Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Staying out for the summer

As summer hands the baton to autumn in the seasonal 4x4 relay, WWDBD? is inhaling the aroma of freshly grilled pesce spada Siciliana on the large volcanic Dorito perched on Italy's big toe. 

It has become my tradition of heading off to the sun when everyone else is back at the coalface (the product of practical considerations), and it has a number of benefits, notably sunbed availability. These late holidays also have the psychological effect of extending summer, a feature you only recognise when returning to a northern European airport on a cold and wet evening, dressed in T-shirt, shorts and sunburn.

As I departed Paris in the dappled sunlight of early September I learned that, according to officials, this year's British summer has been the wettest for 100 years. Strange, as I distinctly recall the same officials issuing a "weather warning" in March foretelling that the summer of '12 was going to be as dry as a bone.

With immediate effect parts of Britain imposed a hosepipe ban, even though some winter snows were still melting. Collectively, the middle class groaned a heavy sigh at the prospect of unwatered lawns and unwashed cars. The Army was called in, though no-one quite knows why: in times of crisis - firemen striking, rubbish uncollected, Olympic venues needing filled - the boys (and persons of non-specific gender) in green get called in. It's just how it is done.

The prospect of taps being turned off and standpipes being installed in cracked streets set off alarm bells. Things in Britain were going to get so bad that Bob Geldof put himself on immediate standby, Midge Ure dusted off the chord charts for Vienna, and Dire Straits gave very serious consideration to reforming. Not good.

So, imagine the surprise when, come the end of August, the UK Met Office announced that the summer of 2012 had been the second wettest since records began, with the receipt of 366.8mm of rainfall along with flooding, mud, tornados, locusts and frogs. Apparently it was also the dullest summer on record, though that has been measured in terms of hours of sunshine (just 399) as opposed to how many weeks you can spend kicking a football against a wall before you get bored and set fire to a shopping centre.

The big deal about this summer is that, when the chimes of doom began clanging in March, it was going to be as hot as 1976. In the summer of '76 Britain suffered a drought of, apparently, near-biblical proportions. Well, biblical in the sense that everyone's gardens turned a light brown colour, roads melted - yes, melted - and being the 1970s everyone went on strike to protest about it. Or least that's how I remember it, but then again I was only eight.

The lack of water was certainly disappointing, seeing as most people had been avoiding water altogether since the previous summer when Jaws came out. I say lack of water, but there was one exception to the so-called and understatedly-described 'dry spell' of 1976: the Welsh enclave that my family had chosen to stay in for our summer holiday that year. Because it rained. Every day. Hard enough to send Noah to a timber merchant for a bulk purchase.

To worsen the effect, every evening my parents, my sister and I would cram ourselves into a roadside phone box - in front of a solitary horse who clearly thought us insane - to ring my brother for a nightly garden update from home. "Still dry. Getting browner". Same report for 14 nights in a row. I presume he was talking about the garden.

So, while I endured a fortnight of mostly indoor pursuits - museums about coal, museums about steam trains, museums about lace, museums about museums, and endless games of Monopoly - my friends elsewhere were zipping about on Raleigh Choppers and Space Hoppers getting heatstroke. I, on the other hand, went through some sort of genetic change, becoming impervious to water and developing flesh like a seal's and webbed hands like Patrick Duffy in The Man From Atlantis.

Despite all this, 1976 - summer and all - has been described as the best year to have been growing up in the UK. Research, earlier this year, by a brand of chocolate biscuit, for reasons best known to themselves, found that all that sunshine and outdoor fun made my ninth year the best.

From a kid's perspective, the economic gloom of Britain in the mid-70s went somewhat unnoticed. In the hottest summer for 350 years, we were all outside (save for those two weeks in a mid-Wales phonebox…). We were rushing about the place, doing what kids did then before concerns about being outside forced them indoors, where they develop the eyesight of a pit pony due to their addiction to Xbox and Sky+ recordings of X Factor that today's children have succumbed to.

In any case, television was rationed. Aye, we were t'poor. We had just one set in our house, with only three channels to choose from - Channel 4 opened the floodgates in 1982 by adding one more… - so spending the summer indoors watching telly wasn't an option either.

The transistor radio - the "tranny", as Radio 1 DJs would call it, before the name became adopted for an alternative lifestyle - was the main form of entertainment for us kids. In the summer that punk was stirring, Top 40 radio was soundtracking with The Wurzels' Combine Harvester, Elton John and Kiki Dee's Don't Go Breaking My Heart, and a campfest of disco hits and ABBA fluff like Tina Charles' I Love To Love, The Real Thing's You To Me Are Everything and the Swedish foursome's Fernando.

Which meant that, like Hopper and Fonda in Easy Rider we took to the streets on our bikes. Pedalling for hours around the neighbourhood without anyone considering it unsafe, because it wasn't. The crime rate in the UK was half of what it is today, and with fewer cars on the roads - I can't think of a single family I knew then who had two - my London suburb was an altogether safer place.

No doubt being an adult in the summer of '76 wouldn't have been much fun. With inflation in Britain at 27%, the country was in the grip of an economic malaise worsened by constant industrial action and the need for an economic bailout of the kind Greece, today, would be saying "Ναι παρακαλώ!" to rather heartily.

Inevitably, the long hot summer of 1976 came to end. This was obviously the fault of the government, who appointed a dedicated minister - Denis Howell - to deal with the drought. No sooner had he taken office than Britain was deluged with flooding. At the end of August, simmering tensions in London's black community exploded at the Notting Hill Carnival where rioting broke out.

Even that year, the end of August symbolically marked the passing of an idyllic summer. Which is why I'm hanging on to this one and, in the process, ordering up another bottle of the hefty local Syrah.

To be drunk responsibly, of course.

No comments:

Post a Comment