An illuminating experience
The author’s story begins in 1966 at a time when oil
lights were rotated by a hand-wound clockwork mechanism
and keepers handled explosive fog signals. Little did
the author realize that he would witness, and become
part of, a new technological age that would leave
unmanned lighthouses being operated by remote control
via telemetry links to a computer, and satellite
information provided by GPS.
His 22 postings around the coasts of England, Wales and Channel Islands brought him to off-shore lighthouses, such as the famous Needles Rock at the Isle of Wight, where the men were confined to just a handful of circular rooms, to those located on beautiful islands such as Lundy in the Bristol Channel where the accommodation was more comfortable.
Isolated lighthouses and their keepers were often in a position to assist the rescue services and the author describes how he became involved in two hazardous rescue operations for which he was awarded the Royal Humane Society bronze medal.
With the onset of automation, it was frequently necessary for keepers to share their already-cramped living space with various contractors who were there to install the specialised equipment, creating friction between the two groups. The fact that ultimately, the result was the keepers’ redundancy did not help.
Gordon Medlicott’s book is of great interest to any pharophile, and for us Australians, the most interesting parts will surely be the description of his life at Longstone or Needles just because we do not have any such wave - swept lighthouses here.
While he had a family with two daughters, they rarely lived with him at the lighthouse and even the chance of spending Christmas together was only 50/50. It is obvious that Gordon missed his family but his job was very important and the first priority to him. Maybe that’s why his women are rarely mentioned in the book and when they are, the author does not give us any insight about how they coped with living apart from him. Still, he has no regrets. “Looking back over my career with Trinity House I have few regrets. Although my children grew up without me and I was away from home at some critical and important stages of their lives, I did the job with their blessing and for that I thank them.”
The book is descriptive of the places, situations and people without giving away too much emotionally. Although there are tantalising glimpses of drama or conflict situations, the reader is never let in enough, and the events are described in a dry, almost detached manner.
While I would have welcomed a little bit more personal writing approach, I still recommend the book for its informative value which gives us an idea of how life used to be for those working at such remote and wild places at such a critical time.
An Illuminating Experience tells the fascinating story of a way of life that has become a part of our maritime heritage