England isn’t supposed to be this hot. Certainly not London. Contrary to popular imagination, it doesn’t actually rain that much here: We have fewer rainy days than Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, or Zurich. London is a city with a gentle, undulating climate; of wispy red sunsets and cloudy, gray days; where drab winters give way to soft springs and mild summers; and where drinking indoors almost always feels right and eating outdoors just a bit forced. It is not a city where the air itself is hot or the grass is parched. But it is now.
Being in London this week has been like having your home teleported somewhere else: You look around and everything is the same, but isn’t. The air is like Florida’s, hot and heavy to touch, the haze like a postcard of Los Angeles. My son went to school this morning in shorts, a vest, and a baseball cap that he turned backwards, as if he were actually in America. A mosquito buzzed in my ear as I sat in my darkened living room, the curtains drawn tight to keep the sun out. We don’t have air-conditioning in England, you see. That is the kind of thing people have in other countries, where the weather is extreme, where you go indoors to escape the heat—and where there are mosquitoes.
In some places, air-con is ubiquitous. In others, it is a status symbol. For most Brits, status usually means having a Victorian home, double-fronted if you can afford it, with as many touches of the countryside as possible, even if that means a cold, drafty house in the winter and a stifling one in the summer. Really posh Brits pretend they are country folk, dressing themselves in worn-out clothes. Air-con is a bit new money—a bit foreign, a bit American. Not for much longer, if this heat continues.
The weather is changing, and so will our children’s memories of England. To them, it may well be a place of air-conditioning, and vineyards. For the rest of us, this weather feels foreign and new, which, necessarily, stirs nostalgia for what has been lost. I remember being on holiday and putting my hand out of the window and the air being hot, which blew my mind. At home, I was accustomed to mild summer days spent playing on the village green, winter walks and a fire when I got home, and snow drifts in the fields behind the house. All of this sounds like some kind of John Major fantasy of bucolic England, but that’s largely because that England, a gentle England, did and does exist.
George Orwell said that when you come back to England from any other country, you immediately have the sensation of breathing in a different air. “The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd,” he wrote. But England is not one thing. Rather, he said, it is “the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning—all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.” None of these things exists anymore, but England is still England, just as recognizable when you return from somewhere else—a land of the clatter of Pizza Express on a Friday night, the to-and-fro of new cars out of new housing estates, queues outside nightclubs, packed London parks, and joggers beating the heat in the early morning.
But is it really so gentle? Wildfires burning along the M25, the main highway surrounding London, suggest otherwise; the same is true of the extreme-heat warnings, 100-degree temperature, and bloodred weather maps. It doesn’t feel so gentle this week.
Has England changed, then? Of course it has—the climate is changing—but the truth is that nostalgic England has always existed with all the other Englands that are also there: the Englands of violence and poverty, of grime and ugliness. Gentle old England, that land of apparently mild, knobby-faced people with gentle manners, was also full of those who happily became members of the world’s richest and most powerful empire, colonizing lands far afield and subjugating others. It is a country whose history is one of rebellion and uprising as much as the gentle, “rational” stereotype that so many around the world (and many Brits) still like to believe.
London is the city that contains all of these Englands in one place. It is not New York or Paris, but a collection of towns that can often feel remarkably provincial and un-metropolitan given the size of the place—and therefore, for a provincial boy like me, really rather homey. Its nicest areas offer themselves up as visions of a gentle countryside, many calling themselves villages or even hamlets, which of course they are not.
This is a place that works in gentle temperatures and on gentle cloudy days. You might need to put on your coat, pack your wellies to go on a walk, or take a brolly with you. But that’s about it. It’s a place where dark pubs just work and life feels more pleasant than in most other giant cities. Yet today, I’m hunkering in a room, sweating, and worrying about how I’m going to keep my kids cool overnight.
It’s too hot. England can’t cope with this weather. We’re all going potty. Kids are being sent back from school only to sit around at home in the same temperature. Trains are being canceled. Our politicians are going crazy again, as if they are—for shame—Americans. Worst of all, walking through the park to sit in the pub doesn’t seem right. If we lose this, what is left? How can you be gentle, merry old England if it’s too hot to go to the pub? That, above all, is the warning sign that things are not right.