Sunday, 15 January 2012

By Candle-Light

When we got back from our walk about 4:30 this afternoon, we found the house in darkness and none of the switches would turn on a light. Our daughter was sitting bathed in the eery light of her laptop display. "Power cut", she said.

It's been a while since we had a proper power cut. This is, after all and despite appearances, one of the world's most advanced economies. I did oversleep a couple of weeks ago because we'd had one during the night, and my antiquated bedside radio alarm cannot reset itself, but that's the only one I can recall in the past year or two.

What you rediscover at such moments is how deeply you take things like electric light for granted. Turn off the power, and the darkness returns, instantly. Silence, too. The electric kettle won't work, the fridge is off, the radio is off, the computers are down, the central heating pump has stopped, there's nothing except the annoying tick of a battery-operated wall clock. It's quite fun, really, until you trip over your own carelessly-dropped backpack in the hall, going to fetch candles.

It didn't take long to return ourselves to something like 19th century conditions. We put candles and nightlights in strategic spots, and had a pan of water heating on the gas stove. We know where we keep the torches and the batteries. But once you try to actually do something more complicated than admiring your partner's hair in the candlelight you realise how difficult life must have been at night, before electricity.

Just making a pot of tea is quite tricky. Pouring boiling water in semi-darkness is not very sensible, to start with. You simply can't see inside the teapot, so it's hard to judge -- other than by weight -- when enough water has been poured in. In fact, it's hard to judge whether the water is going in the teapot at all. So the prospect of preparing a meal by candlelight was not enticing. Unless you were wearing chain-mail fire-proof gauntlets, you'd probably want to leave that until daylight.

Reading? Forget about it -- I can't imagine how anyone coped with any sort of close work, especially in the days before the widespread availability of spectacles. Evenings, for the elderly and short-sighted, must have been fraught with hazards. No wonder everything always had its allotted place, preferably inside a cupboard or drawer: you were less likely to trip over stuff or walk into it. I guess you'd probably have hunkered down by the fire with a simple meal and got to bed very early indeed. No wonder families were so large.

But, as I walked down to the corner shop to get some more matches, the streetlights suddenly came back on, and we were restored to the 21st century. You could hear muffled cheers coming from inside houses all down the street and a few chirping smoke alarms, presumably triggered by all the candle-smoke. It was a little trial run, I suppose, of how things could be going in the future.


Gavin McL said...

I never got around to commenting on your ghost story post. But I wonder if electric light put paid to ghost stories being effective. I used to go caving and on occasion had to wait for somebody or a minor flood to subside and to save battery you turn your light out and sitting in the total darkness your mind begins to fill in the gaps - the water in the stream starts to sound like somebody talking, footsteps appear, you almost start to see lights coming. All very strange. In a house only lit by candlelight there would be always dark corners, and when you blew the flame out - darkness - what did your mind do to fill in the gaps.

At least you survived the power cut. In 1997 the had some major ice storms in Canada which destroyed the power system. People were without power for weeks. The regularly set fire to their homes with candles and gas fires. The fire services struggled as there was no power to supply the mains. They came very close to buldozing fire breaks in one city to control a bad fire.
Don't have bad dreams!


Gavin McL said...

Sorry - forgot to say

I like the colours in photo 1

The shapes in photo 2

How are the viaduct photos going?

Paul Mc Cann said...

I remember going to bed by candle light in my grandmothers in Galway. Electricity hadn't reached all the rural areas in Ireland in those days. When it came the electrical contractors installing the wiring charged by the light and the switch. One bright spark, to save money, had all the lights on the house controlled by one switch.

Tilly lamps were very popular in places but the light was predominantly provided by oil lamps with their tall glass chimneys.

No running water either. No toilets. All very primitive for a town boy.

Like your two images, especially the second with its contradictory angles.

At one time the ability to capture a good sunset or sunrise was a skill to be learnt. Now its all done in camera and any Johnny can do it, not that I'm suggesting for one minute this is how you did it.

Still enjoying your blog.

Mike C. said...


I think there's a lot in what you say -- our minds do like to fill in blanks -- though personally I find fluorescent lights distinctly spooky, especially "blinky" ones.

I forgot to mention the fire risk, real or imagined -- seeing bare flames close to flammable materials is never a comfortable experience for me. It is remarkable, if you look through digests of 19th c. accidents, how many involve women setting themselves on fire. My own great grandmother was badly disfigured in some such domestic incident.

The viaduct file is building steadily: so much so that I need to balance it with more Twyford Cutting pictures, if the original project is to keep its focus.


I used oil lamps when staying in a non-electrified village on the Greek island of Ios -- managed to burn my hand trying to pick one up by the lamp glass... Not something one ever does twice.

You mean there's a sunrise/sunset button on this thing somewhere?? Damn! I'd noticed the "kittens in a basket" button, and the "smile capture" setting (that second one may bve real, actually) but not that one...


Tony_C said...

Teapot?! How quaint! Must have made the transition to Living in the Past so much less of a leap!

Checkword: dogic - a chain of reasoning which proceeds from, "In the beginning was the Smell".

Mike C. said...


Um, what is quaint about a teapot? Do you brew yours with an iPad, or something?


Tony_C said...

I don't brew much at home, Mike, but if I do its in a metal infuser in the cup nad it's got no milk or sugar. Most often though, when I'm offered it, it's from teabags. Jym G. seems to be the only one left with as much taste as you.Obviously, his is a flying teapot.

Mike C. said...


I realised I missed a good joke there about i-pots or e-pots... Never mind.

Ah yes, the Pothead Pixies... (I am, you are, we are, they are crazy). A world without teapots and the Great British Tea Ceremony is a poorer place, imho.