The Vital Spark

Do you remember your dreams?  I rarely do and yet last night I had a dream that has stayed with me and really made me think about how frighteningly dependent we are upon technology for our survival. 

 In my dream I was living in the suburbs of a large city (Birmingham I think) and working in an office block in the commercial sector of town.  The problem was that the UK had suddenly and completely lost its electricity supply and that it was unlikely to be restored (I don’t know why, it was a dream after all!).  I won’t bore you with detail  but the dialogue that then ensued with my colleagues became increasingly chilling.  Initially there was the realisation that we would not be able to work because of our dependency on computers and in any event the banking system could no longer function.  There was the short lived hope that standby generators would save the day but they are powered by petrol or diesel which relies upon electricity to be refined and distributed.  Even the fuel in the tanks of the filling stations is pumped by electricity.  Without fuel there would be no food distribution and the freezers across the land were already defrosting and the supermarket shelves would soon be empty, never to be restocked.  Worse, the water that we drink depends upon electricity for its purification and distribution.  Where would we find clean water in the middle of a city?  The telephone networks were dead but it was the call from my brother who lives in Cheshire, mobile to mobile, that twisted the knife.  He said “Tim, my battery is almost dead, I don’t suppose we will speak again and there is nothing we can do for Mum in Devon. Goodbye and good luck.” And the connection was lost.

 When I awoke in the morning the dream was still with me and prompted me to do some research into the history of electricity. As recently as 1900, just 109 years ago, it was basically just starting to be used as an alternative to gas lamps and , apart from lighting, played no real part in peoples lives.  What an extraordinary difference those 109 years have made and how scary to think how totally dependant we have become on that invisible force that we cannot live without.  I once came across a quote that said “Civilisation is only ever three missing meals way from anarchy”.  Without electricity those meals would soon disappear.

The Best Day of the Year?

If you could transport yourself back in time to 1961 and travel to Hoylake, a pleasant seaside town on the end of the Wirral Peninsular, you might spot a little lad, aged nine or ten, wandering along the seafront.  We will call him Tim.  He is wearing brown Clarks sandals with those strange white crepe soles and a sort of sunburst on the front.  He has blue shorts and a green Ladybird jumper.  Rather disconcertingly he also has a sheath knife hanging from his belt, but in those days boys needed knives to prise limpets off rocks, chop up bait, cut fishing line, whittle sticks and boyish things like that.

 If you stopped him and asked him which was his favourite day of the year, what would he say?  Would it be his birthday?  Well, birthdays were OK but they had to be kept a deadly secret, because if your school friends found out, getting the bumps was a very real threat.  So perhaps not his birthday.  What about Christmas?  Christmas was fab but the good bits were really all over by breakfast.  Think back, when you were a child did you ever wake up in the night and hear the clock downstairs chime quarter past?  But quarter past what?  You had to lay awake and listen to half past chime, then quarter to and then the hour and then dong, dong, dong.  Oh no, only three o’clock and a long sleepless night ahead spent counting dongs on the blessed clock.

 Of course eventually morning arrived and opening the presents in the stocking was great and then getting the big presents and giving presents to people and the special Christmas breakfast but then it is kind of all over.  Dad and the uncles are busy playing with your new train set or Scalectrix or whatever and ‘of course you can have a go when they have ‘sorted it out’’.  So instead you make the Airfix battleship that was supposed to keep you quiet on Boxing Day and then it is lunch time.  The trouble with Christmas lunch was that it always involved sprouts and, frankly, the surreptitious trips upstairs to sample the content of the Chocolate Smoker’s Outfit that Santa had brought (start them young on chocolate pipe, cigarettes, matches etc) has rather taken the edge off your appetite.  After dinner the effects of the third sherry (oh, go on then dear, it is Christmas after all) has taken its toll on the grannies and the aunts who are all fast asleep.  So young Tim read his new Eagle Annual cover to cover and, in desperation, even read his little brother’s Rupert Annual.  Then they all wake up and it is Christmas cake and off to bed.  So maybe not Christmas.

 Actually, the very, very, very best day of the year was Bonfire Night!  Perhaps it was such a great day in young Tim’s year because he had to wait all day in gleeful anticipation of the evening’s excitement, or perhaps it was because of all work that hard that had gone into preparing the bonfire.

 As if by some ancient instinct, boys would start to gather on the waste ground by the market gardens on the first Saturday after the school term had started.  The glories of last year’s ‘bonny’ were discussed and plans started to be laid for the coming event.  A ‘Bonfire Master’ was elected and charged with the task of project managing the undertaking.  His role was to allocate tasks and supervise the construction of the pyre.  There were builders and gatherers.  Young Tim was a gatherer with his mate Michael.  Gatherers had to possess a trolley.  Now for the benefit of those not familiar with trolleys, they were the primary source of transport for the under 11’s, because your first proper bike tended to the bribe that (hopefully) got you through your 11 plus.  In the days before baby buggies, children used to be transported in prams and prams had decent sized wheels.  Once the pram was obsolete, the wheels and axles were removed and attached to either a large strong plank, or some times a wooden framework with decking to make a ‘trolley’.  The front axle was mounted on a swivel to provide steering by way of ropes. The trolley was designed for two boys, with the motive power coming from the boy sitting on the back, facing backwards and pushing along with his feet.  He was often also the braking mechanism.  Sometimes attempts were made to construct a lever that pressed against one of the back wheels, but more often the ‘pusher’ was give the instruction ‘Whoa there’ and had to use the soles of his shoes, pressed against the pavement, to bring the vehicle to a halt.  Given the popularity of The Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers, most instructions were given in cowboy speak.

 Back to the bonfire.  The gatherers were allocated streets by the Bonfire Master and would speed off on their trolleys to go knocking from house to house asking ‘Anything for the Bonny please?  The householder would take advantage of this request and have all his autumnal garden rubbish removed from back garden to the bonfire site.  I seem to remember that a fair amount was also strewn about the streets!  Of course sometimes it was not just prunings that were loaded in teetering mounds on the trolley, sometimes you got something really great and the best ever was an old armchair.  Something for Guy to sit on!  The key to a good bonny was a strong centre pole which was set deep into the ground and then the collected materials were built carefully around it.  There was a great science to this and the bonny itself would often be at least eight feet across and twelve feet tall requiring ladders to be used for the last parts of the construction.

 At last November 5th would dawn and a whole day at school had to be endured in squirming anticipation as the clock ticked slowly round to home time.  After tea it was fireworks in the back garden and then round to the bonny for the great lighting at 6.30.  I would have to admit that the pockets of Tim’s duffle coat would be secretly stuffed with bangers and jumping jacks (not a good idea children).  The lighting was the culmination of weeks of work and the Bonfire Master’s reputation was on the line.  Would it light OK?  Would it burn evenly and, most importantly, would it be a good long burn?  All of these factors would be noted and discussed at length when the boys all gathered round the embers the following day.

 So bonfire night was pretty special; looking back we performed a useful service in clearing rubbish and we learned to work together as a team as well as having a lot of fun and, dare I say it, finding out more about explosives than is probably good for ten year old boys!