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0 In the Dark

  • Issues
  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 14-09-2011
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I was up late watching the thrilling final of the Men's Singles at the US Open and Djokovic was about to serve for the match in the third set. Would Nadal hold on?

Before the World No.1 hit his first serve everything went black. I looked into the road and could see some lights on, but there was a dark area where the street light opposite our house was out. I lit candles and found a phone book with the Electricity Emergency number. They did not know of any faults in my area. I checked the fuse box and that was OK. They would send someone round, should be within four hours.

I tried to get our clockwork radio to work in the hope that I might find the result of the match in New York, but the band connecting the generator to the spring had snapped. So I lit candles, read a bit and then went around with a candlestick in my dressing gown like someone from a BBC Victorian drama . Eventually I went to bed. I was woken not long after I dozed off by a phone call. The men from EDF Energy were at the door.

They were a cheery pair who checked out my fuse box, noted that the junction box dated from around 1900, and said they could do nothing. As they emerged by torch light from inspecting the equipment in the cellar I thought I would show them the book I had published earlier this year. They trained their lights on the cover of Children of Light: how electricity changed Britain for ever. I thought they might have offered to buy a copy but they simply showed mild surprise that I was the author, the man in a dressing gown carrying a candle.

It occurred to me as they left what strange continuities there are in history. The men, as British as you like, were working for the company EDF. This is the acronym for Electricité de France which now owns a big chunk of our power networks. It was similarly a French company, the Société Général d'Eltricitié which had lit the Embankment in London with arc lamps in the 1870s at a time when Britain was a little tardy in introducing the new technology.

I went back to bed and was woken again by a call to tell me another team would be out to look at the problem in the next few hours. I was asked if I minded them using heavy machinery in the early hours of the morning. I said I did not mind but my neighbours might, and we left it at that. Around 5 am I woke briefly to see that the lights had come on again. I went around re-setting the freezer and checking everything that might have been affected.

I went back to bed and slept in. When I woke I felt pleased with myself for getting the problem solved. My wife, however, looked disgruntled and I wondered what was wrong. It turned out that in my travels around the house in the black out I had dropped wax everywhere, much of it now solidified in the carpet. The art of nightly candle-carrying has been lost, in my household at any rate.

No heavy machinery was needed to put the power back on. I have no idea what went wrong, but it was likely a fuse in our local sub-station. Only two or three houses appear to have been affected. Next door, our neighbour, who usually sets off for the City about 5.30 am, was late for work. His alarm was run off the mains. There is nothing like clockwork for reliability: provided the elastic band does not snap.