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Electric Light by John Tackney

Writing.ie | Magazine | Mining Memories

John Tackey

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The rain-laden sky outside filled the north facing room with shadows, umbrae and penumbrae shapeshifting. The oil lamp on the dresser, absolute king of the night, in the rain sodden gloom of mid-morning, flickered ineffectually, it’s red yellow light a mere sideshow in the brooding chiaroscuro of a wet day. A knock on the door, a stranger entered, rainwater dripping off raincoat and southwester hat, assuming and presuming shelter from the steady deluge outside. The summary drama of the unannounced entrance quickly dissipated into the ordinary as the stranger struggled to steady a strange totem like complexity he was carrying to lean against the wall.

“A theodolite”, he explained, a devise for measuring angles of elevation, used by engineers and surveyors. Theodolite.

For days afterwards, a symphony of metallic janglings sang in the syllabic hinges of that strange new word. The visitor, a surveyor, was stepping the small fields, plotting the lines the electricity poles would take. It was 1956 and rural electrification was marching across the parishes sweeping out the dark corners from where ghosts had long lorded over the collective psyche, diluting the half-light where fairies danced, where paraffin was the incense perfuming the long dark nights.

Later, these fields would be alive with men picking and shovelling and sledging, excavating holes to anchor the giant bitumen-soaked poles that would shoulder the heavy cables carrying an abstraction, the abstraction of electric current across townlands, into homes, an abstraction, an energy, an imagined dynamic, moving, yet still, a predicate in the cold inertia of metal wire, a mystery that would bang on the doors of perception with an intense urgency, demanding understanding and articulation. The coming of the power lines incised the irregular patchwork of small fields with a clean new geometry, the poles punctuation marks on the familiar canvas, the high strung wires raising the gaze, giving the air a strange new music, an aerial and terrestrial linkage. An entire new territory to be explored, boundaries mapped, a revisitation, a revenant, abstract reasonings silently powerful and actual, beyond sensory comprehension. A new challenge.

When the electricians arrived to wire the house, a new set of epiphanies lined up for attention. For days they probed and excavated the hidden skeleton of the house. To see the presumed solidity and thereness of the house dissembled in this perfunctory fashion left its own psychic question marks. Cables disappeared under floorboards where previously only mice had ran, to emerge in the centre of the ceiling below, a point from which a light would hang, and slide down walls under ornate timber casings to come to a halt in the inscrutable brass terminals of a black bakelite switch. Strange, and stranger still the fuse board with its white porcelain caps and heavy bakelite cover, marble temples to the unseen. The main fuse and meter, complex hardware regulating, housing, and channelling the invisible, the intangible. In the preliterate, pre schooled fog of that time, the idea of the abstract, the imaginary, the intangible, housed in the real, the tactile thereness of real hardware stirred a stress as real and tangible as the felt weight of a bucket of water from the spring well in the garden. Then the big day when power was switched on and electric light shone in the house for the first time, the numinous instantly present in a glass bulb.

Late one afternoon, not long after the coming of electricity, the German arrived. This was strangeness beyond any strangeness previously known. Towing a small caravan, accompanied by his wife and four year old daughter, he pulled in on the wide grass verge at the turn of the road, at a spot home to the Powers and the O’Learys, traveller families, regular citizens of this grassy spot in those years. The German was a travelling wireless repairman, following the advancing power lines, converting the old wet and dry battery wireless sets to run on the newly arrived energy. Who the German really was, or where he came from, no one new for sure, but as the weeks passed, using the kitchen table as workbench, neighbours queuing up in the laneway for his services, stories took wing. Tall, thin, haggard, taciturn, chain-smoking Woodbines, speaking in an accent unfamiliar in these townlands. Stories relating to his genesis tumbled out in the whispered talk of the assembly.

