As I write this, the first day of the heatwave has just dawned. FEAR COMES THE SUN is the Daily Mail headline, while the Mirror has plumped for BLOWTORCH BRITAIN. The Telegraph maybe laments that its house style eschews the use of capital letters for ‘Heatwave meltdown brings Britain to a halt’.
At the same time, there is a counterwave of people scoffing sceptically at all this heated alarm. The meme of a cheerful-looking sun with ‘I survived the summer of 1976’ is doing the rounds across social media, and there are a few contrary souls in public life saying that a spot of sun never did them any harm, with occasional accusations of the Met Office politically pandering to the climate change lobby. Dominic Raab has told us all to enjoy it, which coming from somebody who always looks a bit worried is no help at all.
You are reading this on Tuesday. Hopefully we have both been spared and you will have a much clearer idea of which side was right. Here I am first thing on Monday with no idea of which way this is going to go. And this is a common problem with anything sold to us as a crisis. There have been so many of them, most not amounting to even a very low hill of beans, that it’s impossible to know if the latest one should be taken seriously.
Right now we have the cost of living crisis, the Milibandism that has surpassed what we just used to call inflation. Plus the obesity crisis, the demographic crisis and the productivity crisis. As for the climate crisis, they’ve had to elevate that to the climate emergency, because overuse of ‘crisis’ has debased its coinage. When the others follow suit and we get the obesity emergency etc, they’ll have to step it up again. What next? Climate explosion? Maybe just a scream?
I suppose declaring something a crisis is a good way of bringing attention to your cause and getting things done. I’m thinking of renaming those boxes in my hall that I still haven’t got round to throwing out ‘the Cardboard Crisis’ in the hope it will spring me into action. Then again, people scoffing about the heatwave gives me an itch of foreboding. The fear that I shouldn’t dismiss it, just in case there’s a bitter twist.
And this is surely why the media chucks crises at us, playing with our innate dread of tempting fate or God. This is very strange when you stop to think about it. I can just about picture Lady Luck getting a thrill from a bit of ironic comeuppance. But does God really have the time or the inclination? Does He really sit up there in his infinite glory and eternal majesty scrolling through Facebook, alighting on my friend Jane’s mocking post about the heatwave and then unleashing the chariot of Helios on her patio thinking ‘That’ll teach her!’ If He does, isn’t that beneath Him? Is this petty entity really the kind of deity we should be worshipping?
And would our sceptical words really be the first thing on our minds if we started to burn? ‘If I hadn’t mocked the prospect, it wouldn’t have happened’? It credits us with rather too much cosmic significance, I think. ‘Turns out I was the prime mover of the universe all along, and that my words really do have power over material reality on a grand scale, me and my big gob!’
Equally it’s no surprise that people are cynical. There have been so many crises over the decades, such a great amount of crying wolf. This year alone, barely half done, has given us the sunflower oil crisis, the lorry drivers shortage crisis, the bread shortage crisis, the Lurpak crisis. We just forget them and move on to the next one coming down the production line.
It’s been a bumper year, but none of these has the novelty and strangeness of my favourites. In the year before Covid-19 respiratory viruses weren’t even on the media radar. What was? The looming menace of freakshakes – cake-loaded milkshakes with a ‘grotesque’ 39 spoonfuls of sugar in each 1,300-calorie glass.
More vintage classics include tainted hazelnut yogurt, poisonous Belgian pâté, devil dogs, false widow spiders, botulism, razor blades hidden inside confectionery or beneath stickers, Legionnaires disease, the ash cloud, bees disappearing, the drones that closed airports for days and may not even have existed. Heart disease and cancer are the biggest killers in the UK, but you’d never know it. If your only source of information was the press you’d think it much more likely that you’d end your days covered in spiders, freakshake dribbling from your lifeless lips, a drone filming your demise to post on TikTok, a devil dog licking the pâté from your yoghurt-smeared corpse.
There are the political scares too; for as long as I can recall the Tories have been just about to sell off the NHS, which supposes an iron determination unlikely from people who can’t spell the word ‘campaign’ properly. At the crucial moment of a campaign.
Our Neolithic brains can’t face up to the slow, long-term nature of most bad things that go on day after day, year after year in our noisy, highly complicated multi-factorial mare’s nest of a world. The grooming gangs, the drug deaths, the two women killed every week by their partners – yawn. Covid got old very quickly. Even the war in Ukraine has lost its hold on us. Seen it!
So yes, the latest crisis is probably nothing. But one day something will be something, the big one, and until it strikes we have no way of knowing which crisis it will be.