(Our house in Queen’s Avenue, Singapore, 1960s)
‘It was a day in that season when the sun bolsters a fallen wing with a show of soaring, a day of heat and light. Light so massive stout brick walls could scarcely breast it when it leaned upon them; light that seemed to shiver windows with a single beam; that crashed against the careless eye like rivets.’
No, never hot like that here; in any case, our weather is reverting to a more typical summer temperature: around 23C today (73.4F), after several instances lately of the level tipping over 30C. I noticed a few days ago that Arizona had registered 48C (118.4F) and wondered briefly how life forms other than cacti, rocks and sand could function in such heat, before recalling that people manage such temperatures well enough in large parts of the world: if anything, we’re the odd ones out, given our ‘temperate maritime’ climate. Then, too, I remembered landing at Tehran airport in nineteen sixty-something, when the temperature was in the region of 120 degrees Fahrenheit and the tarmac was sticking to our shoes.
Years ago, when I started researching the literature and history of, roughly, the 1890-1939 period, I would peer into the indispensable Annual Register. This told me that, in 1911, the thermometer at Greenwich reached 97F on July 22. I remember it mentioned the USA, ‘the intense heat of the summer, repeatedly passing 100F in New England and the Middle West’. On 9 August, the temperature over much of England reached 95F. at South Kensington it was 97F and at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, 100F – ‘the highest shade temperature ever registered in England’. That English summer was generally the hottest since 1868 and the sunniest on record, though those particular records only dated back thirty years. Nowadays, we can point to Faversham, in Kent, in 2003: a champion 38.5C (101.3F).
Why 1911 in particular? Well, Ford Madox Ford published four books that year—though he did exceed that total on more than one occasion. Also, I was intrigued by the unadorned assertion by Hugh Kenner that the summer of 1911 ‘was the hottest since 1453.’ Unadorned but not unreferenced: ‘Ford’s hyperbole’, Kenner’s note reads, ‘but Marianne Moore, in Paris with her mother, remembered that heat for 50 years. “One of the hottest summers the world has ever known.”’
Ford’s hyperbole, no doubt, though the claim actually occurs in a book credited to the novelist Violet Hunt, Ford’s then lover. He does, however, contribute an introduction and two chapters, together with numerous footnotes in which he ‘corrects’ her statements. ‘So you have here a book of impressions,’ Ford writes in his introduction, carefully registering his admiration for ‘the kindly, careless, inaccurate, and brilliantly precise mind of the author’.
(Ford and Violet Hunt at her cottage in Selsey)
Why 1453? Any personal significance as far as Ford is concerned escapes me for the moment. But it’s certainly a significant date in world history: the French victory at the Battle of Castillon effectively brought to an end the Hundred Years War, while the Byzantine Empire also came to a close when Constantinople fell to the forces of the Ottoman Empire.
As to the hot weather—though one person’s sweltering day is another’s mild one—while I get a bit twitchy in anything much more than twenty degree heat these days, as a child in Singapore, in a tropical climate, with a consistently high temperature (somewhere between high twenties and low-to-mid thirties Celsius, I’d say), together with very high humidity—and three times the average UK rainfall—I was fine. Fine? I was just dandy. In the afternoons, while the British civil servants worked in airy offices with huge ceiling fans and memsahibs lay on their beds under mosquito nets until it was time for tea, children my age rode their bicycles for miles or played cricket on concrete pitches. The weather was what it was and people acclimatised and adapted to it.
So it’s partly a matter of age; and partly that, while people will still remark on unusually hot or cold weather, for the most part, it’s accepted as something that can’t be changed and must be put up with. And in literature, it often becomes a metaphor for what is simply there. So Private Williams, in Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye, ‘accepted the Captain as fatalistically as though he were the weather or some natural phenomenon.’ Arnold Bennett’s Sophia ‘had accepted Gerald as one accepts a climate.’ And in D. H. Lawrence’s story about a fateful relationship between a Prussian captain and his orderly, ‘the officer and his commands he took for granted, as he took the sun and the rain.’
Given the ending of that story, it was a little too much taken for granted, a little too much accepted. If in doubt—resist.
 Henry Roth, Call It Sleep (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989), 259.
 Annual Register, 1911, Part II, 29, 31, 32, 62.
 1907, 1913 and 1915.
 Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), 80.
 The Pound Era, 567. Kenner cites Moore’s interview in Paris Review, 26 (Summer-Fall, 1961), 46.
 Violet Hunt, The Desirable Alien, with two chapters by Ford Madox Ford (London: Chatto & Windus, 1913), 294, x.
 Carson McCullers, The Complete Novels (New York: Library of America, 2001), 390.
 Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908; Harmondsworth, 1983), 361.
 ‘The Prussian Office’, in D. H. Lawrence, The Collected Short Stories of D. H. Lawrence (London: William Heinemann, 1974), 91. With unfortunate timing, The Prussian Officer and Other Stories had been published on 26 November 1914, less than three months after the outbreak of war.