Home Books “I hope you are keeping calm” | Lola Seaton

“I hope you are keeping calm” | Lola Seaton


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Firefighters tackle grass-fired houses during extreme heat in Wennington, east London, on July 19, 2022.

Londoners welcome the heat. It’s not that this “gloomy stone,” as the English writer Jeff Dyer (who lives in California) once called his homeland, is completely devoid of sun, but we never know when it will appear or for how long. This is a country whose erratic climate makes a mockery of the term “unseasonal” weather, which is as common as “seasonal” weather as to be almost impossible to apply meaningfully. It’s never wise to leave home without a sweater, and some years winter coats are never put away; when July rolls around, the question is often not whether it will be good — but hot– summer, and will summer come at all. Can we muster enough “t-shirt weather” to warrant a season? The warm weather is so erratic that heat waves – a succession of “scorchers” as they are gratefully known – are met with feverish collective excitement.

In most of the rest of Europe, people are used to the sun shining continuously for months without fanfare. The inhabitants of these sun-damaged regions sensibly treat the heat as an inconvenience and a potential danger: something that makes you sweaty, sleepy, thirsty and, if you’re not careful, sick, and something to be managed rather than enjoyed—with the shutters on closed, staying inside during the hottest part of the day, taking siesta and eating late. In hot cities from Madrid to Palermo, those who can evacuate in August are heading for reservoirs.

By contrast, during the London heatwave, everyone seems to stop what they’re doing and devote themselves to the heat. In parks, backyards, pub gardens or on one of the capital’s busy beaches, for most it means getting angry and burnt. The reckless euphoria with which periods of withered crops and dry grass are perceived in London is such that it is unpleasant to be abroad at this time, because you know that you will not just miss “good” weather, but an event, a cultural moment. Like an underachieving football team with persistent fan bases, the British weather may be some of the worst in Europe, but the ecstatic reception given to surprise victories is second to none.

The build-up of the heat wave that hit Great Britain in mid-July caused the country’s first “red” severe heat warning, felt noticeably different. The week before that I had been in Italy for the wedding of an English couple (destination weddings are themselves a symptom of a messy summer in the UK). Looking at our weather apps, our eyes widen at the unprecedented temperatures we return home to – 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) – a mood fueled by tabloid stories (“Hotter than the Sahara, The sun – growled), was wary, even gloomy. Twitter is abuzz with tips on how to stay cool and recognize heat stroke. People began signing off emails with hints of the heat (“I hope you’re keeping calm”), echoing the careful etiquette that developed at the start of the pandemic, quickly became mandatory, then became obsolete. I thought about the deadline I was likely to miss, and wondered if it might be too hot to concentrate in my small, naturally warm flat in south London, and if I could ungodly refer to the weather as justification.

With temperatures well in excess of forty degrees already commonplace in other regions of the world, particularly in poorer countries less able to adapt to such extremes, it’s hard not to find Britain’s response melodramatic. While Britain prepared, southern Europe was gripped by even more intense heat, with wildfires raging in France and the World Health Organization reporting 1,700 heat-related deaths in Spain and Portugal, where temperatures reached 46.3 degrees (115 Fahrenheit). This extreme heat episode spanned the Northern Hemisphere, also affecting parts of China and the United States, and then a hot, deadly spring in Indiawhere the temperature in Delhi exceeded 49 degrees (121 Fahrenheit) in May.

But forty degrees in the UK is a truly alien number, signaling a wave of staying inside, hot in the shade; the heat does not just beat from the sun, but it hangs stiflingly in the air; heat that the breeze will bring rather than dissipate. One reviewer would describe the wind as feeling like a “hair dryer”. This was not a random blessing from our wantonly capricious weather gods, but rather crude evidence that the world is dangerously hot right now, hotter than it has ever been in human history. Sheltering from the scorching midday Italian sun in the stone villas, the other wedding guests and I had an unprecedented experience of worrying about how we would cope with the heat when we arrived homeweighing possible refuges—friends who lived on the coast or in the countryside—from the urban furnace of our city with few air conditioners.

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A woman sunbathes in Hackney, London on July 17, 2022

When the heat came, chaos ensued. Things stopped not because of the joyous beating of tools, but because a large part of the infrastructure failed, some literally: runways melted, railway tracks optimized for “stress-free” at a temperature of only 27 degrees bent, power lines sagging and down, highways closed due to roadside fires. London’s frail Hammersmith Bridge on the River Thames was covered with a reflective film so that it does not crack or give way.

The little weather emoji on my laptop’s dashboard, normally a serene orange circle in sunny weather, turned into an alarming red triangle with a thermometer and a fire symbol. Cycling through central London on the second morning of the heat, I came across fire engines and ambulances gathered around Oxford Circus station, normally one of the busiest in the city – evacuated, I read later, because the brake pads, which overheated, there was smoke. . A “major incident” was declared in London, with Mayor Sadiq Khan saying the fire brigade had had its busiest day since the Second World War. Grass and heather fires broke out, with some spreading to homes in places like Wennington, Dagenham and Upminster, along the city’s leafy (now ‘dry as a tinder’) eastern fringe.

The BBC took the occasion seriously, providing practical advice and broadcasting live alerts to the nation’s phones as temperature records were broken across the country. The sense of solidarity in what was declared a “national emergency” was a somber echo of the festive atmosphere of the previous heat wave. Meanwhile, in an absurd juxtaposition to which we Anthropocene creatures have grown accustomed, the European Parliament has just voted to reclassify natural gas, a fossil fuel, as a “green” energy source, and Senator Joe Manchin has rejected Joe Biden’s original climate package, seemingly irreparable.

According to research from the Donden Center in Milan, very high temperatures allegedly increase support for climate action in richer, colder countries. But it seems likely that we will adapt to the heat much faster than we will have the motivation to mitigate it. Britain will install energy-guzzling AC units and expensively upgrade its infrastructure built for historically favorable weather. We cognitively acclimate to previously unheard-of temperatures that, like inflated prices, quickly become the new benchmarks of normality, while “normal” no longer bears any reliable relation to our more temperate past, let alone anything resembling humane, survival future. Meanwhile, as prolonged heat waves become frequent events of mass death, especially closer to the equator, the project of “global mitigation,” as Marxist historian and urban theorist Mike Davis predicted more than a decade ago in his essay “Who Will Build the Ark?” will be “quietly denied—as, to some extent, already has been—in favor of accelerated investment in selective accommodations for Earth’s first-class passengers,” creating “green and enclosed oases of permanent affluence on an otherwise battered planet.”

As I write, the heat is over and the weather in London is overcast and windy, with a hint of cold rain in the air: unseasonably encouraging for late July. It’s sad that summer is potentially terrible right now; that the hot spells that not so long ago gave vitamin D-deprived Londoners a thrill are now another kind of destructive, dangerous weather, more deadly, like most things in our insufferably uneven world, to some than to others ; and this exceptional weather no longer seems innocently random, but filled with a terrifying clarity, a stark reminder of the dire future that those in power are forging through their inaction.

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