From Do the Right Thing to Swimming Pool: culture's hottest heatwaves

Tension simmers, passions rage and things are never the same again. We pick the books, film and music in which heatwaves inspire race riots, sexual abandon – and even a chainsaw massacre

‘I love England in a heatwave,” says a character in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement. “It’s a different country. All the rules change.” And he’s not just referring to the sudden hike in the price of a 99 Flake. In works of art, the weather is a reliable indicator for internal turbulence, with the heatwave an especially pliable metaphor. It is called into service to signify everything from overwhelming passions to oppressive tensions, a ripening or a boiling-over. Not for nothing is an entire genre, the coming-of-age story, predicated on the idea that things were never the same again after that summer.

The pinnacle is LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, the overarching influence on Atonement, in which the relentlessly beating sun is a transformative force: “In the heat, the commonest objects changed their nature. Walls, trees, the very ground one trod on, instead of being cool were warm to the touch: and the sense of touch is the most transfiguring of all the senses … In the heat the senses, the mind, the heart, the body, all told a different tale. One felt another person, one was another person.”

Dominic Guard and Julie Christie in the 1971 film adaptation of The Go-Between.
Dominic Guard and Julie Christie in the 1971 film adaptation of The Go-Between. Photograph: EMI/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

It’s hard to stay cool in a heatwave, especially if you’re British and unaccustomed to its severity. Just ask Alice, whose adventures in Wonderland are precipitated by weather which makes her feel “very sleepy and stupid” and causes her to wonder “whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies.”

Jean Rhys in her Jane Eyre prequel Wide Sargasso Sea describes “the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look,” while McEwan has used heat to apply additional pressure to his characters, much as a sadistic schoolboy might pursue ants with a magnifying glass. The orphaned brood of The Cement Garden lose their innocence as the world rots in the sunshine (“Outside there was a cloud of flies round the overflowing dustbins … A packet of butter had melted into a pool … it was the hottest day since 1900”) while the doomed romance of Atonement unravels against a savage summer of “vast heat that rose above the house and park, and lay across the Home Counties like smoke, suffocating the farms and towns”. It encourages — or so the parents are inclined to believe — “loose morals amongst young people”.

Wherever sunshine and British people mix, the result is likely to be fraught; think of EM Forster dispatching his creations to Italy and to India, or of the film-maker Joanna Hogg sending the upper-class holidaymakers of her 2006 debut, Unrelated, off to Tuscany to be perfectly miserable. Here the heat and beauty serve as an effective counterpoint to whatever woes the characters are experiencing. Anna (Kathryn Worth) is tormented by a failing relationship, her yearning for a child and the callous flirtations of a man two decades her junior (played by a young, icicle-eyed Tom Hiddleston). The delicious scenery seems only to exacerbate her problems.

There’s a similar dynamic at play in Chris Power’s recent short-story collection Mothers, where a series of far-flung idylls only point up the characters’ inner discomfort: Cadaqués becomes the backdrop for a cataclysmic decision, Rhodes the site of childhood trauma, Mexico City the burial ground for an irresolvable desire. Whatever the problem, the heat seems to both reflect and inflame it.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Oppressive … The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Nowhere is this truer than in some of America’s sweatiest cinema. Would The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have been less scary or oppressive if it had been relocated, say, to Anchorage? The director Tobe Hooper littered the set with animal bones and carcasses, and somehow the stench that caused cast and crew members to throw up in the stifling heat seems to waft off the screen toward our nostrils.

Perspiration drips off every face in Sidney Lumet’s scorching Dog Day Afternoon, with Al Pacino and John Cazale as touchingly ill-prepared criminals who choose the hottest day of the year to hold up a New York City bank. Lumet knew what he was doing putting the screws on by turning up the heat — he’d done the same thing in Twelve Angry Men, where it was only the suits and ties that distinguished the jury room from a sauna.

Michael Douglas is just one angry man stalking Los Angeles in Falling Down, where it’s hard not to feel that a light shower might cure at least some of his ills; then again, it never rains in southern California. Even if it did, would it help? “You’d think the rain would’ve cooled things down,” says Thelma Ritter in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, another thriller set in a heatwave. “All it did was make the heat wet.”

