1976 was the summer I spent mostly barefoot, staying up the park from early in the morning till the gates were locked after dark. That was the year I started at what was then called the Upper School, in the “third year”—what is now called Year 9. The great joy that year was, on my paper-round, seeing faces in a window who turned into friends-again, kicking off a summer of closeness and camaraderie, the inseparable team for tinpanalley and the other endless games of that endless summer. The pain came in September, at the Big School, when those same friends blanked me for no reason other than the new environment, because they felt like it, and because there was more space and more distance to make it stick.
1975 had been a good British summer: great in comparison to most of them, but there hadn’t been a drought, so it’s easy to forget it. It had been a warm June (average temperature 14.5ºC), followed by the warmest July since 1955 (17.1ºC), and then, the kicker, the hottest August on record (19.2ºC)—until 1995, which beat it by just 1/10th of a degree. Were it not for that summer of ’76, in fact, 1975 would have been the summer we (Gen Xers) all look back upon with nostalgia.
But 1976 was even hotter—in June and July at least, and there was a long, unbroken stretch without rain. There was a Minister for Drought, and hosepipe bans, and we were encouraged to share the bathwater, then water the roses with it, and put a brick in the toilet cistern. But August wasn’t that great, it was 2º cooler than the year before. The damage to 1975’s reputation was done, though, and it was forgotten by history. I’ve always felt about it the same way I do some beloved records. You know, like Beatles for Sale, or even Rubber Soul, as compared to Revolver. But 1975 is like the girlfriend in the distracted boyfriend meme. 1976 caught everyone’s attention and held it. But isn’t a summer in which you’re not obliged to get into someone else’s dirty bathwater as a matter of routine better than one in which you are?
Back then, when I was twelve and thirteen, I was young enough to see two years as the beginning of a pattern (all summers will be great from now on), so when the summer of 1977 came along, oh man. What a disappointment. June was a frigid 12.2ºC, July and August a gelid 15º. I went on a school camping trip that year, a week in the Wye Valley, and, boy, did it rain. And rain. That was the year of “God Save the Queen” and the Jubilee and street parties, none of which held any interest for me.
A couple of years ago, we had a bunch of people round towards the end of August for a night of pizza in the garden. It’s our usual way of returning dinner invitations. My kitchen in France is primitive, so I do most of our entertaining on the barbecue, whether it’s pizza or grilling. We sat out there long past sunset, lighting candles when it got dark, and enjoying the warm evening, not noticing the rolling thunder that might have been in the hills, even then. Because suddenly, as if someone threw a switch, the wind picked up, and the umbrella blew over, and the big orange awning started to flap like a mainsail in an Atlantic swell. By 11 o’clock, it was raining, big drops, and our guests were helping us get everything we didn’t want to get wet inside. Like that, summer was over.
This year, the weather changed a few days ago. We’ll be eating indoors for our final dinner with friends tonight, and I’ll be barbecuing in the rain. But it has been a hot one, hasn’t it? We’ll know in a couple of days whether this August has beaten 1995 and 1975. I’m going to guess not, though, as I think the weather broke in Britain before it did over here in France. It was dry; I think I can count the number of rainy days on one hand. But no 2018 summer month has been a record breaker as far as I can tell. July was hot (19.5º), but not as hot as 2006 (20º) and June was 0.4º cooler than 1976. Other places had it worse, and I suppose that global temperatures might tell a different story. All those wildfires. How many had natural causes, I wonder?
Back in 1976, Farmers were still in the habit of burning stubble in the fields, so we’d see palls of smoke up in the hills. This practice was banned in 1993, but it would give some kids ideas. We, my friends and I, sometimes hung out with some other kids, not really friends, but the same age as us. We’d come together for cricket matches or giant tinpanalley games. I remember going up the Downs once (the Downs behind my parents’ house), and we encountered a bunch of them setting fire to the railway embankment. Great swathes of dry grass were left scorched. How many of the wildfires in North America and Scandinavia were started with a match?
It’s easy to buy the narrative that extreme weather events are increasing in frequency. I’m sure there’s an upward global temperature curve, but looking at localised UK data from the last fifty years, it’s hard to see much of a pattern. 1975 and 1976 felt like something was happening, but then 1977 brought us all crashing back to earth.
I think it more likely that the negative effects of climate change for the UK will involve quantities of water coming from the sky rather than anything special in terms of summer temperatures. In the meantime, I’ve enjoyed this summer: I tried not to complain too much about the heat, even when I was sweating in my classroom back in June and July. But sitting inside today as it rains intermittently outside, I can already feel my cycling tan fading. And we lit a fire to help dry the washing, so…