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Date: 30/08/13

Cut Out

If you're a grizzled veteran much like myself, you'll probably remember all those glowing predictions we used to get on programmes such as Tomorrow's World and in the papers about the future lives of uz ordinary folks.

It wasn't just the personal jetpacks which would enable us to fly around without all that tedious hanging around in airports (although we were never appraised of the potentially catastrophic consequences of allowing any old clueless twits to zoom through the world at a height of a couple of hundred feet above ground level); it was the technology which would pervade our own lovely homes, often touted under that now-quaintly-archaic term 'labour-saving devices'. You remember the sort of thing: curtains which opened and closed at the touch of a button (not even theatres have managed to iron the bugs out of that one); garage doors which opened by pointing a remote control at them as you drove towards them (or which, when someone with a squiffy pacemaker walked past, open and close with an aesthetically-pleasing if inconvenient sine-wave effect); in short, all the gizmos which would, we were assured, make our domestic lives so much less complicated and free us up for all those meaningful activities which would enrich our lives evermore.

(This fantasy was on a par with the 'paper-free office' - where, if only from the point of self-preservation, one finds oneself printing off more and more stuff than ever before - and the notion that all this technology would create a world in which we would have so much more time for leisure - not appreciating the fact that all that leisure would need something called 'an income' to make it worthwhile, and if unemployment was pushed up to 2½ million and beyond because there was no longer enough work for everyone (or as a result of a deliberately malign government policy), then all the time in the world would not help you).

The other thing which tended to be forgotten in all of this future-gazing was the need for all these gadgets and gew-gaws to be powered. This, in the main (or, rather, the mains - geddit?), means electricity. But what happens when the power goes off, when you have what we call a 'power cut', or what UncleSamians call 'an outage'?

I remember writing a piece for our long-dead community newspaper in about 1989 describing what happened when the pole-mounted step-down transformer in the field to the south of me quite spectacularly blew one Sunday afternoon. I mused briefly ('briefly' because I was working to a limit of about three hundred words) on how close we still are to the primitive condition of our ancestors - any time before about 1935, say - and how, if we are just three missed meals away from eating one another, we are also one lengthy electricity failure away from living in caves.

I lived through the early- and mid-1970s, when we got as close as we're likely to get, at least for the time being, to finding out how utterly dependent we have become. There were frequent and lengthy strikes during that time in either the coal-mining industry or the power-generation industry, or both. Power cuts were the order of the day; I well remember the rotas which our local company - the Merseyside And North Wales Electricity Board, or MANWEB - used to post in prominent places telling us when we could expect our turn.

(Very democratic and organised it was - a given area would lose its power for three hours at a stretch on any given day, and this would be rotated so that the same area wouldn't be off at the same time of day or night twice in quick succession)

I remember hoping that our turn would not come prematurely when we were due to get shut off at 5.45pm, and cause me to miss the end of The Magic Roundabout or Sir Prancelot.

If it sounds terribly grim, then perhaps for a lot of people it was. As a kid of between nine and twelve years of age it was - at worst - an inconvenience; at best, the creation of an almost magical ambience where the living room - usually the preserve of an incandescent light-bulb and the television of an evening - was instead lit by candles and the coal fire. A place where shadows danced madly as the draught around the half-rotten wooden-framed sash windows of our council house caused the candles to flicker ominously. There was an inherent cosiness to it which most kids today in this advanced land will never have experienced.

It couldn't happen today, of course...


...Yes, there are no more strikes by nasty, Commie unions 'holding the country to ransom'. But another group of people have the upper hand now; the ones running corporations whose first (or even sole) responsibility is to 'shareholder value' and "the boddom line". With, as they say, hilarious results.

Like under-investment in infrastructural improvements and skimping on maintenance, to give just two examples. The consequences of such deliberate neglect are constantly with us.

In the case of right here, right now, they manifest themselves in the way in which our power cuts occur.

As I understand it, we are on a main grid circuit (for want of a more technical description). This circuit has two (count them, two) backup circuits, giving a double redundancy in the event of failure.

This, at least, is the theory. The practice however is somewhat different.

We hardly ever get power cuts which fall into the 'goes completely off and stays off for a couple of hours' category. What we get instead is this:

It goes without saying that this causes problems for anyone with electrical equipment in their home, i.e., everybody. It won't bloody well work for one. For another, such a rapid off-on-off-on-off sequence is likely to cause some damage. One recent such failure included a 'brown out', where the power came back on but at reduced voltage, and caused my elderly Aiwa hi-fi to lose all of its presets.

I've thought of getting an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) for at least my PC, because I don't want that either to get knackered up by the power going off in an uncontrolled manner, or to get fried if the power were to come back at the wrong voltage (it does happen). That I haven't invested in such a beast yet is down more to inertia than any hard-headed cost-benefit analysis. Perhaps it will take my getting my fingers burned - maybe literally - before I do something about it.

And then, of course, there are The Clocks. So many things have them now, and when you lose power, so many of them need to be reset. I'm lucky in that all I have are the timer on the central heating and - a recent addition - the one on the front of the gas cooker. I used to leave the hi-fi referred to above on standby, because a power cut would cause the display to flash which was a useful diagnostic when coming downstairs of a morning or coming in from work and being alerted to the fact that we'd lost it for a bit and I needed to check everything.

Other people are not so unencumbered, however, which is why I read this very amusing piece by Alistair Dabbs in The Register with not just a sense of recognition, but with far more Schadenfreude than I suspect is good for me.