Monday, September 16, 2013


No, the title of this post doesn’t refer to my recent lack of posting on this blog - the best I can plead in this regard is that I have been very busy driving around Europe collecting my scattered belongings from previous lives - no, in fact it refers to the Channel 4 docu-drama of the same name which aired recently.

I sat down to watch it on my laptop with a mug of hot coffee and an hour and a half later I was traumatised enough to start composing this blog post on the same device. Let me explain. Blackout deals with the ‘fictional’ scenario of an electricity blackout hitting the UK. We are not really told what caused it other than it was a cyber attack by a person/organisation/state with a grudge. It’s shot in the kind of Dogme panicky first-person Blair Witch Project perspective, and apt to give you nightmares because every scenario that is depicted is eerily plausible. The acted parts are intertwined with real footage, mostly filmed during the mass riots that broke out in London and across the country two years ago. You might almost say it is prescient, but we’ll have to wait and see with that.

We get to follow the misfortunes of several people caught up in the ensuing chaos, including a twenty something brother and sister involved in a traffic accident, a mother and her young daughter who try to make an emergency dash to Sheffield and end up being at the mercy of a tagged offender (untrackable now the system has run out of power), a couple of freeloading hooligans on a rampage of shoplifting, theft and arson, and a young middle-class family in London, the father of whom just happens to be a wannabe survivalist who has a video blog which he uploads to YouTube much to his wife’s annoyance. 

The story starts with life as it is today. Everyone is shopping and travelling and social media posturing and is completely wrapped up in their own world. When the blackout strikes, there is an initial mood of hilarity - a great excuse for a party. The survivalist character is in his element, and his wife films him firing up his emergency generator and filling water bottles from the radiator system. “You look happy,” she says, to which he replies “I am.”

Alas, his happiness isn’t to last. On day two of the blackout, the smells of his preparedness barbeque attract unwanted attention from some dodgy young Asian men who invite themselves round and start asking questions about how they are coping. One of the children gives away the fact that the family owns a generator. Things get worse from then on. 

Up north somewhere, the two hell raisers start their vodka-fuelled trail of destruction as they try to get back home, stealing cars and eventually causing a huge accident with a fuel tanker. By day three anarchy has started to engulf the cities, with wide scale rioting and pitched battles with the police. David Cameron (yes, it’s very realistic, even he’s in it as himself) launches an emergency plan and fuel is trucked into key strategic locations - most of which seem to be central government offices. The hospitals are overwhelmed and losing power having got through not just the emergency backup generator, but the backup backup generator, and have now run out of fuel. The ICU equipment, which is battery powered as a last backup, slowly goes flat and the docs and nurses have to make split decisions over who to save and who to abandon. It doesn’t help that people are pouring in through the doors with carbon monoxide poisoning and burns (house fires rage out of control from people using candles).

By what must be day five or six, total despair reigns. People are either trapped in the cities, or else can’t get into them due to police roadblocks. Nobody can contact one another and the only sound from ‘the authorities’ is an Orwellian sounding radio message read out by a pleasant-sounding woman saying “We apologise for any inconvenience and are trying to restore order as soon as we can” - while the masses starve, loot and generally freak out.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There are some genuinely warming moments where people look out for one another. I won’t give any more away than I have done already. But the real message of this film is as simple as it is scary. The message is that the security of our modern lives is a flimsy facade and that behind it lies a rotting haunted house full of demons that the bright lights of the 21st century keeps at bay. With the flick of a switch all of the things we take for granted are gone. In a moment a middle class family can be transformed into a besieged group fighting for their very survival in their own home. Cars cease to function, money is useless, and those who took the precaution of filling up their petrol tanks can expect to get robbed for their efforts. People get sick, families erupt into firefights of blame, there are no communications, no food and no drinking water. People descend, rapidly.

