Lighting the Way Back

Into the Light

We had light but we didn’t always have central heating installed. Like hundreds of others we were a bit heat poor and light poor. Winter was the worst.

Winters sometimes caused domestic windows to crack. The ice formed along the bottoms of the lowest panes of glass. It made a “U” shape. Flat at the bottom and curving gently, the ice went up the side of the window panes and narrowed the higher up it went. I used to try and pick it off in the mornings. With a spoon. Then a butter knife. Once. Only Once. That earned (or as we might have said “earnt”) us chastisement from Nana. “Are you trying to break the window?” she would say. “No Nana but I want some ice”. “I’ll give you ice” she would say.

This last was not a promise but a more delicate Lancastrian authoritarian linguistic construction. It worked in this way:- Should a child say that he or she wanted something named, were it proscribed, then the desired thing would be used euphemistically in the affirmative sentence by the adult, really meaning punishment. Thus: “What are you doing?” “I’m trying to get apples from next door’s tree” “I’ll give you next door’s tree”. The last sentence would be said on a downward tone. We all knew what it meant. But latterly, it just became symbolic for “just give over”.

A walk around many old streets in my hometown in the winter might have seen a nightlight of some kind lit and sitting in a saucer on the indoor windowledge – and between the window itself and the curtains – to better to stop the ice forming indoors. We were a bit more upmarket and so we had some Nelly Kelly lamps left over from the war. We put those in the window. The faint smell of paraffin perfuming our otherwise cold and damp bedrooms. These tiny lights were comforters (to us) and window savers (to our parents). You treated them with respect though. They could set your house on fire. The practice ceased in the middle sixties, no doubt after some domestic fire (and the advent of warmer homes for many).

These lights and the red-tipped matches that lit them were among the smallest lights of those times. Well, those and the tiny dashboard bulb of Dad’s first car – a Triumph Herald 1200. Tiny lights are important to us all. They harmonise, cheer our rooms and delight us. Remembering a candle in the wise of a chorister given to us one Christmas, I pestered my parents to light it. I wanted to eat by candlelight. No, correction – I wanted us all to eat together by candlelight. (If I had known the word ‘atmosphere’ I might have used it to persuade them). Well, my wish was granted, but only the following year, for I had had to wait upon my mother’s tiring of the angelic features. Dusty and neglected, the chorister was deemed superfluous to ornamental requirement. Thus we lit it and were all awed. The angelic waxen figure slowly and grotesquely inwardly became molten; the head a pool of clear paraffin wax and the gay outer colours disappearing completely, rather in the way that snow is not white when it melts. The poor poupee! By the time we had eaten our Christmas Pudding and custard, he resembled a standing medical experiment gone wrong. (I subsequently lit it again in order to attempt the recapture of that dinner – but the mood did not return, and my mother, overwhelmed with the smell of the wax and smoke, and my striking of the many matches that the lighting of a candle involves at the age of eight or nine, took the now headless doll from me and placed it unceremoniously in the ash bin).

But I digress. Even though lights are omnipresent and more powerful these days, our town was full of light. Well, full of lights. Every street was lit and even some paths that were definitely off the beaten track. There was huge variety. From gas lights and simple one-bulb electric lights to sophisticated new sodium lamps and huge fluorescent tubed metal-poled then concrete poled standards. They helped us through the dark, each and every one of them.

But the little lights – the ones in the happenstance terraced streets – I remember mostly. Who knows what foundry cast the poles of many of them now? The paperwork is probably lost forever. And does it matter? Well it certainly did to me for no two of them were ever quite the same. I also thought that I was the only one who noticed. (I still do).

These were formerly gas lamps and their cast iron standards were all slightly different. By that, I don’t mean that they were painted in different shades (although that was true as well because they all faded slightly differently); nor were they different colours (although the ones up to the town hall were painted in magenta and cream as opposed to the usual green). No, I mean that some were fatter than others, some had the last two to three foot of their length to the pavement in a different shape and some had no particularly shapely and becoming cast at the base at all.

Some were rounded at the base; others had the delicate inward curve that looked as thought it ought to have been plant-based but was indeed a product of mathematics – somewhat symbolic of the old new industrial age. Others were corrugated poles of uniform diameter – vaguely reminiscent of the three columns that we all eventually saw on the early pages of our Latin primers (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian). Though appearing at one with their environment, there was nothing of the natural world about them in any way.

Some of the concave poles also had narrower fluted columns. They too echoing classical architecture (but as an afterthought made in cast iron and moulded in sand).

Most sported an arm just below the lamp (if gas) or the timing gear (if electric). This was for the lamplighter’s ladder and redundant after electrification. It was at right angles to the pole proper and followed the line of the kerb. This arm was made of twisted iron, yet romantic in the manner of braided ribbon or plaited hair. The arm terminated in a flat arrowhead. Children swung from them sometimes. Nowadays they would be worth a fortune. Scarcely a soul gave them a second glance when they were everywhere.

In the fog they were the merest pinprick of light. On clearer nights – wet or dry – they lit the way with tiny pools of white. But there is the difference. They lit the way and therefore led the way but they did not dazzle. Nor did they illuminate to the extent we now take for granted. That would have been thought unusual and unnecessary. They were painted green. A handpainted white number on a dull black circle identified each lamp post. All hand painted. The painting took place regularly and around each base would be carefully placed a little protective fence of three-sided palings, held together with twisted industrial wire). It was a regular job. Somebody obviously cared.

