The Dark Times

I’m sure 30 years from now your kids will be telling your grandchildren about the time that they had to ‘social distance’ — the time when the whole of the world was in lockdown. Jaw dropping, eyes wide, the grandchildren will lap it up…And then the moment you say, ‘But actually they were the best days of our childhood,’ they’ll decide that you’re just exaggerating and conclude it’s just the fantasy of an aging generation.These times remind me so much of my teenage years growing up in the UK.Okay, now I sound like my parents who are about to tell me a nostalgic story from WWII. Just like their teenage years in the war, however, my teenage years were extraordinary times. Perhaps they were the worst of times for many families. My siblings and I remember them, however, as the best of times.This is what the media says happened (I’ve added my comments in parentheses):In the Britain of the 1970s, power cuts and lengthy blackouts became a fact of life. The country’s electricity network had long been vulnerable to mechanical failure or industrial action. In December 1970 hospitals were forced to function on batteries and candles during a “work-to-rule” strike.(True. After my mum had a mastectomy, we could only find her in the ward with a torch.) But the oil shock of 1973 caused the situation to become even worse. Prime Minister Edward Heath (deceased and now confirmed subject of investigation in 42 pedophile cases) attempted to impose a prices and incomes policy to cap rampant inflation, but the unions resisted. (It’s now confirmed that the unions had been infiltrated by Russian agitators who wanted to bring down the UK economy in the Cold War period and influence the election… sound familiar? The more things change, the more they stay the same.)Heath declared a three-day work week after a series of miners’ strikes. Transport came to a halt, and electrical heating stopped working in many homes -anything that depended on a regular power supply was unable to function. The situation calmed after Heath lost the February 1974 election, (Oh happy Russia!) but the country’s generating supply was still precarious. Power would be cut off without warning.After the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1978/79, Margaret Thatcher took on the mining unions. This, together with the deregulation of the energy industry, and the discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea, (announced in 1978 but discovered in 1971) brought an end to the widespread blackouts which had plagued Britain.Other than my parentheses commentary, it’s quite a bland description of what was — for me — an enthralling and disruptive time. For Britain, it was every bit as chaotic and frightening as the current time. Being a teenager, I didn’t really understand politics. I watched the TV news as Heath gave his chaotic daily bulletins (sounds familiar also?) much as 13-year-olds today must be watching Trump and Johnson change their minds every other day in contradictory tweets and grandstanding speeches.It didn’t matter…As a teenager there was a palpable excitement. Something was wrong. All our parents were on red alert. We could sense their tension. Things were changing. The more they tried to placate us with platitudes, the more excited we got. This was how my parents had described the build-up to WWII. Parents distraught, teenagers excited by nothing more than a change in routine. At school, some said their fathers had told them categorically that the country was doomed. Others said mothers cried that it was going to be worse than rationing in WWII. BBC news (our main source of ‘facts’) told us the sky was falling in).We were teenagers. We were excited by drama and change. School was so robotically boring that we would have welcomed any crisis. This meant a change from routine. Would the school bus have enough gas to get us there and back? Would the school have lighting? Would teachers turn up or go on strike? How could we eat if the electric grill didn’t have power? We were teenagers buzzed with excitement while our parents were probably quite frantic about how many people would die in hospitals without power for the life machines (a lot) or how many older citizens would die from hypothermia?The regional newspaper that was our main source of information started to issue a weekly timetable of rolling blackouts. Zip code by zip code we could see that we would face 2 to 3 hour blackouts every day. If the blackouts happened at 3 am, who cared? But if the blackout was at 6 pm, then that was significant.Every day at school, one or more pupils brought in a copy of the North Wales and Liverpool Daily Post newspaper. We gathered around it like a crowd looking for lottery results. The very first day of rolling blackouts I saw that our zip code was blacked out between 9 am and 12 and 6 pm and 9pm. I didn’t care about the 9 am to 12 period because I was a teenager at school…But I really cared about the 6 pm one:How would my parents cope? Would there be any dinner? What would we do without prime TV hours? Would we all just sit in the dark for 3 hours?Even though our school bus picked us up at 3:45 and dropped us off close to home at 4:30, the headmaster announced that all pupils in zip codes, which he read them out, need to leave school early. So exciting! The buses came early and we headed home like kids being evacuated from a war zone… except we were actually going into one.When we got home, my parents had already planned ahead. Sandwiches were made in advance. The tea kettle had been kept piping hot for an hour before probably using up more electricity in the constant reheats than a week of normality. We all huddled in the lounge. The clock on the mantelpiece clicked down the second until 6 pm. The tension was palpable. No one spoke except in hushed tones. At 5:45, Dad issued a command for the coal fire to be restocked. My brother and I went to arms and in minutes had a great fire raging up the chimney. Mum kept rearranging the configuration of the sandwiches so that, when the power went out, it would be easy to tell ham from egg and cress. Vital decisions.We watched the clock tick down toward 6pm… and because the clock was always slow we all screamed out loud when the electricity went off before we were ready. That was the first time I realized how much background hum electricity creates. The silence was invasive. Magical… in my opinion.Upon orders from our dad, my brother lit candles that my mum had spent hours placing strategically around the room. My mum and dad had survived WWII. Both had seen houses burned to the ground by incendiary bombs. Mum had lived in an air raid shelter for 2 1/2 years. Dad was evacuated to the countryside to live with a family of strangers. Yet here they were… behaving as if this was the first crisis that they had ever encountered. Again, doesn’t it all sound familiar?But despite the comedy of it all, here’s the best thing:With no TV or gramophone playable, we actually started talking. Talking during TV prime time? Never! Prior to the rolling blackouts, we all sat in front of the TV eating food off trays. No one spoke. The most noise was a grunt from dad if my head got in the way of the screen. He would wave his hand at me like the person who waves airplanes to the gate until I got out of the view. Everyone stared silently at the flickering lantern and conversation was forbidden (in case it interrupted the attention to the TV show, dumb shows most of the time).My dad asked how our school days had gone. He never asked that. We told him and he actually seemed interested. Mum told a story about blackouts in the war and we lapped it up. We just talked. We became family again, not saggy skeletons sitting in front of a fast-moving photo show. The 3 hours went by like seconds.And when the lights suddenly flared up again at 9pm, we all let out a collective sound of disappointment. The magic had been broken by electricity.Over the next few weeks, and whenever we had the 6 – 9am blackout or 9pm – midnight — which was even more exciting — we developed games. Mum would start a ghost story and then, without warning, stop talking and name one of us to continue. We had to make it up. No one had ever been asked to do that before. I was considered the academic and creative one compared to my siblings, but I could not hold a light to their stories. Their imaginations went wild and we laughed and laughed until… well… until the power was restored. On came the lights. Then the TV powered up and there was no more talking. Then it was bedtime.This current ‘crisis’ reminds me so much of that time. Where I live today, I could walk for hours and never see another soul. Now I see dozens of families walking and cycling together and, more importantly, all engaging in conversation. I guarantee that kids will look back on this as the best of times and will reminisce with their own children.These are dark times, but sometimes the dark brings out the best in us. We huddle together and are somehow kinder to each other. Cherish it and make the most of it because it will not last long. It never does.CheersTrevThis article is also published on

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