Why Heatwaves and Novels Go Together

You don’t need to read the Lancet to know that heatwaves aren’t great for health. Even without the terror of fires, excess heat is linked with deaths, especially in the elderly.

On the bright side, however, when the thermometer soars and it’s too hot to move, few things are more delicious than settling in a shady spot to get lost in a book. Yes, I have heard of ice cream, but a novel occupies the mind for longer than a raspberry ripple, and that’s got to be a bonus in the current mess the world is in.

Writers are doubly blessed in a heatwave. For a start, they may be able to work at home with next to nothing on, which is so far removed from struggling on the Tube wearing office attire that it’s almost like not working.

As a plus, there are often cool places to sit with pencil or laptop.

I’m assuming that the nice cool place isn’t in full view of the neighbours. Then again, think of all the publicity, as a fellow writer reminds me.

Best of all, though, scorching weather presents excellent material for fiction.  Author Helena Halme mentions just this in her recent blog post Five Books for a Heatwave.

I’d like to unpick this a little more.

Summertime is in itself magical, with ice lollies, flip-flops, sandcastles, and grandparents moaning about the lack of rain. In school holidays gone by, every summer was long and hot, at least in the memory. With normal life suspended, there’s an illusion of freedom, Swallows and Amazons style.

The heat does things to people’s pheromones. Well, I’m assuming it does, though the only paper I’ve seen is based on research on insects. At any rate, the brain seems to fry at high temperatures.  Even the most impassive person can become, well, hot-headed and behave erratically, which is all good news for novelists.

The human mind isn’t the only thing to abandon normal function in a heatwave. By now, most people in the UK are familiar with buckled rails and cancelled trains. In the northeast last month, a man became trapped when tarmac melted and his leg literally sank into the road surface. This happened in Heaton (no, I’m not kidding) and firefighters were called to free him. 

But these phenomena are as nothing compared to the image of Jesus appearing on a ceramic drainpipe in Joanna Cannon’s debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. This unusual manifestation of Christ brings out the neighbours and their deck chairs, and becomes a turning point in the story.

Every heatwave seems to leave its own particular memories. The legendary summer of 1976 featured beaches covered in ladybirds, exhortations to share a bath with a friend, and other references that can date-stamp a novel, as both Joanna Cannon and Maggie O’Farrell demonstrate.

While there’s no exact definition of a heatwave, meteorologists often consider it to be an increase of 5⁰C above the average maximum temperature for five days or more – with the average maximum temperature being between 1961 and 1990.

The great heatwave years of the UK include 1911, 1955, 1976, and 1983. Speaking for myself, I have a soft spot for 2013 which broke few records but did produce the hottest July for many years. This is the year in which I set my novel Hampstead Fever, and it also happens to be when I got married.

wedding

Whether you’re reading or writing, I hope you enjoy the rest of this scorching season. How will you most remember the heatwave of 2018 when it gives way to wind and rain?

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PS You can find Hampstead Fever in all the usual places.

http://mybook.to/HF

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10 Vital Signs That Show the Hot Weather Has Got to You

The heat is of nostalgic magnitude. This is London, but for me there are echoes of summers long past in Washington DC, where pavements glued to your feet, or perhaps vice versa.

By TheAgency (CJStumpf) 20:34, 9 February 2007 (UTC) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I got my DC driver’s license on just such a day, with my mini-skirted backside welded to the plastic seat of the VW Beetle and a dozen or so empty Coke cans rattling around in the back, a testament to the hours of practice I had put in for the test. The official Department of Motor Vehicles photo taken just afterwards shows sweat dripping off a victorious 16-year old face.

There was no respite by day, but sundown would bring honeysuckle-drenched evenings and the sweet sound of soul.

But, as I say, this is London 2015.  The UK Government has already put out advice on dealing with the blistering heat wave (known in other countries as ‘summer’).

Grantchester

I find it very bearable at first, especially by the river.  It’s also rather lovely to water plants in the early mornings, though I note there is no dew.  Then the symptoms begin, building up until there is only one conclusion: the heat is winning.

Vital sign 1: People are saying, “Hot enough for you?” For those who don’t know, this is the customary British response to a hot spell, as traditional as Pimm’s and pith helmets. Considering we’re alleged to talk about the weather non-stop, our meteorological remarks are strikingly unoriginal (see also “Nice weather for ducks” and “Brass monkey weather”).

Vital sign 2: Shops have run out of fans and paddling pools. You can’t buy a desk fan for love or money, says a friend who has tried both. The middle classes are wilting because Prosecco is in short supply I expect pith helmets will sell out soon. 

Vital sign 3: Office workers strip off in the park as usual, but now they avoid the sun. They walk on the shady side of the street and even slink home via dark alleyways, the kind you normally avoid for fear of being knifed for your wallet and PIN.

Vital sign 4: People jump into rivers and canals, risking life and limb.

Pushkin

Vital sign 5: The cat refuses to step outside. I can’t hold my hand on the pavement for five seconds, which is a sure sign that the cat made the right choice.

Vital sign 6: I have an ice cream. The heat must have got to my brain, because I never eat ice cream. I even make gazpacho, ignoring the fact that it always leads to gaz.

Vital sign 7: Sleep becomes impossible without air con or heavy duty pharmaceuticals. Eight hours’ involuntary aquaplaning really isn’t as refreshing as getting in some zeds.

Dyson hot+cool

Vital sign 8: Even Mr Dyson’s magnificent machine fails to save the day. On day two of the heatwave, I rest my head in the freezer atop a packet of broccoli florets.

Vital sign 9: Now commuter trains are cancelled because it’s the wrong sort of heat. Only in Britain. 

Vital sign 10: I’m longing for it to be nice weather for ducks.

nice weather for ducks