents even if the Black Death had broken out on the premises. ‘So what if you’ve got pus-oozing lumps under your armpits? Get yourself to bloody school, you workshy fop!’
I’m not so foolish that I’m poised to incite a debate on the subject of Global Warming (however high it would push the number of comments attached to this post), but I will say that the genuinely life-threatening weather conditions in countries such as India at the moment in no way equates with a few warm days in the UK, despite what the newsstands scream. Yesterday may have been the hottest July day on record in this country, but it’s not really the same as what India is currently experiencing, is it? Believe everything the media tells you, however, and we’re already arrived at the sub-tropical hell hole JG Ballard predicted in his 1962 novel, ‘The Drowned World’, so basically, we’re all going to die. At least I’ve still got my surgeon’s face-mask that I haven’t worn since the great plague of Bird Flu. It might come in use.