A wireless operator on a ship in wartime, the ship torpedoed and sunk, injured and shell-shocked, spending time in a prisoner of war camp, psychologically unhinged, unable to settle in one place, condemned to follow the open road bartering his skills for a meagre existence. This was the scaffolding on which many variations of the story hung. The small kitchen soon filled up with stacks of wireless sets awaiting their turn to be transfused with the new energy silently present in the wires travelling across the countryside. Many of these ancient sets were masterpieces of art deco design, the elegant wooden cabinets symphonies of fretwork and bakelite mouldings, the backlit dials speaking in rhythmic syllables of Hilversum and Stuttgart, Copenhagen, Oslo, Luxembourg, and Athlone, places far beyond the reach of these small lanes. Stacked together the wireless sets formed a mosaic of aesthetic alerting, line and shape and curvature and colour, at once dancing and still, latitude and longitude in a psychic landscape brought to awareness, a nurturing place where bearings could be found.

A wireless set placed on the table, its back removed, the inner workings carefully eased out, awe and wonder took flight. The high precision landscape of valves, coils, transformers, the large tuning condenser with its intermeshing vanes, a miracle of precision engineering, the loudspeaker with its powerful magnet engendered a restless excitement, an absolute hunger to understand and possess this sacred knowledge. Turning the unit over revealed a forest of strangeness underneath, rows of resistors banded with coloured stripes, their own secret code, capacitors of varied size and shape, all conjoined in a highly esoteric logic beyond knowing. The psychic stress returned, an almost pneumatic pressure straining the walls of perception, an abstract idea, a theory of the mind housed within and coursing through this assembly of shaped and sculpted, finely engineered hardware, and when speech and music issued from the disembodied loudspeaker lying sideways on the table, the stress took wings and quivered with a compulsion to understand that was almost unbearable.

For hours on end, this shaman of the intangible stood at the workbench, dissembling modifying, reassembling, all the while a cigarette smouldering away in the corner of his mouth, occasionally pausing to draw strange diagrams on the blank insides of discarded cigarette packets, symbolic maps of the apparatus on the table, graphic links between idea and actuality, the abstract becoming visible. These he would silently peruse for a while, toss on to the floor and then resume work with soldering iron and pliers. These discarded cigarette packets, gathered up and hoarded, became items of a deep fascination, their strange symbols, hieroglyphs of the numinous a constant attraction, a challenge to the emerging mind.

Once, on a rare speaking occasion, he talked about his time in prison camp, secretly removing lengths of binding wire from sweeping brooms and winding them into coils to construct a crystal radio receiver to track events in the outside world. Crystal sets were the earliest form of radio receivers, requiring no external source of power, using instead the energy contained in the radio waves to make audible the information mysteriously encoded in the pulsing electromagnetic patterns. Various types of mineral crystals were used as the detector, the device for separating the audio component modulated onto the amplitude of the radio wave. In the prison furnace room he trawled through the piles of coal, seeking the tell-tale golden streaks of pyrites. Having found the precious mineral, a piece would be delicately ground down and tested, the painstaking process repeated until the tumultuous mix of garbled talk and static crackled through on the makeshift speaker, the speaker itself a masterpiece of ad hoc ingenuity, a cone of paper excited by a strip of tin dancing to the magnetic music in a coil of wire. There was something here that haunted, something beyond knowing, something that confounded the poverty and brokenness of this stranger, a connectedness to something that still haunts and remains perennially beyond knowing.

And then being woken up one midnight and coming downstairs to a darkened kitchen, dark except for a blinding light flickering through the spokes of two large rotating wheels. The only sound the mechanical whirring of some secret hidden mechanism. Mesmerising. Turning round, awe and wonder soared away into boundless regions beyond containment, for there on the back wall of the kitchen, flickering across the hills and valleys of a pinned up, unironed white bed sheet, Charlie Chaplin did his comic routine. The German had been repairing a film projector, and was trying it out in the makeshift cinema cum workshop cum kitchen. A first experience of cinema. A new set of bearings in Plato’s cave.

About the author

(c) John Tackey April 2012

Born in  Cootehill, Co Cavan in 1950, John Tackey was educated at Cohaw National School, St Patricks College Cavan and St Aidans Comprehensive School Cootehill. He worked as tv /radio enginneer from 1968 to1997 and is now retired. Working with Local Radio on a part time basis you may have heard him on Shannonside/ Northern Sound where he is a producer/presenter. John was a member of writing group during the 1980s under tutourship of Leland Bardwell, then resident at the Tyrone Guthrie centre, Annamakerrig.

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