Almost a century ago England experienced a summer so hot that managers of some factories had to shut them down early each afternoon. Workers were sent home.
On 17 July 1912 in Essex a man was spotted walking hatless and shoeless on the road between Romford and Brentwood. By the time he arrived at his destination he was incoherent from the heat, staggering fully naked, and was certified insane by a local doctor.
This was the hot ‘perfect summer’ of 1912, brilliantly described in a book of that name by Juliet Nicholson.
It depicts a world on the brink of change.
The English then, as now, would complain about the English weather. In May 1911 Country Life magazine had lamented that ‘the only drawback of an English summer is that it lasts so short a time’.
How wrong that endless summer proved them.
Those figures in their starched clothes gazing out at us from sepia photographs seemed to sense something deeper. There was a mix of recklessness and sadness in the air.
It showed itself in attitudes to the most voguish of new inventions, the motor car. As a character says in Vita Sackville West’s novel The Edwardians, ‘what I love better than anything is driving in that motor car of yours, when I feel we may be dashed to death at any moment’.
England was, of course, like much of western Europe, hurtling towards the disaster of World War One, and as the heatwave steamed on, people sensed something was awry. As The Countess of Fingall put it: ‘We danced on the edge of an abyss.’
It’s a reminder that whilst we live in the now, we mustn’t take for granted how our lives can be upended at any moment, how circumstances – events – can take us by surprise.
World War One would change England forever.
I mention this because as our own heatwave continues, we finally arrive at the summer holidays when pupils and their teachers have a chance to unwind. It’s an opportunity to rediscover the stuff that everyday life can push to the margins.
As the headteacher of a school established in 1550, I believe we have a duty to teach young people about their past – about what we, here in Suffolk, might have been doing a hundred or more years ago and how much we owe to our forebears.
But there’s a deeper lesson too – never to take for life for granted. In my most finger-wagging moments, I tell students not to spend a summer holiday which is measured by hours spent online. Instead, they should use the time to live and breathe a little.
At our school we believe that education is about forming character. It’s why sport and music and debating are so important, and why every student is encouraged to attend an outdoor residential in Thetford Forest.
The summer holidays should contribute to this too. It’s a time to get lost in the books we don’t have mental space for in term-time. And there’s a brilliant list of ‘Fifty Things’ every child should do published by the National Trust (www.50things.org.uk). It includes: climb a tree; build a den; catch a fish with a net; visit a farm; go swimming in the sea.
In August 1911 poet TS Eliot finished a poem called ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’. At its heart is a man with an unfulfilled life who ‘measured out his life with coffee-spoons’.
As parents and teachers, let’s encourage young people to ensure their summer holiday isn’t measured merely by the number of Facebook friends they add.
Let’s nudge them to live a little.