This is how the programme describes itself:

Feature-length 'What-If' drama exploring the effects of a devastating cyber-attack on Britain's national electricity grid.
Based on expert advice and meticulous research, Blackout combines real user-generated footage, alongside fictional scenes, CCTV archive and news reports to build a terrifyingly realistic account of Britain being plunged into darkness.
The film plots the days following a nationwide power cut, as experienced by a cast of ordinary characters struggling to feed and protect themselves and their families. These eyewitness accounts reveal the disastrous impact of a prolonged blackout on hospitals, law and order, transport, and our food and water supplies.
The programme casts members of the public from user-generated footage, weaving real-life archive with scripted drama to tell the story of how Britain could descend into chaos and anarchy without power.
I dunno, what’s with all the expert advice? It’s almost as if somebody wants us to consider that the fictional scenario depicted could be a distinct possibility. Did I say could be a possibility? Bear in mind that 50% of the film is actual footage of the country erupting in violence two years ago - and the trigger for that outburst is still being debated with much head-scratching. And I like to remind people here that the UK energy regulator has been forecasting semi-controlled power outages beginning in 2015/16 for at least two years now. Jeepers, I even came up with my own fictionalised account of how it could happen several years ago.  The only factor the film missed out was what happens to the nuclear stations in the absence of an electricity grid to keep them stable. 
A friend of mine was doing a long-haul road trip through Germany and Denmark with me last week and he was telling me about living in New York during the ‘great blackout’ of 2003. “The first night was fun, with everyone having impromptu parties,” he said. “But when the second night came and there was still no power then a sense of dread began to descend. Suddenly it wasn't fun any more.” Quite. 
I’m not one to get off on doomer porn but I do have a worrying intuition about how some people will behave if there is ever a serious interruption to the nation’s electricity supply . My gut instinct is that there would be widespread anarchy in some of our larger cities for a while, although I doubt this would last once all the (now useless) plasma televisions have been looted and the rioters run out of energy due to lack of food. And the supposedly lawless inner city areas are not lawless at all and there are any number of community elders to give their wayward youths a clip round the ear (or, in some cases, a dose of Sharia law). Once the initial surge of looting, chaos and pitched battles with the police/army has burned itself out an order of sorts will be restored, especially if the power comes on again. 
I can only wonder about how the situation would be outside the large cities. Sure, there is likely to be some trouble, but there is only so much looting and arson you can get away with if everyone in the town knows who you are and where you live. Food might be a larger problem. And medical care.
Any such episode will be one of the ‘thunks’ on the downward steps of our peak energy curve, and the psychological impact of it will be long lasting. In its wake we can expect the authorities to consolidate their power, and for various political miscreants to appear out of the woodwork with ‘solutions’ to ensure that such a catastrophe doesn’t happen again. Normality will be restored, until the next time.
And a catastrophe such as a prolonged power outage would get people scared enough to agree meekly to a whole raft of measures imposed by the government to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again. We’ve gotta keep those lights on! It’s not hard, for example, to imagine people protesting against fracking being branded ‘traitors’ and arrested. First they came for the anti frackers, then they came for the anti nukes ...
Interesting times.
On a side note, I had an interesting time driving around Spain during August. I would briefly like to report that Spain is in a weird and eerie state of limbo. The south of Spain, from appearances, has never had it so good. Business is booming in the village where I used to live and everywhere is now immaculate and clean. New shops are opening up, even if there aren’t that many customers. My former neighbour’s daughter, a newly university-qualified teacher, has now been unemployed for three years and breezily says she doesn’t ever expect to find a job in this life. She’s not bothered by this, although her father grumpily confided that it would have been better if she had learned to pick olives, like him.  He’s doing great now the price of food has gone up, he says.
However, on the way back up north I found myself driving around the massive new periphery motorway that encircles Madrid. Madrid is now engulfed by huge yards the size of multiple football fields where one can pick up rusting construction equipment on the cheap. Imagine hundreds of bulldozers, diggers, cement trucks and the like all parked in long neat rows with scarcely a human in sight. I saw them in the daylight on the journey south - along with several horizon filling ‘urbanizations’ of roads laid out in the arid earth with streetlights, ragged developers’ flags and not much else. 
Okay, so it was about midnight on the way back up north, but it is a bit eerie to not see another car for over twenty minutes on a brand new highway surrounding a major first world capital city. It was a toll motorway, but all the barriers were open. I later read that the volume of traffic is now so low on the new toll routes that they lose money if they have to pay people to man the toll booths. They might simply close them. 
Further north still my GPS satnav led me to a petrol station in the middle of nowhere. Almost out of fuel at 2am I discovered the station, like so many roads, had a large sign on it saying ‘cerrado’. It looked permanent. I sighed and pulled in - I had almost run out of fuel and didn’t fancy doing so in the dark. I got out and lay on the weed-broken tarmac in my sleeping bag and watched shooting stars until I fell asleep. At about 4am I was awoken by the sounds of a pack of wild dogs which seemed to be coming ever closer. I shivered and got back in the car. 
I made it to Santander on the north coast and spent most of a day there waiting for the Plymouth ferry. 99% of the vehicle traffic was British holiday makers with big SUVs and shiny new caravans with names like Ambassador and Elite. We had to wait in a large concrete compound under the hot sun, and a huge cinema-sized screen was placed at the front with Sky news on. It was a continuous loop of news all day - Let’s Bomb Syria and Michael Douglas splits from Wife - both given equal billing.
I escaped the compound and explored Santander on foot. I liked it, but it was like a city gasping for air. Every third or fourth shop seemed to be shutting down. Many of the remainders were ‘We Buy Gold’ shops, or tacky Chinese junk pop-ups. Later on we sailed away from it in the dark and it disappeared into the night on the horizon and that was that. Cocktails were served in the bar and a lousy cabaret singer from Newcastle came on and tried to be all Shirley Bassey. That’s it, my Spanish adventure over.


