It was a dress rehearsal in which everyone seemed to be wearing the wrong clothes.
London, Saturday, June 10: 1,400 British soldiers practice for an upcoming military parade near St. James Park. The ceremonial run-through, known as the Colonel’s Review, is its own spectacle and draws its own crowds and camera crews. Some soldiers are on horseback, and some play in groups. All are arranged in precise columns and lines.
The Mass Bands of the Household Division are marching. They wear the familiar costume: red woolen tunics, dark woolen trousers and those tall, oval, puffy fur hats that the Household Division has worn for over 200 years. The hats are called bearskins. They are made from the fur of a black bear. Each stands 18 inches tall and weighs one and a half pounds.
You know the Home Division. They’re the majestic human chess pieces guarding London’s royal palaces that you can watch online, refusing to smile as holiday YouTubers throw wisecracks at them nearby. What these soldiers do best is endure. They endure. But that morning, London is on its way to a high of 84 degrees — 13 degrees warmer than the average high for this time of year — and the soldiers, in their thick, bulky hats, are performing on a shadowless gravel lot.
Trombonist comes down. One moment, he’s buzzing away at the front, and the next he’s passed out, bent at the feet of the others, like a crumpled bill left before some musicians. These soldiers are actually trained to “faint at attention” – to faint, if they must faint, with strength and determination, without achieving anything as they fall, simply falling forward like a proud, senseless tree. When the BBC camera finds the trombonist, he is on his side but still has his instrument held to his lips, his hands joined to the horn in perfect playing position, while behind him, his colleagues play on.
Four officials in dark uniforms come to pick him up, like stagehands bringing in scenery. They carry a green military stretcher, but when they arrive, the trombonist is upright again. He rose to a standing position, jabbing the tip of his trombone’s slide into the dirt. Then, staggering back into line, he raises the instrument to his mouth. He is jogging, wooing, but committed to expelling any air he has in his lungs into the horn, exchanging life force for music.
The stretcher men won’t let him do this. They take his trombone away and walk him off-screen. But what you might have missed – what I missed the first time I watched this clip online – was that, as they escaped him, they momentarily crossed paths with a second group of attendants running away from the field. These people were also carrying a stretcher. And on their stretcher was a clarinet player. According to a news report, there was three musicians who fainted during the rehearsal – three, “at least.”
These men have names. They have identities. They have loved ones and favorite foods and dreams. I feel for them. Fainting is scary and terrifying, and I feel conflicted about writing about the incident from inside my climate-controlled home.
However, they were uniformed soldiers who volunteered to be symbols of something greater than themselves. And now they have also become symbols of something different. We can talk about “fighting” climate change, but here were real soldiers being knocked down.
This problem of overheating soldiers have arisen before. Last July, during the hottest month of the hottest year on record in England, a heat wave pushed the temperature in London to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, more than 30 degrees above the average high.
Airport runways and roads buckled, as did train tracks, making travel difficult. (It was about 10 degrees warmer than the peak temperature at which Britain’s rail system was designed to operate.) Computer servers could not be cooled sufficiently, crashing the systems in two different hospitals; operations were cancelled, patients turned away. Fires broke out around the city and, in a place where less than 5 percent of households are estimated to have air conditioning, 664 people died.
The Household Division guards, meanwhile, were toasting outside Buckingham Palace. One afternoon, AP photographer Matt Dunham captured a regular security guard (Kevlar vest, utility belt, cuffs) pouring a drink of water into one of these soldiers mouths. (Drinking is prohibited while on duty.) It was a startling image, as if a time traveler had been sent to intervene in Elizabethan times with the technology of bottled water. A dam of superhuman decency has burst; the heat was so unbearable. Even so, the costumed guard refused to break his pose more than necessary. He accepted the drink with his arms locked at his sides, his bayonet-tipped rifle still resting on his collarbone. And when he tilted his head back, he did so only a few degrees, the minimum necessary for the liquid to slide in.
Is the task now to defend our lifestyles against the climate? Or reinvent them?
What does climate change really feel like? The core of the experience may be a sense of dislocation, of being newly and frighteningly out of step with the world. It’s as if everything around us, everything we rely on, has been transported to a place other than the one it was designed for — a harsher, meaner Earth.
On Mean Earth, all kinds of previously durable infrastructure can be undermined or undone. This includes trains and computer servers, but also cultural infrastructure: the unexamined things we do a certain way because we’ve always done them that way, that’s why. Therefore, the plight of that trombonist in his woolen clothes feels increasingly familiar. Children sent to sleep-away camps where it’s too hot, or too smoky, to do much outside; vacationers on beaches covered in dead fish after a colossal algal bloom; homeowners rebuilding after their second wildfire or flood—all re-enact rituals that slip out of phase with their environments and thus are drained of their joy and logic.
That furious scene at the British parade—the uniforms, the stretchers, the flogging, the chaos, the dignified persistence of everyone to face forward and persevere—reminded me of a war movie, with doctors quickly extracting the wounded from trenches during an attack. Prince William later released a statement that framed the incident in just this way: “Difficult conditions but you all did a really good job.” His men withstood the attack.
But is the task now to defend our lifestyles against the climate? Or reinvent them? Undoubtedly both, although we seem obstinately predisposed to the first approach — to continue waging war in our old, wrong clothes. While the clip of that fainting trombonist brings to mind all the admirable bromides about grit and resilience, it also made me think of Einstein’s remark that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. And there’s also a much less lofty, more ordinary way to think about it: If it’s hot outside, take off your giant fur hat.
All of us may find ourselves clinging to habits that here on Bad Earth are losing their utility and power. But imagine how it would feel: the weight of the bearskin lifts, the heat begins to flow freely from the dome of the head. It would still be hot—disgustingly hot—but at least you would be standing unencumbered in this world as it is.
Opening illustration: Screenshots from YouTube