Last weekend at Hay-on-Wye in the Welsh Marches, the sun burst through the blanket of grey porridge that customarily lurks over the top of the Black Mountains and for a brief interlude the grey stone of the dozing town was washed with warm, golden light. It wasn’t long, though, before the big black duvet of clouds welling up above Hay Bluff scudded over and dumped its cargo of big sploshy raindrops over us, and Summer 2016 resumed business as usual.
I’m aware of course, that it is generally the prerogative of the editor of the Daily Express to fill his erudite organ with meteorological scare stories, frequently splashing (in Old Fleet Street speak) on the front page to grab the elusive attention of his demanding readership, but I’m prompted to talk about the weather now for reasons of healthy, old-fashioned nostalgia, as well as to provide respite from the torrent of indignation appearing elsewhere about the nation of xenophobic, financial illiterates that the UK (or, more accurately, 38% of its electorate) appears to have become. By the time you read this, my view might have been more widely mooted, but it is clear that a referendum on such a significant change in our constitution should have required the vote of over 50% of the total electorate, irrespective of what proportion of that electorate voted. As it is, 62% did not vote to leave Europe.
However, moving on…Forty years ago, in 1976, I was the proprietor of what was sometimes described as a ‘cult jeans shop’, Midnight Blue on the Fulham road. It stood a few doors east of Finch’s pub (now called the King’s Arms), where Oceana Dry Cleaners is now, on a strip of road then suffering from a rash of vacant shops. This stretch hadn’t become ‘The Beach’ but there were already a few memory-jerking eateries, like the Hungry Horse, the Great American Disaster (where punters would queue for an hour to eat a ‘real American’ hamburger), the iconic Parson’s and – my default diner – the less creatively if aptly named Wine & Kebab. This was a more or less authentic Greek Cypriot establishment with the most odiferous loos in Chelsea (and that was saying something then). It offered a basic range of kleftiko, chewy kebabs and an endless supply of Metaxa Retsina to kill off the taste (and the taste buds). The maitre d’, a charming, not very tall son of Cyprus called Mr Luka, had been in charge since the early 50s, and always wore a dark suit (possible even a dinner jacket) and a small, slightly greasy black bow tie.
The cramped little restaurant was ill-equipped to deal with the conditions that prevailed over summer 1976, the hottest in Britain that has ever been recorded. I lived for months in fetching denim cut-offs and Stars’n’Stripes gym shoes. We had a wheeze going at the time at Midnight Blue, taking old used jeans in P/X for new ones. This early example of green thinking and constructive recycling involved washing the old garments, chopping most of the leg off, sewing a neat seam and cuff and reoffering them as shorts. They were a big hit.
But despite the scanty legwear, in the sultry summer evenings of ’76 it was almost impossible to find cool places to eat – cool meteorologically, not stylistically. The Wine & Kebab had become impossible; it was sweltering in there, like the Jermyn Street Turkish baths, so hot that the loos reached new heights of stench that permeated the whole place, and the candles in bottles that lit the tables started to droop, leaning over into an inverted U and spattering wax all over the never quite white table cloths.
Forty years ago, air conditioning was scarcer than it is now, while the temperature was exceeding 90of (32oco fetch their water in buckets.
Every car that had a removable top went topless, with cassette players blasting out Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, ABBA’s Dancing Queen and, less helpfully, the Wurzels’ I’m a Cider Drinker. Driving across an arid, brown Salisbury Plain, listening to England’s cricketers being routed by Viv Richards’ West Indies, I was reminded of the parched tan foothills of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco where I’d previously travelled to buy djellabhas and leather belts (cured in camels’ urine, redolent of the W&K loos) to sell in Kensington Market. It was in that summer, too, that a friend, the actor John Challis, responding to his passion for gardening, chose to open a landscaping centre in Twickenham, to be confronted at every turn by acres of rock hard, widely cracked earth in which no plants could be planted, let alone grow. After four months of wielding pick-axes at unyielding ground, he’d no option but to resume his day job on telly, morphing ultimately into Boycie of Only Fools & Horses.
The heat and drought were unrelenting and by August the crisis had intensified to the extent that Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan had to appoint a Minister for Drought – Denis Howell – who in desperation after trying everything else, had to draft in some Aboriginal rain-makers from the Australian outback. With determination and an unexpected sense of irony, they ultimately produced a downpour at the end of the month, on August Bank Holiday.
It was solemnly announced that it would take fifty years for reservoirs and aquifers to be replenished. It continued to pour without cease in the traditional English manner, and the emptiness of the reservoirs was never referred to again.
Summer ’76 was a tricky time, but just now, I really do miss it.