Brysons

IN THE AUTUMN OF 1939, during the slightly hysterical confusion that comes with the outbreak of war, Great Britain introduced stringent blackout regulations to thwart any murderous ambitions by the Luftwaffe. For three months it was essentially illegal to show any light at night, however faint. Rule-breakers could be arrested for lighting a cigarette in a doorway or holding a match up to read a road sign. One man was fined for not covering the glow of the heater light from his tropical fish tank. Hotels and offices spent hours every day putting up and taking down special blackout covers. Drivers had to drive around in almost perfect invisibility – even dashboard lights were not allowed – so they had to guess not only where the road was but at what speed they were moving. Not since the Middle Ages had Britain been so dark, and the consequences were noisy and profound. To avoid striking the kerb or anything parked along it, cars took to straddling the middle white lines, which was fine until they encountered another vehicle doing likewise from the opposite direction. Pedestrians found themselves in constant peril as every pavement became an obstacle course of unseen lampposts, trees and street furniture. Trams, known with respect as ‘the silent peril’, were especially unnerving. ‘During the first four months of the war,’ Juliet Gardiner relates in Wartime, ‘a total of 4,133 people were killed on Britain’s roads’ – a 100 per cent increase over the year before. Nearly three-quarters of the victims were pedestrians. Without dropping a single bomb, the Luftwaffe was already killing six hundred people a month, as the British Medical Journal drily observed. Fortunately, matters soon calmed down and a little illumination was allowed into people’s lives – just enough to stop most of the carnage – but it was a salutary reminder of how used to abundant illumination the world had grown.adapted from At Home – A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (2010)