Bicycling up Regent Street in the intense June heat last week, I was cut up by a black cab driver. When I remonstrated with him, he leapt out of the cab and assaulted me, with a violent shove in the small of my back, trying to push me off my bike.
It was the heat that did it. The driver wouldn’t have deserted his snug cab — and his passenger — if it had been raining. But, in the longest heatwave in more than a decade, he went stir-crazy in his confined space, as the black paint of his taxi absorbed mind-altering quantities of ultraviolet rays.
He isn’t the only one who goes bonkers in this weather. When summer heat strikes the British, it morphs into summer madness. Noël Coward got it right in ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’: ‘The natives grieve when the white men leave their huts/ Because they’re obviously, definitely nuts!’
Still, at least the English knew how to dress for the heat when Coward wrote the song; it was first performed in New York in 1931 — in June, incidentally, when Manhattan turns into a baking hump of agonisingly hot rock.
In the 1930s, us British dressed like southern Europeans still do: we wore trousers and long-sleeved, linen shirts, and took to the shade, to keep the sun off our tender, pasty skins. Now we strip down to T-shirts and thongs, and stake ourselves out in the direct glare of the sun. In The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Alec Guinness is forced to stand in the Burmese midday sun by his Japanese captors, as a deadly punishment. These days, the British actively choose to reenact this torture — in a painful ritual known as ‘a beach holiday’.
It’s only recently that we’ve developed this strange lust for extreme heat. No wonder that we still don’t know what to do on the rare occasions it gets properly hot here, when we proceed to go doolally. Doolally itself means a kind of summer madness. It comes from ‘doolally tap’, meaning ‘to lose your mind’, inspired by the boredom suffered at the Deolali British Army transit camp in India. ‘Tap’ is Sanskrit for ‘heat’ or ‘fever’.
Our streets are poorly equipped for high temperatures, with few benches and little shade. Returning from a boiling wedding in Suffolk at the weekend, I had to take a breather near Liverpool Street. With no bench in sight, I sat on the pavement with a bottle of water. Even though I was in my wedding outfit — linen trousers and a white shirt — a passerby thought I was a tramp. ‘Don’t worry, mate,’ he said. ‘Life gets better.’
He was, of course, drunk, it being 7.40 p.m. on a hot Saturday night in central London in midsummer. We used to greet the midsummer solstice on June 21 with due deference to the sun god, reverently assembling sarsen stones in line with the rising sun. Now, the girls, passing by me on the City Road pavement, saluted the setting sun by drinking heavily, and singing ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ from The Jungle Book at each other.
At this crazed time of year, summer madness spreads from street level into high politics. As Frank Johnson, The Spectator’s former editor, said, that the biggest news happens in summer: not least the beginning of both world wars, the death of Princess Diana and the Twin Towers attacks.
A year ago, on June 23, the European referendum was held, unleashing a mass outbreak of mania, panic and backstabbing. Shortly afterwards, a close friend of Boris Johnson said, white-faced, to me: ‘Brexit is like some horrible curse. It kills everything it touches.’
David Cameron was the first to be wiped out. Then the victims came thick and fast; in less than three weeks, from the referendum until Theresa May became Prime Minister on July 13, they included Boris, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom, George Osborne, Stephen Crabb, 23 of the 31 members of the Labour shadow cabinet, even Nigel Farage — who, in winning the referendum, put himself, and his party, out of a job.
Then June 2017 came around, and Summer Madness Mark II — in the shape of the general election — picked off the survivors of the 2016 bloodbath: Nick Timothy, Fiona Hill, Paul Nuttall, Nick Clegg, Tim Farron and more than a dozen Tory MPs.
Theresa May must be praying that she’ll cling on till the autumn. Then at least she will be free from the clutches of the biggest giant killer in politics — the summer.
Harry Mount is the author of Summer Madness — How Brexit Divided the Country (Biteback).