Lights out


Perhaps, we take it for granted now, but in a very real sense, where would so many of us be today without turning out the lights?

And alcohol.

Where would we be without turning out the lights and alcohol?

But enough about me.

Even as recently as caveman times, turning out the lights wasn’t the simple matter it is today. Cro-Magnon man, for instance, couldn’t turn out lights at all; there weren’t the switches, and anyway he had big hairy monkey paws. Instead, our pre-historic forebears had to spend their days hunting and gathering bits of darkness, clubbing them and dragging them back to the cave until there was enough to sleep by.

And yet, by the morning, it had always escaped.

Progress finally came when a particularly bright caveman, Dodgy Ugg, accidentally discovered fire, and started knocking it out at 6-flames-a-quid down the tar pits. Now darkness could be achieved whenever anyone liked simply by blowing out a flame. Or by jumping in the tar pits.

Sadly, for many older cavepeople, this new-fangled ‘fire’ proved almost as troublesome as a five-pence piece, and it was only a matter of time before one of them accidentally burned down the dinosaurs, confusing the rest of us for millennia.

Incidentally: birds are not descended from dinosaurs at all; birds are their angry winged spirits still haunting the earth, gleefully defecating on us all… and then singing about it.

In the Dark Ages… It was dark; the lights were already out. So we’ll give them a miss. And the Middle Ages; which overlapped almost entirely with the Dark Ages anyway, after a scheduling cock-up back at the depot. (Work experience angels, or something.)

Late in the 1700s, and not before time, the Enlightenment began, when someone in Italy found the matches again, having had them in his back pocket all along, although he was sure he’d looked there earlier… and the century before that.

From the Enlightenment on, methods for turning out the lights, just like humanity’s burgeoning intellect, became increasingly large, dangerous and painful to operate.

During the Industrial Revolution, light switches were universally terrifying, clanking great steam-driven affairs, each one manned night and day by its own workhouse, debtors’ prison or sanctuary for foundlings – the latter all too often falling into the machinery, a terrible business, often keeping rich people awake for as long as minutes with their pitiful death-cries.

Thankfully, progress was swift and merciful, and by late-Victorian times light switches were much better sound-proofed.

During this time, or possibly some other, we also saw the invention of gas lighting. Later, when a massive fireball lit up the night, as everyone’s houses burned down, a Mr Lamppost had his own brilliant idea – insurance – naming his first company Endsleigh… after the highly popular inventor of the street lamp.

Indeed, the outdoor gas lamps of Mr Endsleigh Insurance, were an immediate boon to humanity, instantly cutting nocturnal muggings and burglaries – except of certain twitchy-looking men with lamp lighting equipment who, being out at much the same time, twice a day, reliable as clockwork, were in many ways the first cash machines; so long as you clobbered them near enough pay-day.

Eventually, electric light switches occurred; electric lighting, proving vastly better for everyone – especially foundlings, who could now be killed almost humanely. Lamp-post lighters, on the other hand, suffered terribly, being safer now, but unemployed.

Around 1899, the Twentieth Century was started, a dreadful idea that plunged the whole world deep into war twice, even before the 30s were done. Turning out the lights now became a matter of life and death, once again, thanks to nocturnal bombing raids, and all the better electricians being off getting shot at. Eventually, alive people settled on black-out blinds, which seems fair enough.


  • Every time a light goes out a fairy dies…
  • Nearly a quarter of light switches aren’t where you’d expect them.
  • In Australia, light goes out counter-clockwise. Even with a British bulb.
  • The world’s first torch was the size of a small room, and could only be charged on Tuesdays. The switch, however, was tiny and highly portable.
  • In any rented house, there will always be at least one light switch that seemingly does nothing – except make you slightly anxious. (But that might just be my experience.)
  • In parts of rural Montana, turning out all your lights is legally punishable by blindness. Though only at night.
  • The Smiths once sung of a light that never goes out; but Morrissey probably just meant the sun. (Which is still considered mythical in much of Manchester. Not to mention ‘a bit southern’.)
  • In Plymouth, they have their own immensely popular version of the Blackpool Illuminations, when once a year all the lights are turned out and for the whole night no-one has to look at the place.

Now, we turn to the present day, an age of excess, and luxury, and cutbacks; an age so decadent that many lights, are operable by as many as two switches each – often many more – presumably, just in case one should succumb to ennui while crossing a room, night should fall unexpectedly, or a house guest we just happen to have asked to ‘just go down those cellar stairs a second, could you?’, suddenly overstays their welcome.


Bloody hell, dark in here. Wait, no – forgot to unblink – Boris Johnson.

Lighting? Why are you asking me about the lighting? I’m a piano player Ray Charles

Nice to see you, to see you… not. Is there an electrician in the house? Bruce Forsyth

Aaarrrrrgggghhhhhhhhhhhhh…..! a foundling

Perhaps the truest measure, though, of just how integral to our culture turning out the lights has become is to be found in the art world: in 2001, the installation ‘Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off’ was awarded the Turner Prize, a rightly prestigious award bestowed annually on one of the six current British artists deemed most likely to upset The Daily Mail. Even at £50,000, then, value for money in anyone’s book.

Martin Creed, the winner, has since been known to construct long, colourful towers out of Lego, perhaps hoping to attract long, colourful Lego King Kongs, exhibited crumpled paper and arranged cacti into amusing and provocative displays – all of which, alas, outside this lecture’s remit.

Other things outside this lecture’s remit:

  • Archduke Franz Ferdinand
  • The Teapot worshipping cult of Malaysia
  • The Dudelsack, which is German for bagpipes
  • Dirigibles
  • The tiny South Pacific island of Tanna, where many of the inhabitants still worship Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
  • “Yu-mi, yu-mi, yu-mi,” the national anthem of Vanuatu (also, handily, an exact plot summary of every Chuckle Brothers episode, ever)
  • Haberdashery
  • And, facts.

But now, as our lecture draws to its close, and since we’re already facing that way, let us turn to the future. In the future, which, as we all know, will be bright – and orange – and very easy to recognise, what with being right in front of us – all lights will be controlled by the mind: the indecisive, finally, will have value as strobe lighting; dark thoughts will have a practical outlet; and optimists will be exhausted by always sleeping in the light (giving the rest of us a much-needed break).

Looking even further forward… there will be no ‘even further forward’, when the bright orange glow turns out to be an apocalypse.

Or a giant angry Wotsit.

But probably an apocalypse.

So, to sum up: turning out the lights: impossible; out already; dangerous; complicated; then impossible again; giant   angry   Wotsit.

And on that note: apologies for any inaccuracies you might have spotted, they were purely intentional; and thank you all for your patience. You’ve been a lovely audience.

Trapped in a room.

Listening to an idiot.

(If it’s any consolation, though, the German for bagpipes really is Dudelsack. Some inhabitants of Tanna do worship Prince Philip. And there really is a teapot worshipping cult in Malaysia. (Or at least, there was, until it got banned… and someone burned down the giant tea-cup.

No, it’s true.

You laugh… but that’s religious persecution you’re laughing at. You should be ashamed of yourselves…))

[N.B. OK, apparently I got the teapot related facts very slightly wrong.

The last two lines were a sort of scripted ad-lib, for if anyone did laugh at the teapot bit.

That bit about Vanuatu’s national anthem is also true, ‘yumi’ being apparently a sort of pidgin English meaning ‘we’ (you-me)]

Originally written for and read at at a writers’ night called Tell Tales; the evening’s theme was ‘Lights out’.