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From the NS archive: On keeping cool

16 July 1921: Hot weather is weather in which human beings hate each other and welcome any reason for a dispute.

By New Statesman

An English heatwave brings out the eccentricities in us. As the anonymous author in this article from 1921 writes, “there is no man more incapable of keeping cool in heatwave” than the Englishman. For the Englishman is too concerned with his Englishness – in his top hat and tails, his meaty breakfasts and his beer – than to adjust to a temporary shift in weather. The Englishman will ignore medical warnings printed in the papers and any habits to cool himself down because while they “are not bad habits”, nor are they English habits. When a man is seen in shorts it incites public sniggering and a politician carrying a parasol provokes paragraphs of media comments. An Englishman is more concerned with behaving like a “gentleman” than keeping himself cool.

“Pleading that her temper was tried by the heat,” we read in Tuesday’s papers, “a Portsmouth man withdrew the summons against his wife, who cut his head open with a colander. They shook hands in the court, and the magistrate told them to keep cool.” The magistrate, like many great teachers, told them what to do, but he did not tell them how to do it. If he had done so, he would have been a benefactor of his kind.

During the weekend it was about the only thing the inhabitants of England wished to know. It is said to be the mark of the Englishman that he is able to keep cool in all circumstances, but it is a moral, not a physical, gift. There is no man who is more incapable of keeping cool in a heatwave. Merely to attempt to do so is to create a sensation. Mr Austen Chamberlain left off his waistcoat on Monday, with the result that a daily paper devoted its parliamentary report to the fact that his shirt was visible from the Press Gallery. Sir Edward Clarke walked along the street carrying a sunshade, and all the papers had a special paragraph about it.

One cannot blame the newspapers for this. One is interested oneself in the spectacle of a man carrying a parasol. We observed a man doing so near Victoria Station, and we confess we turned round to look after him. Even in a seaside resort in Brighton a tiny defiance of fashion makes the street laugh. A gentleman in knickerbockers walked up the street to the station the other day, wearing a white linen jacket and a white helmet, and there was no urchin so small that he did not snigger. The very railway porters forgot the threatened reduction of their wages and laughed. At the Eton and Harrow cricket match, we are told, all the men wore top hats. They would have felt absurd in any other costume. On such an occasion anything but a top hat would seem unnatural.

[see also: With little left to be proud of in this country, at least we still have county cricket]

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On the whole, the refusal to allow Englishmen to dress in any other way is a hopeful sign. It implies an ineradicable faith in the English climate. It means that to Englishmen their country is more real than any heatwave, that they dress for immortal England and not for a mere temporary eccentricity of the weather. If they do this less than in former generations, it must be attributed, we fear, to the unhappy spread of cosmopolitanism. But even today there are signs that England is England still. If it were not, there would be no need for all those articles by medical experts in the papers, warning us against wearing too many clothes and eating too much meat and drinking too much beer during the heat-spell. If we all adapted ourselves easily to changes in the weather, the literary doctors would leave us alone.

The doctors know, however, that there is not a hotel in England in which the guests do not get ham and eggs for breakfast, meat for luncheon and meat for supper on the hottest day of July even as on the coldest day in August. We should miss these things in a hotel. Even if we had no appetite for them, they are part of a ritual that means much to us. Mr Arnold Bennett has noticed that in foreign hotels every Englishman is a Conservative. It is the same in English hotels. And if staying in a hotel makes one reactionary in one’s politics, it makes one still more reactionary in one’s meals. This is no place for the food faddist who thinks more of keeping himself cool than of behaving like a gentleman. We should denounce a cook who tried to feed us on lettuces and hard-boiled eggs even more bitterly than we denounce the Liberal tendencies of the coalition government.

[see also: As a unified sense of British nationhood fades, we must ask: what is England?]

Yet even we are not as our fathers were. A creeping paralysis of mineral waters has spread among the tables, and many a man whose father drank Burgundy till he could drink no more, whatever the thermometer might say, is content with that concoction of soap and sugared water which has been given the far too flattering name of ginger beer. Still, much of the old ritual remains, and that plenty of Englishmen are left who in their food and drink think of something else besides their health is shown by the fact that the Times thinks it necessary to undertake a campaign against the “spreading habit” of drinking cocktails. The real argument against drinking cocktails is not that it is a bad habit, but that it is not an English habit.

