From The Sunday Times
July 5, 2009
Everything in our world looks better through a heat haze
Of all the clichés about the British — revolting food, marvellous sense of fair play, stiff, cold exteriors masking absolutely filthy minds — the only one that remains absolutely irrefutably true is the one about the weather.
According to this cliché, no other country on earth is as obsessed with meteorology as Britain: foreigners will tell you that the Brits, and especially the English, are fixated by it to a hilarious degree. Usually, though, this is shorthand, a metaphor used to illustrate the fact that everyone’s too emotionally crippled and uptight to talk to each other about real subjects, standing around instead making small talk about the rain.
Most of the other clichés should really be turned on their heads: in my opinion, for instance, it would be far truer to say that the Brits are pervy on the surface but uptight underneath. But the weather fixation remains.
Last week I talked of nothing else. Every subject was seen through the prism of weather: all very exciting about Andy Murray — but blimey, imagine playing in this heat. David Cameron’s new plans?
He looks as if his skin burns really easily. Iran: depressing, shameful, but I wonder if burqas actually keep you cool by creating their own shade. Mind you, black absorbs heat. White burqas are what you want. If it gets any hotter I might run one up myself.
Lunch? Only if we can eat outside in the shade. Did you hear what X said to Y? Yeah, but God, it’s boiling, isn’t it? Someone rang up and asked if I’d do some work for them. I said, absurdly but accurately, “Sorry, I can’t, I’m too hot. No, not tomorrow either. I’ll still be too hot.”
In the event, I spent two whole days trying to find a seaside cottage to rent for the weekend, intoxicated by the idea of water and a breeze as I sweltered unphotogenically all over London. (It took two days because everyone else had had the same idea: seaside cottages, it transpired, are officially recession-proof.)
On Thursday, after making myself even hotter by ranting about the lack of public open-air swimming pools in London, I went into Waitrose just to hang out in the chiller aisle for a bit. I was supposed to go out that evening but . . . too hot.
Meanwhile, my daughter went to school fully sunblocked, sun-hatted and with emergency supplies of bottled water. My sons lay around, saying they couldn’t actually do anything because their rooms were baking and thus strength-sapping.
At some point we wondered whether it wasn’t in fact that hot at all and we were actually burning up with swine flu.
(I called the helpline when it arrived at one of my children’s schools and the special swine doctor I eventually spoke to said it was entirely possible that we’d had it already without noticing. I pass this on because it’s quite cheering.)
I’m not actually complaining — well, not much, apart from the lack of swimming pools. It’s not as if I travel to work on the Tube, which must have felt like the deepest circle of hell all week, and it’s not as if I have to face the complicated sartorial quandaries presented by sunshine: I can dress as if I live in Santa Monica without having startled clients stare crossly at my disrespectful flip-flops or bare knees.
What I especially like about the heat is the anthropological opportunities it affords. The Brits aren’t built for lolling about in the sunshine — they’re built for striding across sodden marshes with the rain lashing at their whey-coloured faces. So what happens the moment it gets even vaguely hot is that everyone starts living in a fantasy, called If We Were European, where Accrington Stanley is really Ibiza and Bolton, if you squint, is Barcelona.
Everyone becomes slightly unhinged but in quite a nice way. In our heads we’re all lazy and golden and have tousled, beach hair like Sienna Miller’s. In reality, people look like angry red pigs and their hair is sticking to their heads in sweaty tendrils.
In Sunshine Land we think our limbs are bronzed and toned; in reality we’re merely parading our ham-like upper arms. We sit around at pavement cafes late into the night, as though London were Rome, and are surprised to find ourselves monstrously hungover and sleep-deprived in the morning — because, of course, there’s no siesta. (More’s the pity. I can’t think of a single person whose quality of life wouldn’t be dramatically improved by siestas. And — did I say? — more swimming pools.)
I’ve had three separate conversations this past week with people — all weather-inspired — who have said that they would quite like to “go freelance”; that is, lie in the garden all day perfecting their tan and sipping Pimm’s.
It’s temporary insanity, brought on by sunshine, but it’s very telling, because it shows that a vast number of people are hippies at heart: they just want to mooch about getting a tan, smiling at strangers and drinking rosé in the shade. (This explains California.) Your bank manager probably wouldn’t say no to living in a tepee or a yurt, if it was by a stream.
Heat means that the whole country feels as if it’s on holiday. I bet the crime figures have dropped in the past 10 days, despite all the open windows.
Obviously, with the inevitability of Greek tragedy, it will probably be pouring with rain by the time you read this. Instead of frolicking on the beach, I’ll be huddled brokenly in my rented cottage, making stew and building a fire, wearing two jumpers to stave off the icy cold (at the time of writing that is not a wholly unappealing idea). Then it might carry on raining and in a fortnight’s time we’ll smile sourly and say: “That was summer.”
It is/was more than summer, though: what it boils down to is that the heat we saw last week gives us a collective opportunity to imagine we’re Not Here.
It makes us be Elsewhere, far away from crumbling governments and job insecurities and problematic mortgages — somewhere where the weather is hot and the people are cool and all you really have to worry about is securing a pavement table. The heat creates the most lovely illusions.
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