Apocalypse UK: Warmwave of Death

Woman in black thong bikini with tattoo and we...

Woman in black thong bikini with tattoo and wearing bracelets and wrist cuff. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are times in life when you feel you must have been born in the wrong place. It’s happening to me this week in London. All around me people are shaking their heads and sighing, declaring that it’s “sweltering”, “baking”,  “too hot to breathe”, that they are “dying from the heat”, that they can’t sleep at night. The government has issued a Level Three Heatwave Alert. MPs are calling for people to be given time off work because of the devastating heat. And the temperature? A mild and pleasant 31C (88F) in London yesterday, and it was the hottest day of the year.

This is not a heatwave. At most it’s a warmwave. In most of the world, it’s just called Summer.

But not in Britain. No, here the government’s official heatwave action plan has been triggered. We are one level away from a National Emergency, for heavens’ sake! And it’s not just in the bureaucrats’ heads. The roads have started melting. The railways have buckled in the heat. It is as if Britain isn’t just an island, but another planet where the laws of physics operate in a different way.

Never mind that in New York City it gets warmer than this every year, and there is no emergency, the roads and trains work fine, life goes on.

Never mind that in India, where the British actually built most of the railways, there are cities where it only rarely gets any colder than this — and in Delhi, where it regularly hits 48C (118F), the trains experience no problems, and the roads do not melt.

I think it’s because it’s so long since there’s actually been a summer in the UK, that people have forgotten what it’s like. They’ve stopped bothering to build roads and railways to withstand the sun, because they cant remember what the sun is.

It is, surely, the only explanation for the proliferation of articles in the press here telling people how to “cope” with the heat, and offering some of the most crashingly obvious advice in history. If there is anyone who doesn’t realise that opening the windows in the evening will help to cool the bedroom, then frankly they don’t deserve to sleep.

But then I know British people who have complained they cannot get comfortable under the duvet in this weather. If you’re sleeping under a duvet in summer, you have failed to understand what a duvet is for.

The other problem, I suspect, is that British people have habituated themselves to cold temperatures by insisting on immediately walking around in shorts and a T shirt the minute there is the tiniest glimpse of sun, even if there is an icy wind blowing and it’s only 18C (64F) — overseas readers, this is not an exaggeration, by the way — which means, when the actual warm arrives, they can’t take it any more.

Perhaps years of living in warmer climes have warped my sense of the heat. I lived eight years in India, and while I had air conditioning, I had plenty of nights of long power cuts with the temperature still around 40C (104F). I had one friend who used to sleep on the marble floor in these circumstances, because it was marginally cooler than the mattress.

I remember one trip to remote Madhya Pradesh at the height of the Hot Weather, when I tracked down the only hotel that had air conditioning, and booked the only room with it. I arrived on a parched, burning day, and asked desperately if they’d kept me the room.

“Oh yes, sir,” the recptionist smiled. “But the air conditioner is broken.”

I asked the Indian photographer I was working with what to do.

“In this situation there is only one thing to do,” he said. “Get drunk.” He sent out for beer and rum, which made me forget the heat — but the next morning was an unimaginable hell.

On another trip, in Bihar, I resorted to soaking the bedsheets in the bathroom, draping them dripping over me, and turning the fan on for a blessed few minutes of cool before they dried off.

I remember the last great “heatwave” to grip Britain, back in 2003. I remember because I was in Baghdad at the time, and The Independent asked me to do a story on what Iraqis thought of the heatwave. It did actually get quite warm in the UK that year, with a maximum of 38C (100F). But at that point, in Iraq the unofficial temperature was 57C (134F).

Unofficial, in part, because the country was in total chaos, under American occupation, and no official departments were functioning. Unofficial, too, because of an old Iraqi law that people got the day off work if the temperature hit 50C — which meant that for years the official maximum had been 49.9C.

I don’t know if it really hit 57C — but it did feel hotter in Baghdad than the 48C highs I regularly experienced in Delhi. The air conditioning failed in the car, and blew hot air in our faces. Cars were spontaneously overheating in the streets, and if you stayed in the sun for more than a couple of minutes you started to feel ill and disoriented. I remember pushing my hair out of my eyes and burning my hand on my own hair. But, as far as I am aware, I did not die.

I had air conditioning in Baghdad — but lots of Iraqis didn’t. Nor did most of the American soldiers. Nor did the British soldiers in Basra in the south, where it was even hotter.

Which brings me back to this week’s comedy suggestion from the British parliament, where the clowns have come up with a proposal that people should get the day of work if the temperature hits 30C (86F). If only we’d had that rule before Tony Blair decided to join the invasion of Iraq: it might have saved us from taking part in that folly.

The British proposal of a 30C limit seems rather indulgent to me — certainly a lot more so than Iraq’s 50C. If the entire world were to adopt the British proposal, it would be impossible to work all summer in most places, and in parts of India and south-east Asia it would only be legal to work on a few days each year.

None of which remotely seems to have penetrated the strange collective consciousness in Britain, where people insist that what, for much of Europe, let along further flung corners of the world, would be a pleasant, even cool summer, is a heatwave.


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  1. Just get drunk works. As for the hangover? Just stay drunk. Let’s catch up soon!

  2. Looking on the bright side banning working in temps of over 30 offers the England team the perfect excuse for avoiding inevitible embarassment in Qatar in 2022. Either by not qualifying or – as usual – failing to turn up.

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