At night time and from the distance in the darkness they twinkled like the most distant stars. As a child I knew what I wanted too – I did not want the stars. I wanted the little lights that led to my grandparents’ home. These were my stars. These were my heavens – not too far distant; completely comprehensible and just big enough for a child to get both hands around – and which these infant hands touched and held many times.

For those street lamps with the swan neck, somebody had cared enough – or been careless enough – to make each one of those different too. Their shape echoed a few things. For instance, the width of the pavement and the position of the lamp post in relation to it; whether the lamp post was at an intersection; whether it was the only light on the street. The actual lights were not of uniform height either. Thus planned they lent an air of wonderful serendipity to the urban landscape. It meant to me – in my childlike rationalisation – that somebody had looked and somebody had cared (to care – or not to care? Now there was and still is alphabetically the next question) to let the curves of the swan necks enhance the surroundings. And so it was that our town of tiny paradoxes was not really made from “one size fits all”. That maxim does not lie easily on it even today.

But somebody really did seem to care. The number and variety of the lamps that we saw was massive. Each swan neck a questionmark asking “Am I correct? Will I pass muster in my location?” (Some of them looked like gentlemen standing at a bus stop. Some looked like grannies with their hands on their hips. Some looked as if they were laughing – head back and smiling. If they could have spoken, what might they not have said?).

Many cultures have words for the use of gentle lights and small lights. However it is the Danes in particular who understand that small lights are comforting. They call it ‘hygge’. We have adopted the word in “Hug”. Small lights add atmosphere. Small lights make us appreciate each other more. Small lights also show us how we should celebrate. The Russians have a single word – огонек for “small light”.

Large light is ugly. It encourages us to stop looking. It makes us ignore things. It stops us from seeing. In the street it makes us hurry. It makes us boldly speedy in the darkness.

For all we were children of the Space Age, we grew up with that still new marvel that was artificial light. Not light in abundance.

A Change – And a Change was Inevitable and it did come. With the change came organised – neat too, if you will – disarray. The change cost us all. It cost us Then.

For Once Upon a Time, Somebody cared about Our People, our streets and our roads and by-ways. They illuminated them carefully. The result was what it was. The lights were not to bring daylight. Rather they were also a celebration of a symbolic light. The lights did not shine but they twinkled. The lights showed tentatively that it was night. But the lights also showed in a frail way a gentle and comforting assistance. They comforted. They made the plain into a home. They reminded us of a less illuminated time when artificial light was still a luxury – a time that whenever an evening meeting might have been called, that the question “How will the moon be?” would have had to have been asked.

The people who ordained the change wanted to forget all that. They had forgotten their duties as Public Servants anyway. They wanted to be with rockets to the moon, travel by jet, and instant mashed potatoes (just add water). Those whose job it had been to keep the gentle light shining were going to be replaced by those who would make it their job to see that it was taken away. In its place would come the permanent yellow and later LED light of eternal strife – if they did but know it.

And so the Compulsory Purchase Orders came. The little houses which were pleasant homes were demolished. The lamp posts were knocked about and broken. The little lights were gone – and the comfort with them. Where there had been, was not any longer. And where whatever (“love” by the way, should you be unsure) was (supposedly) fain to dwell, did that no longer. The hymn says “ubi caritas et amor” and I suppose so, as long as it is allowed, but it was not. The people, when they most needed care and help to stand up were left broken and forgotten. And we all lost. Some moved away and some lost the place, and some like Little Sally at number 17, died before the end came, alone and frightened and without even a hand to hold. Even Grandad died.

Nana got sent to a new flat. The neighbours were dispersed. Yes the house was better – inside bathroom and toilet, warm air heating, new and now-abundant light and electric sockets for mostly non-existent appliances. But the streets were different because they were lit by bright new fluorescence. Windows looked in at one another.

Nana decorated her new place with some of the furniture she had – leaving behind wardrobes and two chairs and her kitchen table – oaken and the scene of breadmaking, cake making, stew making not to mention wallpapering and other things besides. She bought new lightshades for the overhead lights (in the plural) and some lamps (ditto) – one for the dressing table and two (one a standard lamp from Iveson’s in Rochdale) for the living room. But something was still wrong.

Whether she bought the little swan necked lamp I am not now sure. It might have been a Christmas present from one of her nieces. But the little light appeared and became a focal point in the room. (People who were victims of the CPOs were often rehoused in houses and flats with central heating. They were perplexed at how they might organise their living room. “What are we going to face?” they said. “Where will we put our furniture?” – for before, everything had focussed on the fireplace, the firelight, the pictures set therein; the loving heart and warm hearth. Replaced by the television receiver, it became a case of inverse Orwellism – that of “you” watching “Big Brother”).

Of the little light, Daddy said that it was not practical, and I disliked him for his lack of empathy and maladroit artistic appreciation. But for Nana and for me it was enough, even though we never spoke about it.

Unkindly it might be called kitsch. But kitsch or not, impractical or not, it was symbolic. Symbolic of true hearth and true home and true comforting light. The welcome lamplight.

And the lamp contains its original night light. It has never yet been lit.

But to know that we could – if we had wanted to – was enough. It is enough to know. That is all.

And sometimes that is all that is required.

But, sufficient unto the day, and all that. N’est-ce pas?


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