Daytime TV: Darkness lingers

The National Grid spread light, but the unemployed still just hang on in the shadows, learns Gary Day

November 4, 2010

Credit: Miles Cole

No one in Barry, South Wales, had electricity except Mr Cochrane (The Secret Life of the National Grid, BBC Four, Tuesday 26 October, 9pm). He ran a boot and shoe shop and needed it for his work. His son, Rob, who went on to write the official history of the National Grid, Power to the People (1985), recalled accumulators lined along the wall hissing, steaming and clanking. It was, Rob assured us, a safe environment. Taking that as a personal challenge, their errand boy contrived to find various ways of getting himself electrocuted, much to his own and everyone else's amusement.

It came as a shock to learn that, in the 1920s, only 6 per cent of people in Britain had electricity, probably because the errand boy was siphoning most of it for himself. Anne Locker, archivist for the Institution of Engineering and Technology, said that the supply of electricity was down to a hotchpotch of private companies and municipal councils. In today's language that means consumer choice, but then it meant your appliances wouldn't work if you moved house; there were simply too many different systems.

Even a Conservative could see that this situation needed remedying. In 1926, the prime minister Stanley Baldwin introduced the Electricity Supply Act, which would enable the construction of a grid connecting the most efficient 120 power stations across the country. There were objections. The champions of free enterprise saw in the measure an attempt to create an oppressive state in the manner of France and Germany, whose governments had denied their citizens the right to injure themselves in the dark by lighting their cities and homes.

Building the grid was a colossal undertaking, especially in parts of the Scottish Highlands, where one man remembered being able to lean 45 degrees into the wind without falling over. The pylons themselves - the name derives from an Egyptian word meaning gateway to a temple - were designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, who wanted them to be more graceful than those found in America or on the Continent. But his best efforts were still an affront to the aesthetic sensibilities of Rudyard Kipling, John Galsworthy and John Maynard Keynes, who were just three voices raised against what they considered to be the desecration of the English countryside. A similar battle is being waged against wind turbines today.

The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words came under scrutiny in A Life without Work (BBC Two, Friday 29 October, 9pm). Richard Taylor of York City Archives said we have become immune to photographs of the poor. Those sepia images of lean men in broken boots and pinafored women with pinched faces have palled. They belong to another age. But read their diaries, he continued, and you get a visceral sense of their existence.

It was the social reformer and chocolate manufacturer Joseph Rowntree who asked the slum dwellers of York to describe their lives. One man rose at 5am to search for work but with no luck. He hadn't had any breakfast - "my stomach was as empty as a soap bubble" - and dinner was a piece of dry bread. The afternoon, like the morning, was spent tramping the streets. Employers shook their heads at his enquiries, doors were closed gently in his face. And this was his routine, day after day, until what little money he had ran out and the workhouse loomed.

The programme's presenter, Richard Bilton, wondered how much had changed for the poor since Rowntree's day. He introduced us to J.J. MacBride, who was getting a tattoo. He already had quite a collection. Each one told a story. The skull was a reminder of the number of times he had come close to death through drink or drugs. "And what's this one? Ian?" "Yes. That was my son's name. He died when he was two. I had him inked on my arm so he would always be with me."

J.J. is one of the long-term unemployed. He tried hard to get a job but there weren't any. And if you keep being rejected, you eventually give up looking for work. It's a condition Rowntree understood well. That was one of the reasons he campaigned for the setting up of Labour Exchanges, where the unemployed would register and hopefully be matched with a vacancy. J.J. was sent to an advice centre where he was told what "curriculum vitae" meant and not to expect firms to respond to his applications.

On balance, Richard seemed to think that not having a safety net made the poor much more thrifty. But you could tell he was a little uneasy with the idea that some of them might actually starve. The National Grid was completed in 1933. Shockingly, the New Jerusalem seems further off than ever.

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