  1. Nice 2 have you back at the keyboard Hepp.

    One can only hope that rather than a sudden massive Blackout, the Light Out will go through a stage of Brownouts and partial blackouts giving the population and systems some time to adjust.

    How did you finally get gas for the car if the station was closed?


    1. Yep, that's what I'm hoping too. Gently does it! Generator salesmen will be coining it in.

      As for the fuel, I just waited until first light and then headed off to find another one. I had a bit left - not much - but I'd rather run out during daylight rather than in the dark. It was only the dogs worrying me, not the people. I've never felt unsafe in Spain … unless you count the time I had a knife held to my throat in Barcelona … but then they were not Spanish.

  2. Living here just across the bay from San Francisco with the San Andreas fault seven miles away and the Hayward fault 3 miles away we are told periodically that it is just a matter of time before disaster strikes. The likelihood of a major earthquake is always given in vague terms like a 60 percent chance in the next 50 years. Depending on how you relate to odds, that can mean disaster any time now or most likely not in my lifetime. Still, disaster is not treated as a hypothetical, but rather as something we need to prepare for. There are courses offered by local agencies on how to deal with them. People had neighborhood parties in 2006 on the 100 year anniversary of the San Francisco earth quake in which they discussed preparedness for the next big one.
    A friend who lived in one of the most affected areas during the last serious quake told me that based on how people behaved during the quake, he wanted to have a gun handy for the next earth quake. Firemen were trying to run a hose across the street to put out a fire and none of the cars would stop until a policeman with revolver drawn stepped into a street and pointed the revolver directly at a driver.
    In any case, we are told that basic services might be absent for about three weeks and that we should have food and water stockpiled for that length of time. And yes, fuel and electricity might be unavailable and bridges out of commission.
    They also tell us that after about three days, police, many of whom live outside the municipality where they work stop showing up for work because they are concerned about the safety of their own families.
    So all of the scenarios of Blackout could conceivably happen locally. The only difference is that the disaster would be localized and order would still reign outside of the earthquake zone. FEMA, the federal emergency agency would do the same fine job they did in New Orleans, but still, there would be military units available to provide transportation and some sort of security.
    Meanwhile, our earthquake kit is short on rice. We have our earthquake food on rotation. Newly bought items go into the kit and the stuff we use in the house comes out of the earthquake kit. By the way, in case of an earthquake, we will be eating a lot of rice and lentils. Oatmeal for breakfast. Not much in the way of fresh vegetables.
    Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, the good news of economic recovery and energy independence chokes up the TVs although among young people there seems to be a sense of doom if the popularity of zombie and post-apocalyptic survivor video games is any indication.
    And as in parts of Spain, there is a good deal of happy shopping here. The last time we were in San Francisco, the restaurants were filled with laughing customers most of whom seemed to be in the twenty to thirty year old age range, apparently living off the current boom of social media employment. Closer to home, our neighbors on the street take turns being out of work for months at a time.
    Today will be crossing into San Francisco on the newly opened east span of the Bay Bridge which replaces the old span that was prone to collapse in an earth quake. So let's see how it goes. And by the way, we plan to stop by the grocery store on the way home to pick up another ten pounds of rice to top off our earthquake kit.

