The brighter sides of blackouts

I know it’s an act of responsible citizenship to be grumpy at loadshedding and to fret about institutional failure and damage to the economy, and that’s all certainly true enough, but sometimes I have uncontrollable moods when despite my best intentions I can’t help experiencing the darkness as a strange gift, an opportunity, slightly magical, to see things differently.

  1. The lights went out at 8pm and when I stepped outside to take a walk there was only a hidden sliver moon and no clouds and for the first time I saw above my city a sky of stars. I saw distance dusted with silver and that the world is small and everything else is vast. I stood in the middle of my quiet, unremarkable street and stared straight up at abundance. I was given back the night sky; I was given wonder again.


  1. In the countdown to the blackout we switched off the television and lit preemptive candles and read while we still could. It was Saturday night and there was a dinner party in the guesthouse next door and French and American voices drifted not unpleasantly through the window. When the power went off there was stunned silence, then a wail of disbelief and dismay and then, in the chaos of shouted instructions and nervous laughter, an American woman started singing Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”. Everyone stopped to listen, and another American woman joined in. They knew all the words to all the verses and they weren’t good singers but they committed to the song, and on the chorus, the French voices sang along. I looked at my wife and we smiled at each other and we sang “Oh la la la, di da da-da-daa”.


  1. I have always found the 1940s romantic and sexy and blackouts make me think of the Blitz. I like to put on an overcoat and tramp around in the darkness, smoking an imaginary pipe, pretending I’m Captain Mainwaring, just off the train at Waterloo Station, home on a fortnight’s leave, trying to remember my way through the city to my parents’ house.


  1. Down on the promenade the lights of the ships moored in the roadstead are bright and make golden beams like streets on the sea. In the darkness you can’t tell the difference between the lights and their reflections and you can’t see the distance between them; the lights near and further away pile up on each other like apartment blocks. It feels as though you’re on the dark deck of a drifting ship, looking across the water at the bright lights of a city.


  1. When you walk up Main Road in the darkness the sidewalk tables of the restaurants are lit with yellow candles and there’s no music but low voices and cutlery. Diners bring their heads near and speak in secrets and you feel like you’re Graham Greene walking up the Rue Catinat from the Saigon River to the Continental Hotel in 1957.


  1. Down a dark sidestreet between Main Road and Beach Road I actually bumped a man standing beside a small motorcycle. He was squinting up at the darkness, scratching his head. He was a delivery biker with a pizza order but he couldn’t see the names of the apartment blocks. We hunted around together for a while but it was like wearing swimming goggles painted black. He was from the DRC and he used to be a car guard but he’d been delivering pizzas for three weeks. When he was younger his mother had made him promise that he would never ride a motorbike, so he hasn’t told her yet what he does for a living. He was concerned that the pizzas were getting cold, so we stood in the street and yelled: “Who ordered pizzas?” Someone shouted from above us, “Over here!” Then someone else shouted, “No, I did!” Then someone else shouted, “Pizza over here!” I told him I’d take the pizza off his hands, but he took his job very seriously.


  1. When a MyCiti bus goes by on Beach Road, it’s a bright bubble of glass. You can see the people inside peering out or resting their heads against the windows but they can’t see you in the darkness. They’re in a glass submarine descending into an ocean trench, and you’re a stealthy sea-creature gliding past.


  1. When I arrived back home my wife asked me if I enjoyed the walk, and I said to her, “Who are you, and what are you doing in my parents’ home?” She said, “Huh?” I said: “Are you a WREN? Are you a cryptographer with the Enigma programme? Were you billeted here unexpectedly?” And she said, “Oh, you must be Captain Mainwaring. I’ve heard a lot about you. You’d better come in.”

The Times, 23 April 2015