Phew! What a scorcher! We have just had the driest start to a summer since modern records began in 1961. Could this unusually inclement weather be due to global warming? As I wallow selfishly in yet another glorious day of sunshine I am guilty of ignoring the bigger picture, the impending destruction of the planet.
I am more than happy to put up and shut up with arctic snowstorms in April if they are followed by endless months of tropical heat. The ‘Beast from the East,’ central heating and bowls of stew, are but a distant memory. For a sun-worshipping, avid vitamin D absorber like myself, days of sunshine such as these have been but a dream. Our summers have routinely turned out to be pretty lacklustre, pretty damp and pretty disappointing. But now I find myself horizontal on the beach day after day after day, eating double raspberry Magnum after double raspberry Magnum. I am, at last, living the summer of my dreams.
In between slurping ice-cream and cooling down in the sea, I have also managed to devote some quality time to another of my favourite pastimes reading. One recent beach read was the most enjoyable Instructions For a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell. Set in London, it’s the story of a loveable Irish family during the record-breaking heatwave of 1976.
1976 was the summer The Sun first published the classic tabloid headline above, as the temperature in the UK reached 28+ over twenty-two consecutive days. There was no rain from the beginning of June until biblical thunderstorms hit at the end of August. Subsequently, the minister for droughts immediately became the minister for floods.
I was six during that epic summer and apart from a memorable bout of miserable measles on my birthday, I also remember the plague of ladybirds that besieged the country. Hungry and thirsty their only option for survival was to drink the sweat of the very sweaty human population. I was not particularly svelte as a child and I recall squeezing into a beloved swimming costume by the now extinct clothing brand ‘Ladybird.’ The costume was emblazoned with their logo, you guessed it, ladybirds. Needless to say, I was pretty much camouflaged during this macabre couple of days. And due to my clever branding, I quite possibly escaped having my perspiration syphoned off by a ravenous aphid.
I don’t recall sunscreen with SPF or UVA filters existing in 1976. We were unaware of the ozone layer back then, and the damage the sun could do to our skin. I do remember regularly burning the skin on my back, and on more than one occasion, it blistered. Standard sunburn procedure was a hot bath to take out the sting, before being liberally coated in pink calamine lotion from head to toe. The layers of lotion dried to form an attractive crust that encased my body, and fortunately, still allowed it to breathe. The following morning the lotion was rinsed off and after all that effort, the sunburn would still be there. But off I went, outside again, this time with a t-shirt on over my cossie. That was sun protection in 1976.
During that long hot summer, with my both parents working I pretty much had to fend for, and amuse myself, under the not so watchful eye of my elder sister. Space Hoppers and Raleigh Choppers where the predecessors to mobile phones and tablets. Armed with a survival kit of marmite sandwiches, crisps, Tizer and a vivid imagination, I played on the street, unsupervised. Dodging moving cars was a way of life. This reckless, feral lifestyle might today be seen as neglect, but back then it was just what kids did. That was childcare in 1976.
Shockingly my parents didn’t have a clue about recycling and had never heard of prosecco. The only gin available was Gordon’s, and Schweppes produced the only tonic. Findus crispy pancakes were considered a food group and if you could stomach prawn cocktail flavoured crisps, you had a sophisticated palate.
Whilst Elton John and Kiki Dee were topping the charts with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” the powers that be were giving out invaluable advice 1976 style. “Bath with a friend” got printed on t-shirts to encourage people to conserve the water supply. A well-respected doctor at one London hospital famously recommended the sweltering masses drink a pint of beer and eat a packet of crisps to replenish the liquid and salts lost through sweating.
Writing this has made me yearn slightly for the relaxed attitude of the 70’s. Studies by economists have shown that financially, the UK wasn’t at it’s best in 1976. However, they looked at the broader picture and the factors that contribute to the quality of life and concluded that 1976 was Britan’s happiest year, especially if you were a child. If they took into account bouncing around all summer on a space hopper, with little parental control, burping warm Tizer, then I’m not surprised, it really was a joyous year.
This post also appeared in the Brighton and Hove Independent