diamond geezer

 Wednesday, October 06, 2021

I've suffered two power cuts this week.

The first was planned so wasn't too bad. My flat needed some electrical work done which meant turning off the power for a couple of hours, maybe three, the electrician wasn't too sure.

I planned ahead by filling a thermos with tea, piling up a stack of newspapers and charging my phone. I had something to drink, something to read and something to listen to the radio on when every other music-supporting device in my flat went dead. I also had some spreadsheet work to keep me occupied on my laptop, even if I couldn't connect to the outside world because my wi-fi was dead. Had it been December I might have needed an extra jumper because a gas boiler's no use without electricity, but it was October so I was fine.

I kept busy, productive and topped up with hot drinks, and normality returned as intended. It meant going round and resetting a couple of clocks but that was pretty much the worst of it.

The second power cut was unplanned. Damn, I thought, when the radio switched off, the router blinked and a little 'disconnected' logo appeared in the corner of my laptop. I checked my new fuse box in case the switch had tripped but it hadn't, so the problem was probably elsewhere. I worried that the issue might be related to Power Cut One, but when two neighbours said they'd experienced the same thing I realised I might be in for the long haul.

Thankfully I'd only just finished making a cup of tea else my morning would have started very badly, but otherwise I was totally unprepared. I considered the situation and decided my best option was to go out for a nine mile walk. Hopefully everything would be sorted by the time I got home. Alas it was not.

I rang the management company who confirmed there was an issue and an electrician was on the way. They also said they'd sent me an email saying there was no electricity, and I told them I hadn't read it because there was no electricity. I would still be powerless for an indeterminate period, which soon ticked through another hour, and then another.

I resigned myself to cold drinks only. I tried not to open the fridge door and hoped very much that the freezer compartment wasn't warming inexorably. I didn't turn on my laptop because I didn't know how long its internal battery would have to last. I had a bit more newspaper to read so busied myself with that. Several elements of my normal daily routine fell by the wayside because they couldn't be performed.

I could have used my phone to play some background music but didn't risk it because I wasn't sure when I'd next get the chance to charge it. We take for granted that our devices can be set back to 100% and that we'll always be able to interact with the wider world whenever, but a lack of power can easily dash that expectation within hours.

What I do have is a wind-up radio purchased with survivalism in mind, so I put that to good use. It kept running out of juice every few minutes because I wasn't winding it up far enough, and when I did I couldn't hear the music beneath the racket, but it was good to have a bit of background noise.

The unnerving thing was not knowing when this precarious situation might end. Might my entire afternoon be neutered, and when would I be able to use my kettle again, and could I knock up a meal that wasn't just peanut butter sandwiches, and what if it was still like this after dark, and could this slip over into another day, and how would I cope if my phone hit 0% before I could charge it.

The power magically tripped back on after six hours, meaning I could finally have my cuppa and the internet returned and the freezer was OK. Best of all I could go back into the bathroom without a torch or guessing roughly where I was aiming.

We have it easy in London because we don't suffer power cuts very often. Our supply is generally guaranteed, not being reliant on a single cable or a chain of wooden poles along a country lane. Also we don't live in a time of fuel shortages, it's not the 1970s any more, so we're not all sitting round with candles at the ready and the expectation of using them.

And of course I was never in genuine jeopardy during my second power cut. Hot drinks are available in many high street locations, BestMate had offered me a sofa within walking distance and phones can easily be recharged outside the home. It was just an inconvenience faced by thousands each day, a random hiatus in routine, not the end of the world.

But one day it might be. One day the power might go out unexpectedly and it won't just be your block or your street, it'll be far more widespread. The kettle won't be coming on again for days (if at all), your chilled food won't be staying that way and your phone will never revive. We rely so wholly on electricity, most of us with no way of generating our own, that everything can fall apart literally at the flick of a switch.

While I was clutching my wind-up radio I imagined that one day it could be my only connection to the outside world. It means if Radio 4's still broadcasting I'll still be able to find out what's going on rather than sitting at home in ignorance or imagining all kinds of worst case scenarios. Most people will lose that factual connection in days or hours, maybe minutes, but a wind-up radio should still function long after the power goes out.

We're all so used to email, social media and two-way communication that not being able to do it ever again may feel like a bereavement. As the riots start, the plague spreads or the mushroom cloud goes up we'll have so many things to say but no way of broadcasting them, nor any way to hear how everyone else is reacting. Emojis will not survive the apocalypse.

It'll probably never happen because society's good at holding itself together. But if it ever does, prepare to live out your last few minutes, hours or days in communicative isolation. You may never know what's causing all this pandemonium and why, nor whether anyone's coming to help, nor will anyone ever see that last witty message you hoped to send. The final power cut will be a lonely affair, however long or short it may be.

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