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David Bouchier: Dark Times Ahead

Who can we blame for this extra hour of darkness in the evenings? Whose not very bright idea was it to push the clocks back just when we are all starting to get depressed about the coming winter? The answer is President Woodrow Wilson who imposed this ritual persecution in 1918, and the members of Congress who have supported it ever since.

Most of the countries in the world ignore Daylight Saving Time, and it has always been controversial. In Britain the conflict is particularly sharp, because it is the Scottish Parliament that insists on changing the clocks, while the English hate doing it. The Calvinist Scots like their extra daylight in the mornings so they can get to work early, while the English prefer light in the evenings so they can find their way to the pub. However the Scots prevailed, just as they did at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Some people like darkness more than others. For those of us who are past the age of indiscretion,  darkness is simply unpleasant, and potentially dangerous. We close the doors and switch on the lights, and try to pretend that the darkness, like the national debt, is not real and can safely be ignored. On the other hand there are the creatures of the night. Darkness appeals especially to the young and what are euphemistically called the young at heart, which is why we have the peculiar institution of night clubs. Night is a separate world, a place of fun and liberation when the boring normal people are asleep, and anything is possible.

But even creatures of the night need some illumination. We almost never experience real darkness the way our ancestors did, and how quickly we have forgotten it. Before the nineteenth century cities and towns were scarcely lit at all except by the moon when there was one. Curfews were common, and night watchmen patrolled the streets. Night was a frontier that you crossed at your peril. In terms of artificial light, practically the whole of human history qualifies as the dark ages.

Electricity changed all that, starting in the 1880s, but not as fast as we imagine. I can just remember visiting my grandmother in London, in a house that was lit like a Dickensian stage set by flickering gas lamps. There was a reason for this anachronistic choice: my grandfather worked for the gas company. We also had some mysterious relatives known only as “the aunts” who lived in an authentic thatched cottage way out in the country. They had no running water, no electricity, and no gas. Their cottage was dimly lit by candles and oil lamps which, as a child, I found even more romantic than gas lamps – and this must have been in the 1950s.

You grow out of darkness and the romance of the night, just as you grow out of Halloween. Now I love light, the more the better. I walked around the house counting our lights. Including those in the garage and outside there are 48 lovely bulbs with a combined power of almost four thousand watts, enough to light up Broadway. They can’t defeat us with their miserable, gloomy Daylight Saving Time – at least not until the next storm brings the next power outage, and sends us all back to the dark ages.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.