Thirty degrees doesn’t sound very hot in Pakistan where we are used to far hotter spells. And when there’s no load-shedding, we desis would be justified in asking Brits to stop whingeing about the heat wave that has gripped much of the United Kingdom this last fortnight or so.
The problem is that most houses and flats here were not built for hot weather, and are designed to keep the heat in. Also, not even the rich have air-conditioning or ceiling fans, so even at the present 30 degrees, it seems very hot. Indeed, according to one estimate, some 760 people have died, although this figure has been disputed. Apparently, figures for the number of deaths during the present heat wave were compared with the same period last year, and the difference has been attributed to heat-related deaths. However, specialists say these extra mortalities could have other causes.
Whatever the truth, it is certain that the heat is causing considerable distress among the elderly, especially those who are living alone, and are prone to dehydration. Also, many younger people, eager to get a tan, are exposing themselves to too much sun and getting sunstrokes.
Frankly, the sight of acres of red, peeling skin is not an attractive one. And nor does the prospect of being packed into hot underground train carriages with many sweaty bodies appeal. Buildings and roads absorb heat during the day, and temperatures in cities tend to be higher than in the countryside. So I’m glad we are in Devizes where we can leave the doors and windows open without fear of getting burgled.
If there’s one subject the British never tire to discuss, it is the weather. And it’s true that it can change from one day to the next; even in the same day, it can go from sunny to a thundershower in a matter of hours. So the public generally have lots to talk about, and forecasters on TV and the radio get several minutes to chat about what to expect over the next few days. By contrast, the long-defunct Pakistan Times used to carry this unwittingly poetic forecast for weeks at a stretch: “Hot and dry, with variable sky.”
Over the weekend, hundreds of thousands lined the beaches in various stages of undress, cooling off in the water and sunbathing on the sand (or, as is more common, on loungers placed on pebbly beaches). Newspapers these days are full of advice on how to avoid heat stroke, and what to eat and drink in this weather.
For a desi like me, having grown up in a far hotter climate, this preoccupation with the weather is slightly puzzling. When it was cold and wet for months, people complained bitterly that they had been cheated out of spring and early summer. Now the sun’s blazing down, there are health warnings. I suppose you just can’t please everybody.
But what might be bad for some people’s health is good for business: finally, summer clothing is selling after months when people were still dressed in winter kit. Barbecues, associated equipment and charcoal are flying off the shelves. As Mike Power writes in the Guardian:
“All across Britain, the whiff of charred, low-quality sausage meat is hanging in the summer haze. And with it, floating almost indistinguishably in the grease-filled air across the garden fences, is blokey barbecue chat. If there is anything less compelling but more oppressively penetrating than the conversation of four suburban men discussing how to light and then to operate a barbecue, I have yet to hear it.”
This well-observed anti-sexist riff made me smile because it’s so familiar. Over the years, I have been involved in many barbecues, mostly as the cook. Almost invariably, the men in the gathering tend to gravitate to the fire, with their glasses full of refreshments, and offer advice to the person doing the grilling. Even if they have never cooked in their lives, they will still urge you to turn the meat over, or suggest that the coals need to be stirred.
I think the smell of meat cooking over an open fire brings out the primitive in us, with men feeling the need to assert their masculinity. Women at these barbecues politely pretend to enjoy every charred mouthful, probably glad to stay away from the mess and the fumes.
For the Wimbledon tennis, the British Open golf, and the Ashes cricket to proceed without any rain interruptions is almost unheard of. But with all these sports having been played in brilliant sunshine, there has been a rush to buy sports gear of all kinds. And currently, Chris Froome, a British cyclist, is leading the annual Tour de France. Andy Murray won Wimbledon; the Brits beat the Australians at rugby, and have also defeated the old enemy in the first Ashes Test, with the second one poised to go the same way.
Among all this spate of summer festivities and sporting victories, politics is a dull background drone. The major story preoccupying the media is the state of the National Health Service. 14 hospitals have been placed under special scrutiny because of reports of poor care leading to many needless deaths. Several articles have appeared to illustrate the awful conditions at some NHS facilities. These complaints have added support to the government’s plan to privatise some aspects of health care.With Parliament now in recess, however, the media-led furore over the NHS is likely to fall on the ears of a public more interested in avoiding heat stroke while still getting a decent tan.
Correction: In my last column on this page (Watch This Space; 15 July), I had mistakenly written that it would take an Act of Parliament to strip Altaf Hussain of his British dual nationality. The factual position is that in terms of a little-known law passed in 2006, the Home Secretary can deprive a dual citizen of his or her British nationality. This law has been used over a dozen times, but on each occasion, only when the subject was out of the country. I am grateful to a reader for pointing this out.