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The Guardian website turned a stable meteorological condition into a drama unfolding by the minute: Heatwave live: Britain swelters on hottest July day on record.
On normal days, the weather is one of the few topics we can politely raise with strangers, but on exceptional days, when train tracks buckle and roads melt, we often feel obliged to discuss the heat with those sweltering beside us. Curiously, this obligation, even though it comes as part of an emergency, brings relief, licence and recognition. It relieves us of our self-consciousness, it licenses us to be different people, and, most important, it makes us recognise what other people mean to us and we mean to them. If this is the hottest July day on record, a momentous story is unfolding, here and now, and we together are part of it.
At 10 o’clock last night, my wife and I left the National Theatre and began walking home along the south bank of the Thames. The sky was clear, the royal blue of twilight, and the city buildings and shopfronts and trees and boats shone like Christmas lights. But there was no escaping the temperature, which was still well over 30, or the crowd, which initially pressed in upon us.
The tide in the Thames was coming in, but the ceaseless flow of people was apparently a much less orderly movement. Most people drifted along the promenade, tending east or west but walking for kilometres with no intention of getting anywhere. Past them hurried those who wanted to go somewhere, and faster still were those on daredevil bike or skateboard, who wove through the crowd for the fun of it. A brave few people had left the promenade and were picking their ways carefully over the stones and through the mud of the beaches.
Many people, distracted from their destination, were milling around buskers or crowded around giant TV screens that broadcast updates from Wimbledon. Many others had pulled in from the promenade and joined the endless queues at food vans which sold cold drinks and frozen yoghurt and nachos and hamburgers and pulled-lamb buns. Some people were becalmed, sunk into canvas deck chairs, just watching the river flow; many others, holding tight to bottles of beer and plastic glasses of wine, had been washed up with their friends against the railings of the embankment.
And finally there were the thousands of people who had reached their destinations and were staking out patches of park-lawn: reading by themselves, watching other people watch them, playing chess, having picnics in rowdy groups, talking quietly in couples, lost in unself-conscious lovers’ embraces.
Clearly, thousands of people had come specially, from home, just to be at this place where they knew others would be, where Londoners gather. You could tell from the brightly coloured shorts and the short sleeveless dresses that the heatwave both required and allowed. Also drawn here were thousands of young office workers, still dressed in the uniform of the City but now standing ankle deep in a muck of beer bottles and plastic cups. Having first joined their colleagues for a mid-week emergency-sanctioned after-work drink, they no longer wanted to go home.
Such a crowd generates a hubbub, but sometimes a single louder voice catches your attention. And if you look directly at someone, you can for that moment tune into the particular frequency of their voice. And so you start to notice different accents, different voices, different languages. But from all directions, and all voices, the same words surfaced from the hubbub: hot, hotter, hottest, sweltering, forecast, warning.
Why were we all there? If the heat was so unbearable, why weren’t we sheltering at home, cooling ourselves with fans and air-conditioning? What we sought, evidently, was each other’s company, as diverse and dispersed as it was. We were there because the heatwave granted us the chance to enjoy being the person that only other people allow and require us to be. This is a person we cannot be alone, at home, and cannot be, in public, on normal days. It is a person who is more relaxed than normal, less self conscious, more appreciative of the quirkiness of others and of the unexpected responses they call from us.
As an emergency, the day frustrated our habits and plans with meteorological conditions we couldn’t control. But in bringing us together, and calling us out of our habits and plans, it was a day that allowed us to recognise what was the best in us.
We were at the riverbank to celebrate being there for each other. Our password was the statistical fact that the temperature broke a record, but in passing this phrase between us we acknowledged the social fact that we suffered this heatwave together, that our lives bore and were borne by the lives of these others whose names we would never know. It was this experience of living in the flow of others’ lives that turned a climatic anomaly into a momentous day, worth recording in the newspapers. The day reminded us of what mattered.