Memories of the hot summer of 1976… and of Kippa Matthews, too

DENNIS Howell was a Government minister in the Seventies,  but he might also have been the patron saint of politics as accidental satire.

In the heatwave summer of 1976, he was appointed minister for drought, and when the long hot summer ended and the rains fell with a vengeance, he was appointed minister for floods.

From drought to floods with barely a moment to change the sign on his door or find his wellies: it almost had a biblical ring, and certainly saw real life trumping Yes Minister. That beloved series didn’t actually start until four years later, but the general point can stand. And satire has had trouble keeping up ever since, as evidenced by the gruesome possibility that Donald Trump could become president of the US.

Anyway, let’s forget all that and think of long hot summers. They were longer and hotter back then, as the winters were longer and colder (snow blocked roads for weeks, at least in memory, and the milk bottles left on the doorstep froze, with a stalagmite of cream pushing off the silver cap).

And 1976 was certainly a hot one. A feature in the Guardian magazine yesterday brought back heat-hazy memories of Chopper bikes and Space Hoppers (invented, if that’s the word, by someone from the estate where we lived); of endless hot days and ministerial advice to share baths and tip the washing-up water on the garden.

Harold Wilson stepped down as prime minister after his success in the European Economic Community referendum, leaving James Callaghan to win the leadership contest and become the unelected Prime Minister (nothing in politics is new, it seems).

Anyway that summer was the hottest on record, with the temperature in somewhere in England reaching 32.2C for 15 consecutive days. And I went on a short canal-boat holiday with my drummer friend Chris.

Many of the details are lost to time and the haze, but I do remember that the locks were shut to conserve water, and that this interrupted our little, and rather beery, voyage. We hung cans of beer over the side of the boat so that they cooled a little in the water. And sometimes we moored the boat next to a pub, hopping from the deck to the beer garden. It wasn’t a big boat or a narrow boat, just a boat, but large enough for two people to sleep in.

It is also possible that short voyage took place on another hot summer, but my money is on 1976, when I was part-way through university. The waterway was probably the Macclesfield canal, although I couldn’t swear to that either.

Fifty years since England won the World Cup, and fifty years too since the release of Revolver, the only Beatles album I own, and forty years since the longest, hottest summer on record. Southampton FC beat Manchester United in the FA Cup final, which will have pleased my Dad, and Bjorn Borg won Wimbledon for the first time, which will have pleased Bjorn.

And if it all seems a long time ago, that’s because it was.

LIKE many others in York, I was shocked and saddened to learn that the photographer Kippa Matthews had died at the age of 54. I knew Kippa a little, enough to chat to, and he was always charming company, as well as a top photographer.

My old newspaper ran a nice tribute, which you can find online if you wish. This praised Kippa’s skill as a photographer who had worked in York for about 35 years, covering many of the city’s biggest news stories and cultural events.

Not enough, perhaps, was made of Kippa’s national profile. For a while Kippa’s excellent photographs often appeared in national newspapers, including The Guardian. When the newspapers started cutting back, he found the national work harder to come by, as was the case for many. Lately, or so I heard from a mutual friend, he had been doing a bit of landscape gardening on the side as well.

The comments section on the Press website contained a lovely tribute from Martin Wainwright, former northern editor of The Guardian. Here it is: “This is such sad news. Kippa was a marvellous photographer with a warm understanding of his patch and the people who live there. It was a privilege and always fun to work with him. When I saw that he was posted to join me on a job, it made my day. He leaves a great legacy of work and a store of memories for many, many people. RIP.”

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