Heatwaves, 1976 and Denis Howell

Posted on July 19, 2022

Over the last few days of record-breaking temperatures, much has been mentioned (mainly by older folks who think they’re hard) about the famed summer of 1976.

I was eight at the time and the only thing I really remember is my mother doing some bizarre pagan like dance when it rained. Oh, and the smell of the rain on dry surfaces. Even when I smell that now, it takes me back to that summer.

False Comparisons

Comparing the summer of 1976 to the summers of recent years is to not look very carefully at the statistics. 1976 was a drought, and a bad one. The drought was caused not only by the hot weather, but also the extension of a very dry end to the summer of 75, followed by a baron autumn, then winter, then a very dry spring of 1976.

What made the summer months of 1976 incomparable to 2022 was the lack of any rain. What we are experiencing in the UK in recent years, is a surge in transient, aggressive waves of heat. For instance, as I write this, I am seeing claims of 41 centigrade appearing on my timeline. The highest recorded temperature in 1976 was 35.9 centigrade.

The real damage was done by 45 days without rain. That said, 15 days with temperatures above 32 centigrade and five at 35 centigrade is still impressive. Oddly, this was all relatively early in the summer with the temperature maxing out on the 5th of July. The rest of July and August were relatively temperate but there was still no rain in sight.

Denis to the Rescue

Such were the concerns that it might not rain again, in late August 1976, the government engaged Denis Howell as its ‘Minister for Drought’. Howell oversaw the challenge of persuading the nation to use less water. Playing a full part in the role, he invited the media to his home, telling them how he and his wife Brenda, shared baths. Under the orders of Number 10, he also did a rain dance.

The rain dance appeared to work as two days later, it pissed down and barely stopped raining all the way through September and October 1976. Poor old Denis never really got going in the job and was soon dubbed the Minister for Floods. Presumably out of pity, he was made Minister of Snow in the harsh winter of 1978-79 in the hope he might cause a thaw. A few months later he was dead.

Just Getting on With It

Much has been said (by people who read The Daily Mail too much) about how we just got on with it in 1976. There was actually a lot of widespread panic and fear and without the long-range forecasting abilities we have now, no one knew when the drought was to end. But don’t let that get in the way of a Dunkirk Spirit story.

The truth is, we all just get on with it on days like today, just as we did in 1976. We are facing problems in the UK. The transient record busting heatwaves are becoming more common. Even in bad summers like last year, there were bursts of powerful heat. Northern Ireland had their temperature records smashed in a 2021 heatwave, whilst we down south, ploughed through the rain and mud.

Weather Warnings

Weather warnings are there to aid us. Some of the more simplistic warnings seem daft but not everyone is clever. Every time these heatwaves come, you hear of young lads with underdeveloped front cortexes jumping in lakes and rivers and dying. The hope is that with messages, some of these people won’t risk being daft. Some will understand their dog hates hot tarmac, or that to get on a tube train with asthma is deadly.

To warn of heat going more than body temperature is not a sign of a nation going soft. It is to warn of the dangers of such temperatures in the hope that vulnerable or slightly foolish people take notice. Without those warnings, there would be more drownings, more heart-attacks, more road traffic incidents, more overflowing A&E departments, and more all-round chaos with public transport.

If you’re offended by that, let’s be honest, you’re being a bit silly.

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