I’ve recently been introduced to the work of a brilliant writer and oral historian, the late Tony Parker. His best known work is probably The People of Providence, about the inhabitants of a London slab and tower block housing estate in the early eighties. But my favourite book of his is Lighthouse, about the Trinity House lighthouse keepers, partly because when I was quite small I briefly harboured an ambition to be one. (It’s a good job I never acted on it; most of the lighthouses are now automatic.) The first thing you learn is that lighthouse keepers never use the word ‘lighthouse’. They say ‘lights’ and divide them into three types: land lights, which are on the mainland with living quarters nearby, rock lights and tower lights. Tower lights are the most isolated and the most dreaded, without even a bit of rock to walk around on and get away from your fellow keepers for a bit.
Lighthouse keeping is a somewhat melancholy profession, partly because promotion is not on merit – it is difficult to outshine your colleagues in job performance, after all - but on vacancies or ‘dead men’s shoes’. There is little to do on a light except linger over meals and make ships in bottles.
The lighthouse keepers are often articulate about their strange, lonely lives:
‘Somehow you’re the only person left in the world, everyone else has disappeared; there aren’t any other people anywhere, no one else alive but you … Sitting on your own looking out of a lighthouse window; it’s a funny sort of existence.’
‘The first day or two on land it hurt you to walk even half a mile on the flat; it was like someone had been kicking at the back of your knees, because all your leg muscles was used to was going up and down the stairs.’
‘Sometimes when I was on middle watch in the middle of the night I used to switch on the radio transmitter and sit and listen to ships talking to one another, just so I could hear the sound of people’s voices.’
There is also a cautionary tale for authors. Parker asked one keeper, Barry, what he thought of a Margaret Drabble novel he was reading: ‘He struggled, opened the sitting room window and threw it out into the sea.’
Now that is what I call a bad review.