Andrew Martin: Turn out the lights and let in the atmosphere

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Public service announcement: the clocks went back an hour at 2am. When I was a boy in the 1970s, the end of Daylight Saving Time was a real jolt. The world was darker then, and quieter. In York, where I lived, I frequented the brooding enclave of Little Stonegate, most of which is medieval (some parts of it are Norman, for God's sake), and yet the council saw no particular need to draw attention to it – not on a winter's eve. A single lamp glowed inadequately there, and the place has lived in my dreams ever since.

Today, it is York's "restaurant quarter", and blazes with light until the early hours or, this being York, about 10.30pm. Little Stonegate is safer to walk down now, and more profitable for the city, but if I'd been sitting in on the relevant council meetings I'd have been fretting, "This is all very well, but what about the atmosphere?"

Atmosphere is, or was, a very British notion. In Coal, A Human History, Barbara Freese describes how, whereas continental Europeans favoured enclosed iron stoves for their efficiency, the British preferred open fires on the grounds that firelight was entrancing. Here is what Dickens, the all-time master of atmosphere, could see in a coal fire: "... wild faces and figures, mountains and abysses, ambuscades and armies...". The quote is from The Haunted Man, part of that most atmospheric of literary genres: the ghost story, which requires moonlight, candlelight or, preferably, no light at all.

Coming home alone on Christmas Eve, Scrooge makes his first mistake in not illuminating his house: "Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it." In The Door Marked Summer, Michael Bentine, comedian and spiritualist, wrote: "Darkness is mandatory for phenomena", on the grounds that it prevented sitters at a séance being distracted and also, naturally enough, because "the coarser sort of ectoplasm" that might levitate a human being was "sensitive to light". Most Victorian mediums insisted on low light on the grounds that the spirits preferred it, and those who could function in a full light, such as Daniel Dunglas Home, were regarded as akin to tightrope walkers who performed without a net, since darkness might conceal ropes and wires or quick daubings of phosphorescent paint, as was indeed proved upon the invention of infra-red photography.

I like the quality of ghostliness, but I appreciate that not everybody has my taste for the moods conducive to it. Much of British atmosphere of the kind evoked by such forgotten words as "gloaming", "glimmering", "crepuscular" was, to speak plainly, pollution. Monet came to London to paint the black fug around the Palace of Westminster. The smogs of the 1950s killed hundreds of people but gave us Margery Allingham's crime novel, The Tiger in the Smoke: "The sky was yellow as a duster and the rest was granular black ... and lightened by occasional slivers of bright fish colour as a policeman turned in his wet cape."

Who prefers the bleak interior of the modern bus to the lighting and colour scheme of a Routemaster, compared by Travis Elborough in The Bus We Loved to '"the lounge of an illustrious, if by now gone-to-seed club"? There is nothing progressive about the over-lighting of cities that will, according to the Green Party, "deprive future generations of the sight of the stars". Real fires may be inefficient, but they are definitely beautiful. My favoured atmospheres may not be compatible with health and safety, but they do provide an escape from the relentless blare and glare of a modern Britain with very little sense of public aesthetics.

Ghoul Britannia by Andrew Martin is published by Short Books

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