The Heatwave of 1976: Background information when reading Instructions for a Heatwave

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Instructions for a Heatwave

by Maggie O'Farrell

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2013, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2014, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
The Heatwave of 1976

Print Review

The heatwave described in the novel is based on an actual one that took place in the summer of 1976 in Britain, which was preceded by a dry period that began the previous year. At the time this had been the driest 16-month period in over 250 years. Though there was some rain during that summer, it was so little and sporadic that it didn't make much of a dent. The reservoirs ran dry, companies in the Midlands (central England), were forced to shorten their work week, and many households were required to gather their water from communal hand pumps in the street. People were advised to "Save water, bathe with a friend," to do so in no more than five inches of water and to then reuse that bath water in the garden. Bricks were put in toilets so the flush tanks would then hold less water and therefore, conserve more. Owning a dirty car was a symbol of solidarity.

Signs encouraging water conservation During the drought, the government issued 139 drought orders (regulations restricting water use), on behalf of the water companies, in specific areas throughout Britain. The hardest hit areas were East Anglia and Wales. At the height of the drought, the government reassigned the Sports Minister, Denis Howell, to act as Minister in Charge of Drought Co-Ordination. When the rain began to fall in October 1976, his insistence that the water restrictions remain in effect until the reservoirs had returned to normal levels made him very unpopular. The government wasn't the only regulator of water usage, however. A group of housewives in Surrey famously forced a golf course to turn off their sprinklers by harassing the maintenance men.

For many, 1976 stands out as the worst drought in recent memory, but the drought in 1995 was actually worse in terms of record-breaking heat. Though weather conditions in 1995 were comparable to those in 1976, the public was not as affected by drought order restrictions, because water companies had improved their methods of conserving and distributing water.

Picture from BBC

This article was originally published in July 2013, and has been updated for the May 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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