National Express waiting room, Heathrow, August 2017
Over the last several years, I’ve found it harder to read in the evenings. The cause is partly biological (and helped by reading glasses) but partly or even mainly social. The lights are actually going out. In hostels and hotels, in buses and coaches, in waiting rooms and interstitial spaces of all kinds, bright incandescent lights have been replaced by dim LEDs with greyish spectrums. In some places the light is tinted to inhibit intravenous drug shootups, creating the illumination equivalent of the spiked park bench. Pub or subpub lighting is becoming a norm.
Climate change and regulations on lightbulbs are part of it, along with the cost of energy and consumables (better LED bulbs are available, with 400 lumens or more and a warm spectrum, but they’re not the cheapest). But there’s a symbiotic change going on: People are already reading on backlit devices, so they don’t need high levels of ambient light. I’m doing it too, and the dimming of the interstitial world has driven me to Kindle faster than I would have gone there otherwise. The alternative is a miner’s headlamp, like Mike Milken.
Along with the microprivatization of light, we are seeing the microprivatization of liquids. Tonight I went to a freshers’ week barbecue where there were no liquids served – not only no alcohol, which is standard these days, but as far as I could tell no soft drinks or even water. Nobody seemed to care, because most of the students came equipped with their own water bottles, which they carry everywhere – as do I, along with a thermos of black coffee against sleepiness and migraines. We are camping in the city these days.
A third change is the closure of police stations as a centrally located infrastructure element like a train station, library or post office. Last year I lost my Finnish passport, which was distressing for many reasons including the fact it was the one with the walking moose (the new one just has a flying bird). As requested by the embassy, I tried to file a police report and discovered: There is no longer a police station in Rotherhithe or anywhere nearby. There is no longer a police station in Mile End; the nearest is in Bethnal Green (and they don’t take lost property reports). You don’t get an impression of this sparsity from the cop dramas on TV or Kindle.
There is no longer a 24-hour police station in Ipswich either; the old building was emptied, used for a Spill Festival and then demolished some years back. There is a police kiosk, which is open bankers’ hours, and consented to let me fill out a lost property form. I had always thought of a police station as a place where, among other things, lost people could go, found people and property could be taken, directions could be asked, the abused could get temporary refuge before being hooked up with social workers. I am aware this is a very small-town American view and likely a very white view. Nonetheless, the loss of police stations is of a piece with the microprivatization of location and safety into map apps and online forms that are routed to unnamed, secret postboxes, with the entities behind them not directly addressable in the physical fabric around us.