The Secret by Kathryn Hughes
Published: 8th September 2016
Publisher: Headline Review
Available in Paperback and on Kindle
Mary has been nursing a secret.
Forty years ago, she made a choice that would change her world for ever, and alter the path of someone she holds dear.
Beth is searching for answers. She has never known the truth about her parentage, but finding out could be the lifeline her sick child so desperately needs. When Beth finds a faded newspaper cutting amongst her mother's things, she realises the key to her son's future lies in her own past. She must go back to where it all began to unlock...The Secret.
Today it's my pleasure to welcome Kathryn Hughes author of The Letter and The Secret to my blog and today she is sharing her experience of the Summer of 1976, over to Kathryn:
Phew, what a scorcher!
‘Phew, what a scorcher!’ It’s an oft-repeated headline when the weather gets a tiny bit too hot and it’s usually accompanied by a picture of Blackpool beach, not a square inch of sand to be seen, as burnished bodies stretch out on gaudy beach towels. Never has this headline been more accurate though than in 1976 when England’s green and pleasant land turned brown and withered right before our eyes. That summer has become the benchmark against which all subsequent summers are measured. It was the hottest summer since the famous ‘records began’ and remains unsurpassed.
So just how hot was that summer and how long did it last? Well, for starters we dealt in Fahrenheit back then which I always think sounds more impressive. The heatwave officially began on 22nd June 1976 and lasted until 26th August 1976, a total of nine weeks, although the reality was the drought began much earlier with below average rainfall since April the previous year. From 22nd June until 16th July, the UK sizzled in temperatures of at least 27 degrees C, every single day. Even more remarkable, during the same period the mercury rose to 32 degrees C for fifteen consecutive days, peaking on 3rd July at 35.9 degrees C or for those of us that were there, 96 degrees F. So, we’ve established it was hot, very hot, and prolonged too, but how did this affect us?
It goes without saying we were desperately short of water. Reservoirs resembled the cracked plains of the African savannah, but without the wildebeests. It was absolutely forbidden to use a hosepipe even to the extent where we were encouraged to grass up our neighbours if their lawn appeared to be greener than it ought to be. The water authorities shut off the main supply and erected standpipes in the streets. Friendships were forged as people stood in the queue, bucket in hand, swapping tales of sunstroke, heat exhaustion and how little Johnny had fried an egg on the pavement. The government took out full page advertisements in the papers urging us to save water. We were told to only take a bath if it was absolutely necessary and then no more than five inches deep. It became a symbol of national pride to have a dirty car. Crops failed, food prices soared and as the grass didn’t grow farmers used up all their winter hay stocks to feed the starving cattle. When some parts of the country were down to their last thirty days of water, emergency plans were drafted to bring water in by tanker from Norway.
I was only a child that summer so for me it was a blissful, carefree time spent playing outside, eating ice pops and Jubblies by the truckload, and making my special perfume from rose petals, which smelled like a compost heap the next day. With no such thing as Factor 50, my shoulders turned the colour of a coffee bean. For the working population however, conditions were tough. Air conditioning in offices and cars was non-existent and productivity levels fell. At Wimbledon, for the first time in its history, umpires were permitted to remove their jackets. Even Big Ben downed tools as it suffered its first and hitherto unrepeated, major breakdown due to metal fatigue. Its long hands did not crawl round the dial for three whole weeks which was surely synonymous of Britain grinding to a halt. There was no respite at night either. Even with all the windows flung open, sleep was impossible. I resorted to lying on a wet towel in my bed.
And the ladybirds! They were everywhere, all over the car windscreen and the pavements, making it almost impossible not to crunch them underfoot. As all the plants had died there was nothing left for them to feed on and there were reports of them sucking the sweat off people as they desperately tried to rehydrate.
Finally, on 24th August, enough was enough and the Government appointed Denis Howell as the Minister for Drought. It worked. Three days later it began to rain. And rain and rain. If the ladybirds had reached biblical proportions then the torrential downpour that followed would surely have sent Noah running to his workshop.