One of my vivid childhood memories is of my father clad in an oilskin coat and hat, carrying a hurricane lamp as he came back to the house in the winter darkness from the stables where our team of draught horses was kept. They were let out at night after they had their evening meal of chaff and oats, following a hard day’s work.
I was thinking during the night, which after the day’s mist cleared was “as black as the inside of an old cow at midnight” (one of my father’s favourite sayings), about the different kinds of lighting I have used on the island. Originally, I bought a small hurricane lamp, one of a kind that is still used in China, Nepal and India where kerosene is cheap. It has never been used; nor has the matching kerosene indoor lamp I found in a second-hand shop.
A packet of candles I took with me 12 years ago has remained unopened on the bathroom shelf (although I had to ban George from using a candle in the house because of the fire risk). The gas lantern I have used a lot. Its convenient butane cans and the absence of soot and smell common to kerosene appliances were more attractive features than the battery powered tent lamp that never gave as much light.
A gas lamp also has a pleasant purring sound behind its mantle, and gives the impression of casting both warmth as well as light.
I wired the house for both 230 volts and 12 volts, and bought a generator. In fact, I bought three and was given a fourth. I could write a book about Chinese diesel generators that finally succumb to salt air penetrating their poorly insulated windings.
The Japanese Honda still, however, purrs away and from time to time I give the small standby Chinese two-stroke generator a run. It was an impulsive buy, being a special at The Warehouse for $99.99.
The other generator I was given at the end of its useful life and it had been used in the bush on foggy nights to attract and bring down Taiko petrels for capture and banding.
There was a time when I was an enthusiast for 12 volt lighting and I installed a number of twin tube light fittings to run from the battery bank downstairs that was recharged whenever I ran the generator. They still work, but they have been superseded by L E D lights, most of which are powered by dry cell batteries and are quire economical to use. They use a fraction of the power consumed by 12 volt fluorescent tubes that in turn are less hungry for power than conventional 230 volt tungsten filament light bulbs. The L E D technology is developing so rapidly that it will become commonplace in urban houses, but at present these fittings are still too expensive to contemplate.
For a short time I flirted with solar panels and I still believe they are the future for charging batteries when the price gets lower. Mind you, their cost is now one-third the price charged some eight years ago. It needs to be a bit cheaper yet to warrant the capital outlay.
Wind power is not an option for me. Our island wind is too turbulent and variable, and small wind generators literally shake themselves to pieces in their second winter. Bill Gregory-Hunt on Pitt Island saw the successive demise of eight wind turbines he had persevered with over some years.
So, why do we need light to the extent we do? Houses (even here) blaze with lighted rooms that no one is occupying and outside porch lights are often left on all night. That, at 84 cents a unit (about four times what is paid for power in New Zealand) is a severe impact on any household budget. We have lost the ability to sit in reduced light and talk to each other. The television set avoids the need for conversation.
I have to admit it takes me a day or two to sit in the evening listening to the radio without the room fully lit. A localised area of light from a L E D light is all that is needed. I am not advocating a wholesale return to the whole family gathered around the fireside within the light of a single kerosene lamp suspended from the ceiling that was my childhood. I don’t think it did my mother’s eyes any good darning socks in a poor light. Who darns socks today, I hear you ask?
Nearly all of us have lost the ability to move about outside at night without the comfort of a powerful torch beam. George, Bob Goomes and a few others of my generation are probably the last to have that ability. I’ve tried to regain that skill, but I fear I have lived now too long in the city.
A subdued “glim” from a candle shielded in a cow’s horn I’ve never tried, but the night of George’s 70th birthday party had the path from the barbecue area down to the necessary site of easement lit by candle pieces set in condensed milk cans on either side of the path.
I’ve often told the story of the small Te Awanga school committee meeting that ended in a vigorous argument that risked getting out of hand. The chairman, Noel Cox, had the presence of mind to lean forward and blow out the single candle that lit the room. There being no one with any matches, the people all went home. They had no difficulty finding their way. It was familiar territory and, except for the very darkest of nights, there is always a little reflected light from the sky.