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Gail Walker: A little bit of good weather can be a ray of sunshine, but it is all an illusion

Conversations, clothes and social lives change with the hot weather... but let's not get used to it, writes Gail Walker


Crowds at Helen’s Bay

Crowds at Helen’s Bay

Crowds at Helen’s Bay

Even as the forecasters dust off words like 'scorching' and 'sweltering' and take 'heatwave', 'sizzling' and 'rocketing' off the shelves, and some of us reach for the sun cream and the summer clothes at the back of the wardrobe, others are already beginning to wilt as the idea of a 'good day' becomes the reality of persistent heat.

Somehow, in spite of all the talk, we don't seem to be built for hot weather. So even though it's a cliche to say how much we obsess about the climate - only a few weeks back, we were bemoaning the chill breeze, the long winter, the cold nights, the rain - nonetheless, it's true that it only takes a few days of warm sun and the tone of conversations change.

You can overhear it in the shop queues and at lunchtime at work. It becomes a staple part of phone conversations, an obligatory moan about the suffocating heat before the real business of the call gets under way.

What starts off as "Isn't it great to see how many smiling faces a touch of sun brings about?" quickly becomes "Enough's enough, I can't stick this heat".

Our variety of sunshine is compared very unfavourably with the stuff found in foreign parts where we go on holiday - somehow, the sun is 'dry' abroad, but 'sticky' at home. Our houses aren't built the right way, it seems, unlike houses in sunny countries.

There is also something very sinister about this homegrown heat - global warming, we think, is obviously many times worse than they are telling us. It wasn't like this in the days of yore.

Of course, we remember all the summers of our childhoods being long and vast deserts of uninterrupted happy sunshine, but somehow that was a different heat - gentler, less aggressive, more user-friendly. You could run around bare-backed for days without even turning pink. Back then, no one burned to a crisp in 15 minutes, the way we do now.

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Mind you, some of us revel in the new conditions. There is a usually inoffensive type - generally among blokes - that just waits for the temperature to rise to reveal a startling secret self, often one involving hairy chests suddenly put on view. Out come the khaki shorts, the Hawaiian shirts, the sandals and the extraordinary 'Belfast baps' which men here keep where everyone else keeps their knees.

It is also quite likely that chaps will think it permissible to shed the suit and tie combo which survived the rigours of the cooler days and instead bowl into the office sporting all or some of the items of summer wear, simply because the temperature has risen. It's as if the climate gives us permission to dress down as a matter of course in a way that would be unthinkable at any other time of the year.

For women, meanwhile, it's a rare opportunity to work the full summer look with all its attendant self-tan and on-trend toenail colour dilemmas. They will pore over 'your simple guide to staying cool when it's hot' fashion spreads and end up utterly baffled by the endless fashion rules and beauty blitz. No one will dare pass comment about women's choice of couture in the workplace in any case, so when the mercury rises it's open season on all and every style. Combinations appear which would never occur under other circumstances and may never be seen again - but at least there was the opportunity to give it a go.

Bars and restaurants suddenly decide to strew the pavements with sofas and other soft furnishings. Patrons then sit on the street, smoking and downing pints and sweet white wines - simple behaviour which, in another city, would get them arrested. Standing up at a street corner is suddenly meant to be a signal of gracious sophisticated urban living. We are supposed to aspire to that way of life. It's what they do in America.

Nothing that happens in Northern Ireland is moderate, after all. The resentment at cold weather, which seems to be shared by everyone all year round, is still matched (if not in numbers, certainly in intensity) by the discomfort some of us obviously feel during the occasional weeks of reasonably hot weather. Even though it never actually gets to the 'scorching' level, the blazing red necks and faces of colleagues and friends after even one weekend of barbecues and patio dwelling is testament to the difficulty we have in managing ourselves during summer sunshine.

Right now, it is only the first week in June. There has been no time yet for the real delights of a full-blown summer to kick in - hosepipe bans and water shortages, for a start, those standard features of the traditional Ulster summer. Though we have, admittedly, already seen burst pipes in Belfast adding to the gaiety of the city centre.

Without labouring on the other notable characteristics of an Ulster summer, of course - imagine, a whole six weeks of these temperatures to go before the Twelfth! - it is worth remarking that research finds that while anxiety levels may decrease during high temperatures, depression can increase. Also on the rise is a propensity to aggressive behaviour - no surprise there, even without the customary political tensions.

But the reality is, most of us will just flock to the public parks when we can during the evenings, fill the wastebins with all sorts of fast food cartons and ice-cream wrapping, throw sticks for the dog to ignore, hope the weather stays good until the weekends when we can get to the shore for some proper sun time, stock the fridge with ice lollies and bottled water, pretend we're on holiday in foreign parts even when the neighbour gets stung and starts swearing on the other side of the hedge, set the TV for the World Cup or pack in the box sets to avoid it.

It's all really about the variety we have come to expect of our climate here. It used to be suggested that we wouldn't have had the Troubles, if our climate had been more like Italy's or Spain's - the idea being we'd have been in too good a form to fight.

But that was silly - as if sunny countries don't have wars, as if the much colder climates of Norway or Canada would make civil violence like ours even more likely in those peaceful settled places ...

Except we 'sort of' know what it meant. Heatwaves give us all a glimpse into the lives we might lead if we lived elsewhere. As if we were in a different place altogether. As if we were all very different from the people we in fact are.

Happier people, maybe.

It's all illusion, of course. And like all illusion, it quickly disappears, no matter how pleasant it seems. Just a little way off, there is always frost on the hedges.

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