Out of America: Back to the primal swamp as DC turns on the heat

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WASHINGTON - I have never set eyes on a document to support the claim, but it's part of British Embassy folklore here. Once upon a time our dear Foreign Office deemed this place a hardship posting.

For most of the year, the notion seems absurd. Do not be misled by Washington's sensational murder figures, almost exclusively originating in parts of the city where diplomats and the rest of us rarely stray. By and large, this must be one of the most liveable capitals on earth, full of parks and greenery, where everything works and - apart from Inauguration Week - hardly a traffic jam is to be encountered. But then this is the age of air conditioning. If this broiling early July is anything to go by, summers here 100 or 150 years ago for the representatives of the Crown must indeed have been seriously unpleasant.

Ever since it started in earnest on 4 July, the heat-wave has been the only story in town. Since then the daytime high hasn't dropped below the mid- 90s Fahrenheit. For three straight days, a feat unequalled since 1948, it topped 100F (38C). Stir in Washington's trademark 70 or 80 per cent humidity, and you have a heat index of somewhere between 115F (45C) and 120F (48C), up there with Riyadh and Kuwait City, but stickier.

The British are supposed to be the people obsessed with the weather, even though the Met Office's main distinctions are between sunny-intervals-and-showers and showers-and- sunny-intervals. In America, though, the weather is a truly satisfying topic of conversation. Not only do extremes of climate feed the natives' addiction to statistics and records. This country must be nature's greatest stage. The spectacles range from drought to Hurricane Andrew, from tornadoes careering across the prairies to whole cities snowed in. Small wonder there is a cable television station reporting nothing but the weather. This year has been a ratings bonanza for the Weather Channel.

Just four months ago this city and most of the Mid-Atlantic seaboard was being submerged beneath the Blizzard Of 1993, which dumped 15 inches of snow in 24 hours. Even during my four-year posting in Moscow I never saw anything like it. These last few days, by contrast, the rocky shores of Maine have been as hot as Cairo. And while Washington and New York melted, it was snowing in the Rockies, home heaters were being turned on in foggy, clammy San Francisco and, as the whole world knows, the Mississippi and its swollen tributaries had turned swathes of the Midwest into an imitation of the Atlantic Ocean.

But the Big Heat in the Atlantic states is a torture all of its own. Summer's usual sense of well-being gives way to lethargy and sharp temper. On DC's bad streets, the murder rate becomes even more stratospheric - five one day last week alone. Otherwise, you can only stay indoors, and pray the air conditioning doesn't break down. Normal remedies are useless. Only if you are fond of tepid baths are public swimming pools the answer. Nor do evenings offer any respite. A cook-out, and the barbecuer becomes the barbecued.

Even at midnight the thermometer still hovers around 90. Turn out every light and step into a pitch-dark garden, and comfy Washington reverts to what it was before the humans arrived, a steamy primal swamp. Crickets sing like buzz-saws, the fireflies flicker, and strange croakings issue from the woods beyond. You could be in Amazonia - except it's even warmer. At National Zoo, where the polar bears last year were finally transferred to more suitable climes, they've been desperately trying to keep the tropical forest section cool enough to stop the plants dying. The only real window for normal Washingtonian behaviour is between 5am and 8am.

Thereafter even this city's relentless joggers, as much a part of the scenery as panhandlers, the White House or the Washington Monument, vanish from the pavements. Local radio and television stations broadcast endless 'excessive heat advisories' - little more than statements of the obvious: drink water, wear loose clothes and stay indoors.

The true wonder however is why we make such a fuss. The US after all is a southern country; Rome lies north of New York, Washington is on the same latitude as Palermo or Athens. Stiflingly hot and humid summers are the norm here; the average July high is 88F; the only difference this summer was the two or three extra degrees which nudged readings to the statistician's attention. And maybe we're exaggerating. The other day a Washington Post reporter took some eggs and put an old adage to the test. He tried a pavement, a car roof, and finally a manhole cover indented like a frying pan. But each time the egg-white remained an obstinate transparent goo.