The meteorology office issued a red warning, and at four in the afternoon when the storm was fearsome, the electricity was cut off. I had been using the mobile phone at the time ignorant of the outage and had run its battery down. No mobile. Only our trusty old phone, connected directly into the phone socket, now linked us to the outside world
‘Community spirit’ is a phrase, which I had thought was overused whenever I saw it on TV news programmes about local disasters, house fires, floods, and deaths caused by out of control cars or lorries. Old ladies with benign faces would comment about how good they had been in helping a poor unfortunate victim, or a man would declare that no one suspected anything like the disaster, which had occurred, could ever happen. Yet within the first hour, neighbours called to check we were OK, so did my uncle from London, 300 miles away.
We were happy to report things were ‘fine’. If by being battered by 80mph winds could be described as ‘fine’. At least, nothing had been dislodged by the gale. We’d lit the old wood burner stove for heat and boiled water on it for hot drinks as well as cooking pasta on it for supper.
By six it was dark and we lit our only two candles and five night lights to alleviate the night. So began an evening without electrical power.
The darkness made me realise how different life in Victorian times would have been. Poor light restricts all kinds of evening activities. I started writing by the light of the single faint flickering candle on the table. One candlepower (CP) is not bright. It was precisely defined by the Metropolitan Gas Act 1860 as the light produced by a pure spermaceti candle. The Victorians were precise about scientific terms and defined not only the spermacti’s density but also its rate of burning for a 1 CP rating. Spermaceti candles burn longer, cleaner, and brighter. The spermaceti candle became the acme of candle-making technology in the 18th century. Its fame, endorsed by Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, who favoured the spermaceti candle for its superior burning ability, created a demand so great that it impacted the American East Coast whaling industry, as spermaceti only comes from the sperm whale.
I had no spermaceti candle, mine was a stubby tube of beeswax in which the wick glowed in through the walls of the candle giving an even but fainter light.
Darkness encourages imagination. In the gloomy room, the shadows are more sinister in the feeble light and their patterns more suggestive. Writing was more difficult as facts, impossible to check on Google, had to come directly from the brain. Pictures had to come straight from the mind’s eye, not You Tube. Outside, total blackness descended as if someone had thrown a cloak with tiny holes in it over the house and countryside. The holes made imaginary patterns, named by the ancients as familiar sights. Looking south, they formed the outline of a hunter Orion who bestrides the sky with three prominent stars, Alnitak, Alninam, and Mintaka, as his belt, the bright Betelgeuse as his shoulder, Rigel as his foot and minor stars as his bow.
The night is quiet too – no radio or television for entertainment. At least the piano works, although the music is difficult to see. Suddenly, the power of Schumann and Schubert and their ilk is so obvious. Those Victorian Pop Stars were all the rage in refined drawing rooms across Europe. Small gatherings would have sat beside a red warm and glowing fire, a thing of beauty on a winter night. Incidentally, the Russians, thanks to their long and cold winters have the same word, Krasnaya, for red and beautiful, so Red Square (Krasnaya ploshchad) is both red and beautiful! The main squares in Suzdal, Yelets, and Pereslavl-Zalessky are also named Krasnaya ploshchad.
In the silence of the night, the piano chord dies away once it again presses in on me. My ears hum in the quietness and my eyes see nothing. I am at repose, neither seeing nor listening – nothing but silence and imagination.