We are broken, all of us
The heatwave ended up being just as extreme as the experts predicted, with the UK’s hottest ever temperature (40 degrees celsius) being recorded in Heathrow earlier today. There has been widespread disruption across the nation: major delays and cancellations on public transport, the emergency services stretched to breaking point, school closures, and fires raging across London. None of this is funny. But amid all the more serious chaos being wrought, the heatwave has led to its share of chaos. It’s unsurprising that when a country reaches temperatures far higher than it’s used to, and for which it is totally ill-prepared, weird things start to happen and people start to act strangely. Below are some of the bizarre events – and most terrible opinions – to emerge since the sun decided to turn against us.
THE SUN JOINED THE CULTURE WARS
Like just about everything these days, the heatwave has become a culture war issue. It’s not enough for it to be – observably – extremely hot, it has to be a matter of intense ideological debate. While it's unsurprising that the climate-denialist right would try to play down the implications, their efforts to do so have been even more frivolous than you might have anticipated: schools have been lambasted as “woke” for shutting when temperatures reached dangerously high levels, while one sitting Tory MP derided anyone concerned about suffering from heatstroke as a “coward” and “snowflake”. What could be more indicative of the entitled, molly-coddled attitude of young people today – with their TikTok dances and pronouns – than attempting not to die during an extreme weather event? Conservatives can’t seem to decide whether the sun is their ally – a grand old dame who they must defend against all criticism – or an enemy colluding with the woke in a dastardly plot to take political correctness too far.
This rhetoric has mostly been trivial and stupid. But at the more despicable end of the spectrum, today the Daily Mail published an article by an obscure writer lambasting the Met Office for “spreading alarm” and “scolding doom-laden lectures”. This man’s day job? A “speech writer and consultant” for companies working within the energy sector. Incidentally, Sir John Hayes, the same Tory MP who implied that using SPF is an insult to Her Majesty the Queen, also has a second job – at an oil and gas trading company. But don't worry: their views on climate change are presumably unbiased, non-partisan and conducive to the continued existence of human life.
PIGS HAVE TO WEAR SUNCREAM
People on the internet love a good omen, the more portentous the better. They love a straightforward visual signifier of the impending apocalypse, whether that’s a fire raging in the middle of the ocean or a falcon flying away from a falconry show, never to return. For me, the thing that finally made me mutter “the centre cannot hold…” was something far more sinister: an image of a pig wearing suncream.
The BBC has reported that pigs up and down the country have been lathered in factor 50 in an effort to protect their delicate pink skin. What’s more disturbing is that some of them are due to appear in the UK’s biggest agriculture show, an event which is currently due to go ahead despite the extreme temperatures. Might I suggest that these pigs immediately join a trade union? If we are going to introduce a maximum temperature for working conditions – which we should but probably aren’t going to – I see no reason why our porcine pals should be excluded.
At one point, a character in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement says “I love England in a heatwave. It’s a different country. All the rules change.” This is a nice sentiment, but he failed to consider the most sacred, inviolable rule of all: pigs shouldn’t have to worry about SPF.
THE RISE OF THE TERRIBLE ADVICE INDUSTRY
We are suffering from a deluge of advice. People on Twitter have been going viral for posting the most anodyne tips imaginable (I wouldn’t have thought to stay hydrated or avoid direct sunlight during the hottest parts of the day, thank you for your service!) It doesn’t matter if your PHD is in Meme Theory, if you have ‘Dr’ in your username then people will lap up your advice as though you are a medical expert. Frankly, making this sort of thing illegal should be one of our key priorities in tackling the climate crisis.
But alongside these banal, obvious threads, some of the advice knocking about has been much more surreal: take rubbing onion juice on your skin or coating your windows with tinfoil (which apparently works – but at what cost?) We’ve also seen the re-emergence of a classic piece of negative advice: whatever you do, do NOT put an ice lolly up your vagina! Just don’t! Whether anyone has actually done this, or seriously suggested it, remains unclear. And if they have, who am I or you or any of these advice merchants to tell them what to do with their own bodies? The advice economy seems like a way of trying to escape the fundamental fact that, in a country without widespread AC, the only real thing we can do (alongside the obvious) is suffer and wait for it to be over.
BORIS JOHNSON FLEW A PLANE
Part of me is reluctant to devote any attention to Boris Johnson’s wacky hi-jinks, given that they are integral to his own self-mythologising. But missing a crisis COBRA meeting about the heatwave in favour of arsing about on an RAF fighter jet feels like it sums up something rotten at the core of the man: the insipid, childish nostalgia for Britain’s military past; the forced air of upper-class bonhomie, plucked from the pages of a boarding school adventure novel, and worst of all, the total abdication of responsibility. In response to the widespread criticism which followed, a spokesperson for Johnson claimed that it was “important that he has a detailed understanding of the working capabilities of the RAF.” I’ve got to be honest: it doesn’t sound that important. We can only hope that the grieving family members of the heatwave dead can take some small solace in the fact that the Prime Minister pulled off a sick loop-the-loop.
While Johnson resigned earlier this month, he is still the man in charge – and he damn well needs to start acting like it. If you’re reading this, Mr Prime Minister: put on a proper suit, do up your tie – and institute meaningful structural change to address the climate crisis!
SKY NEWS LIVESTREAMED THE SUN
It’s hard to be a journalist at a time like this (or indeed any time), and deserving of intense respect, sympathy and admiration. If you report on the health dangers posed by the heatwave, or its relation to the climate crisis, you risk being pilloried as an “alarmist” or “fear-monger”. If you illustrate your news story with pictures of people relaxing at the park, you face accusations of “sending the wrong message” and “failing to take climate change seriously.” You just can’t win.
In a noble effort to expose the truth about the heatwave, Sky News yesterday broadcast a livestream of a camera being pointed directly at the sun. Journalism is all about speaking truth to power – and what could be more powerful than the celestial entity upon which all life depends? It was vital work: a way of exposing precisely what the sun was getting up to while our backs were turned. But did the general public thank Sky News for this much-needed exercise in awareness-raising? No. They laughed and jeered. If that’s the attitude people are going to take toward the media’s tireless efforts, next time we won’t bother. Start your own livestream of the sun for all we care.
BREAKING: The UK has breached 40C for the first time ever as temperatures continue to climb 🌡️— Sky News (@SkyNews) July 19, 2022
Provisional figures from the Met Office have recorded 40.2C at Heathrow in London at 12.50pm.
📺 Sky 501, Virgin 602, Freeview 233 and YouTube pic.twitter.com/HovLr3k0mT