    1. Wolfgang - theta's quite fascinating. Over here, we have been brought up not expecting any natural disasters and so our mindset is different. Unfortunately that has been translated to a 'nothing bad can ever happen to us' mentality, which obviously doesn't take into account man made disasters. What's more, Disaster (with a capital d) is seen as an American trademark - if we were to have our own Disaster it would surely be a second rate one, so the logic goes.

      I would guess that less than 1% of people in the UK have any sort of food set aside for supply interruptions. Maybe even that figure is optimistic. The war years, when much of the food had to be grown by ordinary people, is looked upon as a bygone era by most - perhaps even a halycon one. Indeed, growing your own food, you can sometimes be labelled as 'quaint'.

      As for the news here, it is also filled with talk of recovery and even boom times. There is no mention of fundamentals. Indeed the narrative seems to be that the economy is simply getting better a bit like a sick patient that has been ill for a while but is nevertheless expected to live forever. Few question what passes for information in our corporate dominated media - and that includes the so-called liberal press.

      But there is a subset of news that talks about children's parents not being able to afford to give them breakfast, record numbers of people requiring food banks to survive and councils running out of money to supply services (today my local bus services are facing the axe). The UK is turning into a two-tier country, with the very well off at one end and the dismally poor at the other. In the bloated middle is a third layer who subsist off credit, with millions living off ever increasing borrowings. The UK is the only country in Europe with increasing new car sales - and I can well believe it (my partially employed neighbour yesterday bought a very expensive BMW people carrier on credit, no questions asked). With all this talk of the good times ahead, few lessons have been learned.

      Anyway, get that rice in while you can! I could happily survive on rice and soy sauce for quite some time. Eggs would be a bonus.

  3. Hepp,

    I wrote my own scenario, like you describe, a novel I'm still working on...

    Yes, I think there is a reason DHS here in the states ordered 2.2 billion bullets, and all those bullet proof checkpoint stations. I do not much cherish the idea of being in the city, should something like that happen, not least that we have a nuclear facility aged at least 38 years, 35 miles as the crow flies, on either side, on the Mississippi. That TPTB are so indifferent about Fukushima does not leave me with any faith that they will effectively manage nuclear facilities in the spindown.

    Glad to see you have retrieved your belongings. Eager to hear more about your life in your new arrangement.


    1. WHD - I read quite a chunk of Progress Interrupted at least a year ago (maybe two), never got round to congratulating you on a fine story! Are you still working on it? It's quite gripping!

      I considered writing a similar story. There's plenty of drama to be had, and it might just make one or two people think.

      Bad news about the nuke station. I climbed up Glastonbury Tor here in England last week and got inspired looking out at the view until I saw a nuclear station in the far distance out to the west (Hinckley Point). Any trouble from that and this ancient land of King Arthur et al will be uninhabitable for generations. They are talking about building another, bigger, one there.

