Light Fantastic

19th January 2008

Geraint Jones spends a day without power.

According to the communications industry regulator Ofcom, on average we spend 50 hours a week either watching television, surfing the internet, talking on the telephone or listening to the radio. Given that we are awake for 16 hours or so a day, and allowing a couple of hours for essential activities like commuting or shopping, it means we spend around half of the time available to us transfixed by these devices.

Imagine if they were all taken away, at a stroke, without warning…
It happened to me, one gloomy day shortly before Christmas, at around 9.30am, just as I had settled at my desk and was beginning to trawl through the morning emails.

There was a click from somewhere in the house and the image on my computer screen shrank to a little white dot which soon disappeared altogether. I tried the light – nothing; the lights downstairs, the television, the microwave, the kettle – nothing. All unresponsive, dead, useless.

'OK', I thought, 'it must be a fuse.' So I checked the fuses and they were all fine. 'Then it’s a power cut,’ I reasoned. 'The whole street must be out.'

But it wasn't. Next door's Christmas lights were still on and there were warm glows here and there up and down the street on what was a cold and still quite dark winter morning.

I phoned the power company. A man arrived encouragingly quickly, examined various important boxes in the cellar and shook his head.

'Looks serious, mate, we may have to dig the road up to sort this one out. Could be a long one. We'll be in touch.'

Earlier I had had heat, light, entertainment, the means to work and that cold, blowy, winter's day outside was no more real than an image on a television screen.

Now things were very different. The heavy clouds meant that precious little light was getting into the house, the temperature was dropping and I had nothing I could be getting on with or to keep me entertained.

'First things first,’ I thought. 'Must keep warm… make a fire.'
I found some logs, paper, kindling and matches and and soon there was a decent blaze going. I pulled a chair close to the fire and settled back to watch it. After all, I had nothing better to do. The cat, who normally has his pick of any number of centrally heated nooks and crannies, came wandering in with that unerring instinct he possesses to find the warmest spot in the house, and made himself comfortable down on the hearth. I remembered that book I'd been meaning to finish but hadn't got round to, and was soon immersed in it.

The hours ticked by surprisingly easily until my teenage son came home from school. He wandered in, dumped his bag in the hall, grunted ‘hello’ and turned on the television, just as he always does. Except that today the TV didn't respond. His initial look of shocked incredulity changed to one of questioning as he turned to me.

'Power cut,' I said. 'It'll be off all night probably.'

I could see him digesting this information. No Hollyoaks, no Friends, no computer football, no online chatting with his chums. He stomped off in a sulk, and rummaged around in his room for a while before realising it was cold up there and warm by the fire. So he pulled up a chair and began to read the book he had meant to finish but hadn't got round to.

To repair our fault the power company had to turn off the neighbours' supply for a few hours in the evening. We felt guilty about this so invited them round for supper. (A gas hob meant that we could at least cook).

The kitchen table was out of bounds (too cold) so we huddled round the candlelit fireside with our plates on our knees and chatted. Myself, my partner, our son and two neighbours. One voice heard quite frequently during the evening was that of the aforementioned son… making conversation with the rest of us. Teenage Son Makes Conversation – strange, I know; difficult to believe, but true.

It was nearly midnight before our electricity supply was restored. In the depths of winter we had spent around 14 hours without heat, light and the gadgets and mod cons we have all come to take for granted.

I can tell you that we didn't freeze or starve and we didn't die of boredom. When the lights did finally come back on and the various electronic devices around the house clicked and whirred into life once again, I was rather sorry. For a day we had lived as a family might have done a hundred years or so ago - and it wasn't half bad.

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