When does a novel become a historical novel? How many years can/should have passed after the writing before you can legitimately call it that? When the author has to do the background research? What if the events are still vivid in the reader’s mind (or so they think)? I only ask because in the notes at the back of the Richard & Judy Book Club edition I just read of Instructions for a heatwave (originally published 2013), author Maggie O’Farrell says she was only four years old in 1976, when the novel is set. And I thought I remembered that time well.
First the book, which I read voraciously once I got started, all plot reservations suspended for the duration (and which I’m not going to pick at). Michael, Monica and Aoife are the son and daughters of the Riordans, an Irish couple who emigrated to England after the war. They have all long flown the nest, but return to the parental home in North London when their father goes out for a paper one morning and fails to return. Their mother, at first a wonderfully drawn comic Irish mother, is all over the place; and as things develop she loses that comic patina. The solution to the mystery lies back in the home country, where they eventually travel. There is some lovely description of a remote cottage and its environs, where they stay, and remembrance of family holidays spent there.
But the real power of the book comes in the siblings’ relationships, and in turn their’s over the years with their mother; except for his absence, the father hardly figures, now I come to think of it. Michael and Monica’s marriages are in different states of crisis, while the much younger Aoife, who was not an easy child, with problems of her own, has been leading an edgy bohemian existence in New York. Their stories and crucially their shifting alliances are thrillingly told both in a series of passages as we see through their eyes how each sibling got to here, and through their interaction, conversations and individual acts as the novel progresses over the course of four intense days in July. And when I say thrilling I’m not talking car chases; rather family secrets and dramatic old misunderstandings uncovered, and burgeoning self-discovery, warmth and kindness. Seems that for this sort of thing three siblings is the magic number. Bit of a spoiler: the actual outcome, the future, is left open, though it’s hopeful, to say the least.
Instructions for a heatwave has four sections – each day as the action unfolds is heralded by excerpts from the Drought Act introduced by the government to deal with the chronic water shortages brought on by an unprecedented heatwave that year. That heat is ever-present in the novel but it is not over-worked or used as a grand metaphor (and, again, spoiler alert, there is no liberating rainstorm at its conclusion), rather it is used to ground it in time. Michael’s thwarted academic career, for instance, is a function of the morals of the age. The IRA mainland bombing campaign was also active, and there’s a short but telling passage in Instructions that reflects the suspicion and animosity the sound of an Irish accent could arouse (something an Irish colleague of mine at work back then suffered). Again, in the Q&A at the back of the paperback I have, Maggie O’Farrell, whose parents emigrated when she was 4, declares herself “wary of producing something fake and ‘Eiresatz’“, of not wanting to write “the literary equivalent of the Irish-theme pub“. No, there’s a richness here that seems real enough to me.
But I was so sure …
I thought I had very specific memories of the summer of 1976, of the unbearable heat. I was living in London, in a shared flat just off Baker Street and the heat off the tarmac and pavements was unrelenting. I’ve often told people that was the first time I’d set foot in a hairdresser’s for a proper shearing for nearly a decade – well, a multi-sex salon on the Edgware Road; hard times for barbers in those days. I’ve got a timeline I’ve worked up on a spreadsheet; I checked it to see where I was working, what else I might have been doing that year, and it would appear I’d moved up to Tufnell Park by then. So all my supposed memories of the 1976 heatwave actually apply to the year before, which, to quote a weather website, “was one of the ten warmest summers of the 20th century, though it was beaten thereafter (comprehensively) by 1976, 1983 & 1995”.
Anyway, so back in George Street in the summer of 1975, windows wide open we’d do rain dances and chant along to Traffic‘s Rainmaker, from the aptly titled Low spark of high-heeled boys:
and, despite the somewhat contradictory lyrics of the chorus – “Rain, rain, go away / come again another day” no less – Mike Nesmith‘s version of another song called Rainmaker, one of Harry Nilsson’s that comes with a twist worthy of a Mark Twain short story, from his Nevada Fighter album:
When it did finally rain we went out and frolicked in the street.
As it happens I have no specific memory of the heatwave of ’76 even though it was so much worse, and it was a pretty momentous year for me in other ways; nor does A. Similarly, for what it’s worth, I’m mystified when older people, and indeed people of my generation go on about the long drawn-out winter of 1963, the big freeze and deep snow that stayed. Even though it was a three-mile bike ride for me on mostly country lanes to school, the best memory I can dredge up is not personal but of an oft-dragged out in documentaries film clip of a snow-plough train itself getting stuck in the snow in Scotland.
Back in October, 2016 …
All his own stuff bar one cover (that was new to me), he book-ended the slower “heartfelt” stuff with a couple of driven, rockier, songs, deftly constructed with the effective employment of a loop pedal, delivered to much acclaim. I say “heartfelt” in speech marks because that’s the word that’s used on his website, and I can’t come up with anything better. Great singing and playing, emotion, charisma and good vibes. The website (http://tonyhillmusic.com/) carries a neat video with storyline of Bones, one of those quicker numbers.
Taylor Smith, a trio on the day, with the cajonist (I wish I could remember her name) singing sort of cello parts to great effect behind the outstanding Blood of St George – a song that serves as a suitable riposte to the nationalistic nonsense heard at the Tory Party conference last week.