This week London felt just a little bit more like New Orleans than usual, thanks to temperatures in the 30s (that’s in the 90s for any of y’all reading this in America). And it made me wonder what London would be like if it was that hot here more often.
People in London go a little crazy when the sun comes out and it gets properly summery – usually we cancel all our existing plans to have picnics, take our clothes off in public, and do other crazy things, like pretend we’re mermaids and jump in the river or the nearest pond (see picture).
The rest of the time, as we shiver in our winter coats (I was still wearing mine in late May this year and I’ll need it again by September), we’re unfriendly, cynical and, well, cold. Sure, we can be nice once you get to know us, but if you’re in London don’t bother trying to talk to a stranger on public transport, or expect anyone to take any notice of anyone yelling anything on the street – unless it’s “house prices fall” or “Fire!”.
Does more consistent hot weather make for a more welcoming and open society? I know how hot it can get in New Orleans, having spent most of my time there during summer months, and I’ve always been astonished at how friendly and open to strangers people are here compared to Londoners.
And the courteous interactions which come more easily when there’s no need to rush indoors are arguably not just a formality, but an important dimension of a functioning society. There’s a moving passage in Tom Piazza’s post-Katrina work Why New Orleans Matters where he mentions the powerful impact of the seemingly simple step of placing lawn chairs outside residential cabins at a Red Cross camp for evacuees. “New Orleanians like to sit out outside on their steps and talk,” so this gesture, he says, “helped immensely.”
Further proof that these small everyday social rituals can go to the heart of who we are as humans can be found in today’s Greece. As I write this, news of the results of the bailout referendum has just come in.
Looking at this ongoing very difficult situation, it’s easy to wonder why social unrest in Greece hasn’t been greater – economist Vicky Pryce said on BBC current affairs programme Any Questions recently that there would have been a revolution in the UK if the same situation had occurred here. There’s not enough space here for a full anthropological analysis of Greek society, but I wonder whether its more socially outgoing, inclusive and cohesive nature compared to British society which is arguably aided significantly by its warmer weather might just have had something to do with it.
London can’t change its geographical climate to make it more like that of Athens or New Orleans, but maybe our current heatwave should inspire us to try to heat ourselves up a bit socially.