When the lights went out

When I was doing my PhD at St Andrews in the early 1970s, blackouts were an occasional feature as militant unions of nationalized industries used industrial muscle to force governments to capitulate to their wage demands. They would picket the power stations to deprive them of coal and oil, so power cuts were implemented. 

In 1970 hospitals were forced to function on batteries and candles during a "work-to-rule" strike. The worst was in 1973, when an oil shock combined with a miners’ strike. Petrol was rationed, there was a 50mph speed limit on roads, and there was a heating limit of 63F (17C) in office and commercial premises and a reduction in street lighting. A 3-day working week was introduced, and a 10.30pm shutdown for TV. The electricity often went off, leaving us with no heat or light.

Naturally we improvised. I bought a little calor gas stove and a calor gas lamp, both powered by small cylinders of “Camping Gaz.” When the power went off, we could still boil water for tea or coffee and cook, and we had enough light to avoid total darkness.

When I returned to the UK after my stint as a professor in Hillsdale, Michigan, the unions were still rampant, so I took the portable stove and lantern to London to cope with power cuts. After the famous “Winter of Discontent” of mass strike action in late 1978 and early 1979, Mrs Thatcher was elected, and introduced measures that gradually brought the unions within the law. There were no more power cuts. Forty years later I took the dust-stained stove and lamp from the cupboard under the sink and cleaned them up. When I turned them on, astonishingly both still worked.