On Friday evening Storm Arwen swooped down from the north east along the highland boundary fault line, demolishing trees and power lines between Doune and Callander, before cutting a swath across the Carse of Stirling, and disappearing to the south west. I was on the phone to Glasgow at about half seven, when suddenly the line went dead and the lights went out. The lights came on again almost immediately, but this was merely the transient ischaemic attack before the onset of the stroke proper. The lights went out and stayed out, and I was completely in the dark. I fumbled my way to the drawer containing the torch, and went to my second phone which is a retro phone in black Bakelite which does not require a power source. I was able to complete the Glasgow phone call. No, I’m fine thank you. The house is well insulated and nice and warm. I have dined. I will read by candle light, and have an early night.
I used to rather like power cuts, perhaps with an utterly misguided nostalgia for the blitzy atmosphere of the blackout. When you are young, everything is an adventure. You see film footage of kids in devastated theatres of war playing football without a care in the world. At what stage in life do you lose that ability to live in the present? I was anxious and fretful about getting cold in the night. At home, electricity is my only power source. No gas, no coal fire. There is nothing attractive about virtue-signalling one’s green credentials, while simultaneously freezing to death. I do have an ancient gas heater than runs on a cylinder of Calor gas, but, like the five foolish virgins in the bible who didn’t oil their lamps, I hadn’t switched it on for about a decade, and now, of course, it was dead as a dodo. Nothing for it but to put on an extra jumper – “wrap up”, Eddie Mair invariably used to say after the weather forecast on Radio 4’s PM Programme – and fire up the candles. What to read? Mindful of the sonnet On his Blindness, I chose Anna Beer’s scholarly Milton, Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot (Bloomsbury 2008). It is said that Milton damaged his eyesight by working too much by candlelight. The same has been said of J. S. Bach. I don’t know if there is any medical evidence for such an assertion. Anyway I kept at it for a while, and then I thought, maybe this power cut is affecting my house alone. I put on a few more layers and stepped outside into a howling gale. The whole village was in pitch darkness. Time for bed.
At first light the refuse collectors were out on time emptying our bins. They did well, because I subsequently learned there were lots of fallen trees scattered around the main arterial routes. Our village got off lightly, with only a few slates off roofs. The village store was open, conducting business by torch light, cash only. I got newspapers, and information. Scottish Power had abandoned attempts to get things up and running at 2.30 am. There had been high winds and it was deemed too dangerous. Glasgow phoned. Would I like to come through for some warmth, and a hot meal? Very kind, but I’m sure the power will return soon. I went into Stirling and had hot coffee and a toasted croissant with cheese and tomato, and read the papers. Then I hunted around for a replacement to my defunct gas heater, to no avail. A second night without power would be challenging.
Well, sufficient unto the day. I went to my gym for the first time in nearly two years, for a shower, and a sauna. The sauna was very restorative. Then somebody came into the clammy wooden cube, with a barking cough, and I slipped out and went for a swim. Home again at dusk, in hopes of seeing twinkling lights in the village. Alas no. I made the house safe and jumped back into the car to go to meet friends in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and to hear the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, again for the first time since March 2020. Then I remembered I needed to carry out a lateral flow test before attendance. Back into the house, and conducted the test by torchlight. After you apply the sample to the test kit, you need to wait fifteen minutes for the result, and it was during this wait that the lights came back on. Relief! And the test came back negative. I boiled the kettle and had another coffee. Thence to Glasgow, with a light heart.
Wagner, Thorvaldsdottir, Sibelius, and Brahms. The concert hall wasn’t very warm, and Sibelius’ last substantial work, the tone poem Tapiola, must be the most evocative depiction of the frozen northern wastes ever composed. In the other hemisphere, Captain Oates might have slipped out of the tent, with the intention of being gone for quite some time, to this score. Fortunately my time in the sauna, albeit truncated, had afforded me some central heating. The hall was perhaps one third full, all audience members masked, with social distancing. I had that sense again of a war-time atmosphere. After the interval Sunwook Kim played Brahms’ first piano concerto. Balsam.
Home by eleven. Lights still on. But it has been a bit of a wake-up call. It wouldn’t take much for our civilisation to slip back into the dark ages. John Buchan writes about the fragility of our seemingly substantial institutions. In one of the Richard Hannay books – I can’t remember which one – Hannay takes a walk through the streets of London, as he often does, and admires the solidity of the mansions. Then he is disconcerted by the image of a bleak white face pressed up against a window pane.
I’m off to see if I can buy a portable gas heater.