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Will Self Book Extract: An Essay On Electricity

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To mark the release of the Vauxhall Ampera, a new electric car, the company have released a book called We're Electric, a collection of essays and articles by prominent writers.

Created by the Idler Academy, We're Electric includes a piece author and journalist Will Self.

The essay, published in full here, focuses on Self's enduring fascination with "the most powerful of household gods" that powers our lives - electricity.

willself

Somewhere in the piece of Alcoholic Anonymous literature known as the 'Twelve by Twelve' there's a analysis of faith for the non-believer. If I recall this rightly, it observes that while faith in the supernatural may appear a tall order for the ordinary secular sceptic, he or she has no difficulty in maintaining faith in all sorts of processes for which he or she has no direct knowledge of causality. The example then given is electricity: when we flick the switch we have complete faith that the light will go on, even though we have no idea how this comes about.

I suppose, written as it was by AA's founder, Bill Wilson, in the late 1940s, there were a lot more people about then who didn't know their amp from their ohm - nevertheless, to a scientific ingénue such as me the example still retains its force. Yes, yes, I understand about direct and alternating currents - I even have a vague idea about how electricity is generated; I have changed plugs in my time, and when at school built crude circuit boards. For much of my adult life I have wandered the highways and byways of Britain, striding beneath the crackling high-tension cables strung between those modern monoliths, the pylons. I have visited coal-fired and nuclear power stations, I have cogitated on the vexed questions of energy supply... and yet... and yet... of all the technological applications that inhere in the shiny fabric of our advanced lives, electricity remains, for me, still the most mysterious.

For the scientifically literate talk of 'faith' in electricity is altogether meaningless - if not a heresy. Yet the vast majority of us rely on this ghostly and immaterial substance exactly as our forebears once relied on the Holy Trinity: our flicked switches and depressed buttons and turned dials are the genuflections required to summon its life-giving power, our very mediation with the wider world - through our telephones, our computers, our TVs and radios - is dependent upon its invisible agency. Deprived of electricity we wander through the gross world as dumb and lost as sheep. And like sheep we seek desperately for something to rub against - in the hope it will generate a little static.

I certainly shouldn't be so credulous in the face of electricity. My own grandfather, a high-ranking civil servant, ended his career as chairman of the Electricity Board. I well remember the framed photographs in Granddad's study of him standing with assorted bowler-hatted ministry officials and overalled engineers in front of the weird basketry of capacitors and coils that formed the foreground to yet another new power station. And yet... my grandparents' house was itself defiantly Victorian: the marks left by ripped-out gas piping still snaked along the walls - revenants of a dimly-lit, yet more comprehensible age. Their electric wiring was equally reactionary: two-pin plugs, flexes like plaited hair - and their electrical appliances had the curious air of chimeras, the vacuum cleaner was a nozzle snaking around a broom with an electric engine tacked on the side, their electric fire was as rococo as a Faberge egg.

Of course, my grandfather was an administrator - it wasn't incumbent upon him to stoke the furnace in order to produce the white heat of technology. Still, there was a distinct dissonance between his professional role and his personal convictions - which were deeply, if staidly, Anglican. He spent his retirement writing a book which aimed to reconcile religious belief and science - almost as if seeking to plot his own strange trajectory, from a working class boyhood in London's Fulham, to his study in the basement of an upright Brighton terrace, where his secretary cyclostyled copies of his thesis on an ancient Gestetner - the photocopier was way too modish for him.

Now, looking back through my own electrified life - which began with my watching the valves on the family record player glow into being, and will doubtless end with me staring blankly at a tiny screen, I see how strange it must have been for my grandfather. Born in 1890, he came into consciousness as the first wooden pylons were being set up on London rooftops, and the first generating stations were plunked down in among the houses. His must have been a sense of a world that was gradually being galvanised, as the neural impulses of electricity connected up the lobes of the urban brain. He lived until the early 1970s - long enough for some of his last winter evenings to be spent in flickering candlelight, when the power workers and then the miners went on strike, bringing - in the idiom of the times - the country to its knees.

And a suitable idiom it was and still remains: my grandfather on a musty hassock in an empty Brighton church, me, groping around in the darkness for the fuse box, or fumbling for a plug - for are we all not on our knees, at one time or another, making our frustrated obeisance before this, the most powerful of household gods? And do we not all - employing another suitable idiom from the period when Bill Wilson was founding Alcoholics Anonymous - want to get juiced?

We’re Electric is available to purchase from The Idler Academy, 81 Westbourne Park Road priced or online at idler.co.uk (£12.95 RR). For more information on Vauxhall Ampera please visit vauxhall-ampera.com.