My strongest memory of the 1976 heatwave is of the curious earthquake-like cracks that scarred our back garden. My family had moved back from Germany to a small village in Sussex that summer and my brother and I were amazed to find huge fissures across the lawn where the clay soil had dried and shrunk. I would lie on my stomach and look into the earth, wondering how much deeper and wider the cracks would get and what treasure might be revealed.
A Little Bird Told Me is partly set in 1976 because that summer was so remarkable and memorable for me. After two years without television, I suddenly had access to Starsky and Hutch, Doctor Who and Multi-coloured Swap Shop. Bratwurst and chips were replaced with Ploughmans and, instead of taking a packed coach to school, I could walk out of the gate at the bottom of our garden and see my small junior school before me.
Now, the yellowed grass in the London parks brings back memories of the smell of that parched earth back then and news stories of heath fires that were out of control. Last week, I put out a small fire that had started in the gutter, a cigarette left smouldering in a pile of parched and faded blossom.
As the reservoirs dried up in 1976, we had a hosepipe ban and no-one dared break it. We used the shower attachment in the bath to wash, plug in, so we could scoop the water into jugs that we carried downstairs for the flower beds. There was advice to share baths or drop a brick into the toilet cistern. In London, thankfully we have been spared that sthis summer.
There were ladybirds everywhere too and wasps that buzzed around our ice pops and settled on the colourful copies of The Beano and Bunty that we bought on Saturdays with our pocket money. The tarmac on the roads melted and stuck to the bottom of our flip flops as we walked to the shops so that sometimes they were pulled from our feet.
Today, we slather our children in sun creams and jam hats onto their heads but I don’t remember such concerns interrupting my own play. We had a weeping willow in the front garden and I’d sit under it in the shade reading or playing and keeping watch through the fronds.
The heat was so intense by the afternoons that the roads were quiet, everyone languid until music would spill out too loudly from one house, perhaps Elton John and Kiki Dee singing Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, or Abba’s Dancing Queen, and, by the end of the summer, tensions were stretched, tempers fraying in the discomfort and the unrelenting heat.
After months of drought, the atmosphere finally thickened, the skies darkened and the rain fell. The beauty and majesty of the thunderstorms allowed the country to breathe in again, the smell of the earth pungent as the dust was washed away and the reservoirs and lakes began to refill.