We are not sure that the same danger is not to be scented in a curious phenomenon which we observed during the week outside Charing Cross station. Pedlars were standing beside the kerb, holding up little paper parasols, and offering little paper fans for sale. If the object of life were to look pretty, much might be said for the introduction into London of the habit of carrying fans and Japanese parasols. But the chief object in life is not to look pretty: our houses and our public buildings prove this. The chief object in life is to look English. If an Englishman looks pretty, it is by accident, as when he is wearing a uniform. But, whatever his uniform, he is impatient to get back to his ordinary clothes again at the earliest possible moment and to look once more as God made him.

In the same way, he carries with him wherever he goes as many of his habits as he dares. He has taken whisky and soda with him to India, and will even argue that it is the only drink that suits that climate, though doctors theorise on the heating properties of spirits and draw warning diagrams showing a hob-nailed liver that looks like an agricultural labourer’s boot. He would even have taken his cold bath with him to India, if immediate experience did not tell him that a cold bath is the most disastrous of luxuries in a hot climate. A cold bath may be all very well on a frosty morning, though even then the pleasure of it is probably greatly exaggerated. But the inhabitants of hot countries avoid it like the plague. They know that a hot bath is the bath that makes you cool, just as hot tea is the drink that makes you cool. It is part of nature’s homeopathy.

We confess, however, we are in doubt as to whether the weather has been really hot this year. There are, we admit, certain evidences of it. The newspapers say so, and that predisposes the mind to belief. There is no denying that the weather reports in the papers have a mysterious influence on us. It makes all the difference to our comfort whether we read that the weather has grown one degree cooler or one degree hotter. Let a newspaper even prophesy a slight fall in the temperature, and at once we begin to lose that tingle of oppression at the back of the skull and cease to breathe as though there were heavy weights in our lungs. We once knew a man who, if you said to him, “It’s hotter than ever,” would reply, “Oh, is it? I haven’t seen the afternoon paper,” and, when you quoted the temperature, would begin to looked scared, as though the heat only became real and intolerable when it got into print.

But there are other evidences of the heat besides those in the press. We never remember seeing the country looking so worn and withered in July. The hills are all coloured like haystacks. The fields are, many of them, like the sand of the Sahara. Even the sea has a parched look. It looks dull and solid, as if you could walk on it. Indeed, the only thing that makes one doubt the existence of the hot weather is the comparative reasonableness with which human beings have begun to behave. We do not mean in their food or dress, but in public affairs. Hot weather is weather in which men are irascible, in which human beings hate each other and welcome any reason for a dispute. Observers tell us that in the past it has been the main cause of strikes; it is possible there are others, but let that pass. It has also been a leading factor in producing riots in Belfast. The Orangeman, it is said, never riots in rain; he is afraid he might get wet.

[see also: In a drying world can humans learn to adapt?]

Yet here, during the very height of the heatwave, men are everywhere coming to terms or trying to come to terms. Human beings are keeping cool, though nature does not keep cool. It is the one thing that makes the midday sun tolerable. The only place, indeed, where the excessive heat of the summer seems still to produce something of the old-fashioned effect is in the columns of the Morning Post.

We rate a long way below the writing of the tabloids the logic of the gentleman who wrote to the papers to explain that the reason why Australia had won the Test matches was that the English selecting committee chose the team on a Sunday. It is delightful to see that human beings are still to be found who cast aside all the obvious explanations of events and insist upon having an irrelevant one. We could understand the Sabbatarian’s appeal to the miraculous if he were explaining a miracle – if he were explaining how the England Eleven had been defeated by a club of small boys from Lower Tooting. He must have a miracle, however. If he feels wet after a shower, he does not attribute it to the rain but to the fact that France is an atheistic nation.

The husband who explained that his wife had hit him over the head with a colander because it was so hot was a dull rationalist. He should have attributed it to the prevalence of the custom of mixed bathing. That is, the difference between being a rationalist and being a mystic.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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