  4. Having lived through a few (local) electrical outages of the few days to a week or more variety, I am not that concerned about anything that happens due to winter or summer storms. By now a significant number of neighbors have generators and those of us who don't are prepared for this sort of thing. A major earthquake would be another matter, both because the problem would be more widespread and because we aren't used to earthquakes in the Midwest. Nevertheless, the strongest earthquakes in the continental US occurred on the New Madrid fault in southern Missouri in 1811-12. Because of the nature of the soils here a large quake would affect a large part of the Midwest and upper South. We are told to be prepared for quakes, but it is hard to take the threat seriously because quakes are so rare here.

    I think what makes the scenario of Blackout so difficult for everyone is the knowledge that it isn't a natural disaster, or even a rolling blackout due to known supply issues as we had locally in August of 1995. It's that something far out of the expected caused it, especially the idea of malice aforethought. In our case an earthquake would serve similarly. Thus it seems to me it's more the psychological trauma of something so outside of expected causes along with the widespread nature and unknown duration of the outage rather than the effects of the outage itself that makes this sort of outage so difficult, though over a long-enough time food and water would become a problem. People can take being cold or hot for quite awhile if they are in decent shape. I'm always shamed by accounts of ordinary life before fossil fuel and electricity. People are capable of dealing with much more adversity, with no complaints, than we do. But that is not something most people expect will happen to them and few are well-enough prepared for even the sort of localized outage that most places can expect occasionally.

    1. Claire - I think the thing is that in the Uk we are not used to power cuts. If we were, perhaps more people would take them more seriously. As I mentioned to Wolfgang above, we are really not anticipating any kind of trouble whatsoever. Having myself worked in the electricity generating industry I have a certain amount of respect for how fragile the whole system is ( and here there is only one grid, unlike there three that interconnect in north America).

      It's a good point you raise, about people's resilience. I have travelled far and wide and put up with all sorts of unpleasant situations in afferent countries ( as well as being brought up with a father who never turned on the heating), so I'm fairly confident my own personal resilience is okay. Nevertheless, I observe that many people nowadays can't tolerate even a slight variation of temperature - I really noticed this in Scandinavia, where people have to be in 25C (77F) heat all year round, or else 'freeze'.

      I just hope that we have a few trial runs of power outages prior to any prolonged one. I don't think people can cope with being thrown in at the deep end.

    2. Interestingly, the only time I have been in the UK, on business, was in 1987 when the hurricane hit London. I flew into London the morning before. The company I worked for put me up in a hotel near Buckingham Palace so I walked around town as it began to rain lightly in the afternoon until I became sleepy enough to return to the hotel. Somehow I managed to stay awake till about 8 p.m. when I fell into a deep jet-lagged sleep, having noted from the TV weather broadcast that more rain was predicted overnight. Well into the night I awoke to very high winds and the sound of glass breaking. Briefly I wondered if it was a tornado, then decided that the thick brick walls of the hotel would protect me and went promptly back to sleep! I woke to no electricity and a need to get ready to attend a business meeting over breakfast. No problem, I had a small flashlight with me and I did what needed to be done. The hotel served breakfast items that didn't need refrigeration. The electricity came on in the late morning, to the relief of my hosts. Since the electricity went out while I was there, I hadn't realized it was so unusual in the UK. Thanks for elaborating in your response.

    3. You managed to pick the right moment! I can't recall any power outage lasting longer than a few minutes for my entire life. That was the great storm that wasn't supposed to be - we were told that nothing would happen … and it did!

      BTW it's interesting to watch the last video there for a bit of nostalgia.

    4. Thanks for this post on Blackout Jason, I'm another who doesn't watch TV, so would have missed it otherwise. I decided to review it on my own blog at as well.

      SLClaire - you were so unfortunate to be here for the Great Storm. The only power cut I have experienced since then was for an hour in the middle of the day, which only affected a few houses. This is why we are so unprepared.

