‘This heatwave split Britain into calm masochists and party animals’ – Emily’s Week

The UK has been baking in an unprecedented heatwave this week. Emily Watkins ponders our relationship with that big ball of fire in the sky. 

Heatwave Sun

Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. So said Rudyard Kipling (apparently) and sung Noel Coward (definitely); while those attributions have stuck, surely neither Kipling nor Coward was the first to notice our collective Achilles heel. Since we first stepped off this stupid little rock and onto hotter, larger ones, locals have been gawping at our pathological refusal to take their sun seriously, watching as we turn pink, then red, then horizontal; but in the wake of a record-breaking heatwave, is there any hope for a collective British epiphany?

Despite the surge in hospitalisations, fires raging up and down the country, and the Met Office’s first ever Red Alert, I’m afraid I doubt it: when it comes to heat, the country is split into keep-calm-and-carry-on masochists and sun-drunk party animals — but neither will sit in the fucking shade. 

Exemplifying the former, MP John Hayes (ironically enough, the chair for a band of Tory MPs called the Common Sense Group), explained how taking any sort of precaution is for cowards: “It is not surprising that in snowflake Britain, the snowflakes are melting”, he said. “Thankfully, most of us are not snowflakes.” Speaking of melting, John, the experts would like a word — as exasperated meteorologists and climate scientists took to the front pages and the airwaves either side of Monday and Tuesday’s extraordinary heat, not so much a fluke as a sign of things to come, the consensus was clear: WE TOLD YOU SO, they chorused. AND WHILE WE’VE GOT YOU, DON’T LEAVE THE HOUSE. 

Heatwave fan

Suddenly, those climate change chickens we’d been hearing so much about seemed to have come home to roost! But even with the world ending, British hearts soared along with the temperature. “Mustn’t complain!” people whimpered, their skin blistering before their eyes; “we’ll miss it when autumn comes!”. From the way this country usually talks about heat, you’d think it was literally a case of the hotter the better – in which case, hell should be a real treat. 

Whether it’s masochism, idiocy, or sheer pig-headedness that propels us out into the same sun that sends more sensible cultures scurrying for shade, British belligerence runs deep. Kipling was thinking of his compatriots in colonial India, dropping like flies in climates to which they flat-out refused to adapt and calling it ‘resilience’ rather than ‘arrogance’. My Australian mum, meanwhile, remembers sweltering in heavy school uniforms more appropriate for an English autumn than a Sydney summer (and don’t get me started on the weirdness of Australian Christmas cards, exchanged in 40-degree heat yet depicting the snow-capped conifers of another hemisphere altogether).

More recently, watching an episode of Come Dine With Me, a man from Lowestoft in the grip of a midlife crisis served guests an Ibiza-themed meal for which the main course was a carvery and the ‘secret ingredient’ was not seasoning the chicken at all. Much has already been written and remarked about the appalling behaviour of the British on holiday (or “Brits abroad”, as we are unaffectionately known), but such culinary crimes aren’t the half of it. TL;DR: the British are incorrigible, and not in a good way. 

Historically preferring to copy-paste our worst bits onto other parts of the world – no matter the degree of disparity or the (literal) brute force required – the British empire has a lot more to answer for than its descendants’ baffling refusal to adapt to local climates. But while today, that looks more like drinking ourselves to oblivion on a blistering Budapest stag-do than slash-and-burn imperialism, the impulse is basically the same. Whether it’s because we associate it with holidays, because it’s historically been so rare a sight at home, or just because it’s as good a delineator as any between ‘on’ and ‘off’ duty, the British are as weird about the sun today as they ever were — in fact, this side of Brexit, our abject inebriation beneath its rays is the only national export worth mentioning!

Heatwave Beach

I’m joking but not really; in Spain, where temperatures recently hit 48 degrees, resorts and restaurants in popular tourist areas including Palma and Magaluf have imposed drinks limits and dress codes for the first time ever, with locals expressly nominating British tourists as the targets of such basic rules of decorum. We might have missed Malaga over the last two disrupted summers, but it sounds like they haven’t missed us much at all – and really, who can blame them? Abandoning our customary repression the second we step off a plane into anything hotter than 20 degrees, we graciously save our worst messes for when other people have to clean them up, thanks very much. 

But even without the loutish behaviour, spotting a British tourist on a summer holiday is child’s play: they’ll be the one sitting in direct sunlight, swaying slightly with heatstroke, while representatives of every other nation sit coolly perplexed beneath parasols and awnings. And much as it takes only a couple of inches of water to drown, it doesn’t take much sun to fell the English; our thresholds are low to say the least, not that you’d know it from our behaviour. Even if this little green island basks in relatively cool temperatures compared to much of the world, we are going to frazzle in the coming climate apocalypse and it’ll serve us right too.

Look. I know that extreme weather events are not funny, and I know too that they incur consequences far more dire than dopey middle-Englanders getting sunburnt. But while I am curious to see whether our dogged insistence that sun-is-fun can weather this, well, weather, I’m not too worried. After all, if not the merest glimpse of sun, what would we take as our cue to drop every responsibility and collapse in our own vomit? Would we have to start dealing with our emotions, or even – gulp – pursuing joy more than one week out of every 52? That sounds more trouble than it’s worth: easier to have another shot and get heatstroke, probably.

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