The Good Life: Blame it on the sunshine

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The Independent Online

The power outage that brought darkness to a good chunk of North America may have mystified some people on this side of the Atlantic. Obviously, the electricity grid covering the Western world's richest cities is an antique and makeshift arrangement whose quivery decrepitude is reminiscent of Heath Robinson's contraptions. It is the underlying cause of the failure that may be a puzzle to Europeans. Why should power demand have soared to unsustainable heights during summer, when heating requirements are supplied by a beneficent star 93,000,000 miles distant? Why should the power plants of the magnificently named Niagara Mohawk company have gone pfft! when many people are toasting on the beach rather than tapping at computers?

I discovered the reason exactly 28 years ago when I first flew into New York. I happened to be standing near the airliner door as we prepared to disembark at JFK airport. As the door swung open, the August heat and humidity hit me like a blow in the face. I knew, as all schoolboys did at that time, that New York was on the same latitude as Madrid, but the difference came home to me on the tarmac. While the Spanish capital stands on a plateau, cooled by upland breezes, New York becomes a pressure cooker in summer. Fortunately, I was gathered from the airport by a friend who whisked me to a bar on East 86th Street, where, for the first time, I experienced the blissful release from Dantean discomfort that air conditioning offers in New York.

The cascading outage is believed to have originated at a power station near Cleveland, Ohio. Though slightly more northerly than New York (same latitude as Barcelona), this likeable and unfairly disparaged city is even hotter in summer. Owing to its location in the Midwest, Cleveland experiences continental extremes of climate. When I visited some friends there in early May a couple of years ago, they pointed out an air conditioning unit in the corner of my room. Though the temperature was in the Eighties (Americans still wisely stick to Fahrenheit), I thought this was an unnecessary luxury and turned it off. I may even have self-righteously tutted to myself about American profligacy and the greenhouse effect. By 2am, I thought different. The temperature was still in the Eighties. I put on the air conditioning full-blast and to hell with the greenhouse effect.

In much of the area affected by the blackout, air conditioning comes on in April. The acrid tang of overheated air conditioning units is one of the distinctive smells of American cities in summer. The gadgets hum away, working more or less efficiently, until autumn. For Americans, summer ends with a resounding clang on the Labor Day holiday held on the first Monday in September. (In an episode of Frasier, Niles pointed out a sartorial solecism: "Never wear white after Labor Day".) In fact, the heat and therefore the air conditioning often continues for weeks afterwards.

On this side of the Atlantic, we have, for the first time since 1976, experienced a summer that, for lengthy periods, resembled the American version. After sweltering in homes, restaurants or theatres that were only a few degrees cooler than a Bessemer Converter, many people will have been forcibly persuaded about the advantages of air conditioning.

Whether we actually do anything about it, now the temperature has dropped, is debatable. But what happens if long, hot summers occur at less than quarter-century intervals? Say every five years or every other year? Or next year?

It's worth recalling that, not all that long ago, central heating was regarded as an inexplicable American luxury, a vaguely decadent and (far worse) hugely expensive superfluity. Prior to the Eighties, it was virtually obligatory for every American account of a visit to Britain to refer to the chilliness of our dwellings. Americans still tend to believe our homes are draughty igloos, though we've now discovered that central heating adds no little to the pleasantness of life. As global warming becomes a fact of life, you can bet that air conditioning will become almost as commonplace. Unfortunately, the more power we use, the more our power stations will break down. Better buy in some candles.

Taking the stars out of their eyes

Astrology is bunk, a report in the Journal of Consciousness Studies has announced. After investigating the character traits and achievements of 2,000 people born in March 1958, it concluded "the results are uniformly negative". This will not have come as much of a surprise to fans of Patrick Moore. For many years, it has been traditional for journalists to turn to the great man for a comment when investigating the topic of astrology. The sight of him, with monocle madly glinting, pronouncing with machine-gun rapidity that it was "utter balderdash" certainly convinced me. One key factor in the continued popularity of newspaper astrologers is that their readers are all only interested in one-twelfth of what they write. On a quiet day for stellar activity, it must be a great temptation for these well-paid seers to repeat their Pisces predictions, rehashed, for Sagittarius.

As for fortune-telling in general, I'm less inclined to issue a blanket dismissal. The reason for my "more things in heaven and hell" hesitation is largely due to a genial Lancastrian clairvoyant called Sam, whom my mother occasionally patronised in the mid-Sixties. Once or twice she prodded me into having a "sitting", which involved nothing more than shuffling through a greasy pack of cards and Sam peering at the result. I can't remember much of what he predicted for me - at that time I was a 15-year-old without the vaguest direction in life - except that he said: "I see you working with a screen." This was years before computers became commonplace, so I presumed Sam meant TV or even films. The career in Hollywood that I hoped for never came to pass, but his prediction was right. I'm not crashing out these words on a typewriter.

Denisella Brown is away