      I was a paper girl in 1987 and got up at 6am to deliver my newspapers. I remember it was pretty eerie walking to the Newsagents to get my papers, with rubbish and debris blowing everywhere. The shopkeeper told me the papers hadn't arrived so I could go home, but as I left the shop I saw a the van coming round the corner. I legged it home before I ended up working. I can't remember the power cut lasting very long at all, but there were so many trees down! Early the next year we visited Sir Winston Churchills home. My lasting impression was of the view from his study window, the woods on the hillside opposite had been completely flattened! Very sad.

      It is interesting that the supply disruptions prior to 1987 were from strikes and economic issues. It is really very rare for extreme weather events to hit the UK. I think the North Sea Flood of 1953 was the last major event and that is only really remembered in coastal communities. I remember reading an American preparedness book that stated most of the UK was underwater durring the 2007 floods, but really it was fairly localised. As proof I was camping in Devon that week in a tent, cut off from all media. Driving back the M5 was virtually at a standstill, so I turned off at the next junction which was to Tewksbury (the area hardest hit) ! The road was empty. We started to wonder what the hell was going on as we passed abandoned cars along the side of the road. We were virtually the last car over the river before the police shut the road. The rest of the journey home was fine, with no other signs of flooding!

      The looting of 2011 is different in that there was no disaster or power cut that triggered it. Rioting and protests often erupt when people are angry at being treated unfairly. Remember the Poll Tax riots in London? And there have been race related riots in many poor areas of major cities, though none since the 80's, as far as I remember. Although shocking they are fairly localised, and really aren't connected with a power cut. I think that Channel 4 got it wrong to think that such a major power cut would trigger such a response. I think Phil is right about individual acts rather than riots.

      Personally I think you would be more at risk in the countryside. The wealthy elite with their country estates and hunting rifles are going to feel very scared of any group of people approaching them. Unlike in the US the majority of the population is unarmed.

      The British people will work very hard to keep up the appearance of normality in any case. Panic, and making a drama of things is strictly frowned upon! It is no wonder that any kind of preparedness is such a hard sell over here :)

  5. What, Michael Douglas has split from his welsh lovely? I'm pleased to say I didn't know that and neither did I know about the tv show. The archdruid would be proud of me.

    I am old enough to remember multiple electric black outs in the early 70s which for those much older than me evoked the spirit of the blitz. As a 13 year old, walking through pitch black housing estates was a thrilling experience. Not one to provoke riots though as no one could see anything. I wonder how the metropolitan riots would have actually fared if they just turned the power off?

    I'd imagine multiple independent acts of individual chicanery rather than riots.

    Anyway I did a return ferry trip to Denmark this week counting birds and sea mammals for the conservation charity MARINElife. My first taste of Denmark was 3 hours in Esbjerg. It left me wondering how many retail clothing outlets and banks could one small town need?

    I saw a great deal of evidence of offshore platforms as you predicted and 3 porpoises and 3 seals. The seabirds were much better, 2,393 of them of 21 different species, mainly inshore near Esbjerg and in the "outer silver pit" of the north sea, just south east of the dogger bank.

    Even the furthest reaches of the north sea will be called in to play for vast wind turbine fields if the black out scenario is to be avoided. We need to know how important these areas are for marine life so better decisions can be made about where the turbines go. A few telling black outs whatever their causes would help to shape peoples thinking in a realistic way. But it would be much better if we all get used to using much less.

    1. Hi Phil - three hours in Esbjerg is all you need. If you'd spent much longer in Denmark you'd probably also wonder how many dog grooming parlours and sushi restaurants a country might need.

      I sometimes wonder the same about the UK - but in this case it's nail salons, tattoo parlours and charity shops.

      Well done for spotting porpoises (and seals). I imagine the 2,393 seabird sightings were a group effort - or were you just very busy with the binoculars?

      As for Michael Douglas et al … would that be the same arch druid who doesn't know who Brad Pitt is? ;-)

      Glad to hear you're not paying attention! (in my defence, the Blackout film was recommended to me by my local Transition group, which is how I hear about it)

  6. I think I can offer an explanation for the nail salons: they're notorious (apparently) for quietly adding the proceeds of local crimes to their takings.


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