Last night, I made a useful discovery. An Android phone running a web browser displaying the Google search home page makes a handy emergency light. Useful to know, should you find yourself in a snowbound farmhouse when the power goes out.
We started yesterday afternoon in the car en route to my parents' place. Only twenty miles, but on a snowbound Christmas Eve that distance meant little. The AA told us the trunk road and motorway were at a standstill so we were taking the minor roads all the way, twenty miles of hard packed glistening icy snow in a little hatchback with summer tyres.
If you were in these parts yesterday afternoon I hope you managed to get outside, it was a beautiful day. Our route took us through open countryside, a large tract of wetland floodplain. If I hadn't been concentrating on the road so much I'd have considered it one of the best drives of the year, we were in a Christmas card landscape. Other motorists hadn't been as lucky as us, we passed more than one hole in the hedge and one rather new 4WD being pulled out of the ditch by a tractor, but aside from a few slightly sideways moments we made it to my parents' place without significant incident.
My sister and my mother were fixing up Christmas decorations to the accompaniment of too-loud choral music on the radio. My dad escaped to feed the cattle, my wife holed up in our bedroom with a book, and I made myself scarce, walking my mother's dog in the snow. I don't want to give you the idea things were fraught, but my close relatives can be rather strident at times. The dog didn't agree with my choice of distance so I couldn't escape for long. I guess it was a little cold for her.
So there I was, at dusk on Christmas Eve, trying to evade the Christmas chaos and wishing my medication didn't preclude the booze and I could quaff at a nice glass of the 2009 pressing, when the lights went out. That was when I found that my phone casts a surprising amount of light, as I groped for the stairs to find out what was up.
My parents house has a slightly older electrical installation. It has fuses rather than the more modern circuit breakers, and it is protected by an earth leakage trip switch rather than the more modern residual current devices. Somewhere in the house, an electrical current had leaked into the earth wire, and that current activated an electromagnet in the trip switch, disconnecting the supply.
The task facing my dad and I was to find out where the leak lay, and to disconnect it. Have you ever had to do this? Think of it as a witchhunt. You are plagued by irrational suspicion of your appliances. You seize upon the suspect toaster or kettle, unplug it in truimph and return to the trip switch, only to see it thrown again by the fault. I once saw an exquisite practical joke played on someone unpleasant in a student union executive position, an acquaintance of mine wired a transient suppressor (Device designed to protect electronics from overvoltage, intended to be connected from live to neutral) from live to earth in one of the wall sockets in his office and sat back and watched the appliance witchhunt begin as the trip switch went out randomly several times an hour.
In our case the Usual Suspects proved not to be at fault. So I found myself wandering round a darkened snowbound British farmhouse holding a guttering candle and looking at electrical circuits. My parents are in no way ready for Jenny mode so I'm the scruffy bloke for all this, but I was left wondering whether Goth makeup, a long black wig and a velvet gown might be more appropriate. When you are facing a Christmas without hot water, the electric blower in your bedroom or the chance to watch the Queen and a Bond movie on the telly, such things seem inordinately funny for some reason.
Eventually we traced the fault to one of the downstairs lighting circuits. With its fuse pulled we now have reliable power back, but half the house has random lighting. A workshop inspection lamp here, a halogen floodlight there. Somewhere in my near future is an afternoon with a Megger finding out where the fault is, but for now I'm happy to live with odd lighting.
I don't want to give you an inaccurate picture of my family, for the rest of the year they're surprisingly normal. But at Christmas time, there's always something that goes amiss. The dog starts chucking up everywhere, or the Calor gas gives out just as the turkey's about to go in the oven. Just for once I'd prefer an uneventful Christmas!
However your Christmas went, I hope you enjoyed yourself.