Watch the trailer for Do the Right Thing

In Do the Right Thing, as with In the Heat of the Night before it, the heatwave becomes a manifestation of the racial tensions at the heart of America. Brooklyn’s fire hydrants are up for grabs, while DJ Mr Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L Jackson) gives a comical running commentary on the escalating temperatures: “If you have a Jheri curl, stay in the house or you’ll end up with a permanent plastic helmet on your head forevah!” But the heat is no easier to quell than the conflicts stoked by a racist police force and a pigheaded Italian-American restaurateur. The only balm is experienced by the viewer, grateful to be watching from the cold comfort of an air-conditioned cinema.

Spike Lee, the director of Do the Right Thing, returned to New York and heatwaves in Summer of Sam, which mingled the real-life hunt in 1977 for the serial killer known as Son of Sam, with the emergence of punk in America.

The real summer of punk had taken place a year earlier in Britain, during the country’s own record-breaking heatwave (highs of more than 28C for 22 days, making it the hottest summer for three centuries), with Denis Howell, given ministerial responsibility for coping with drought, advising people to “take a bath with a friend” to conserve water. That same 1976 summer permeates Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Instructions for a Heatwave. Simmering family problems are manifested in the heat that “inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs.”

One thing the hot weather can do in art is to eliminate social divisions. It’s an equaliser: if everyone’s in their bathing suits, as they are in Eric Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach, then the normal social hierarchies dissolve. In François Ozon’s Swimming Pool, there can even be a kind of equality between a prissy British writer (Charlotte Rampling) and a promiscuous gadabout (Ludivine Sagnier). Though stripping off isn’t much help to Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) in The Talented Mr Ripley. “You’re so white,” says Dickie (Jude Law), Tom’s coveted social superior. “Grey, actually.”

In deep … Oliver Coleman, Dan Stevens and Alex Wyndham in the TV adaptation of The Line of Beauty.
In deep … Oliver Coleman, Dan Stevens and Alex Wyndham in the TV adaptation of The Line of Beauty. Photograph: BBC

Summer heat can plunge the reader or viewer in an instant into an airless fug. Take the opening line of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” But the air of melancholy hanging over the season is impossible to dispel because we know what lies around the corner. In two novels by Alan Hollinghurst, summer represents the last gasp of gay abandon before the decimating sweep of Aids: first in his 1988 debut The Swimming Pool Library, which takes place in “the last summer of its kind there was ever to be” and then in The Line of Beauty, the 2004 Booker prize winner, which picks up the thread in that same summer, 1983, and follows it into a more darkly troubled era.

Even without the spectre of mortality, summer in art embodies a fleeting wistfulness, a carefree and uncontainable bliss. The Myth of the American Sleepover, the gorgeous 2012 debut film from David Robert Mitchell (who later made the chilling It Follows) is especially good on those seemingly endless juvenile summers when we clumsily forge our future selves like fumbling amateur blacksmiths.

Listen to David’s Last Summer by Pulp

But if you want the mood of that movie distilled into seven minutes, it’s right there in David’s Last Summer, the final track (fittingly) from Pulp’s 1994 album His ’N’ Hers. Ash may have devoted a chunk of their career to turning lost summers into frenzied, bittersweet indie-pop (Bring Back the Summer, Buzzkill, Orpheus, Oh Yeah) while the Fall offered a pungent reality check on British People in Hot Weather (“Beached whale in Wapping / His armpit hairs are sprouting”). But it is Jarvis Cocker, picking his way through a daisy-chain of summery vignettes (“When we reached the stream I put a bottle of cider into the water to chill / Both of us knowing that we’d drink it long before it had the chance”), who captures most vividly the pull and the pain of summer, wending his way toward the lengthening shadows that signal autumn’s approach:

And as we walked home we could hear the leaves curling and turning
Brown on the trees,
And the birds deciding where to go for winter.
And the whole sound,
The whole sound of summer packing its bags and preparing to leave town.


Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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