In sympathy with New Yorkers, albeit inadvertently, I have had virtually no power for weeks. Worse, I have been warned that my lights are on an ancient system of fabric wiring which could burst into flames at any moment.
I have been trying to fix things, but have come up against a vicious circle of energy industry red tape. Or should I say blue tape? It is, after all, the deregulated version of petty bureaucracy. There is so much blue tape, in fact, that I, a collector of shares in every utility company to go on sale since I was 18, am beginning to question my commitment to privatisation. Hush my mouth!
To summarise: British Gas, my electricity supplier, came out when the lights blew two weeks ago and said the whole place needed rewiring. But they couldn’t help me further until the ancient electrical mains box had been replaced. And as it contained asbestos they could not touch it.
So they outsourced the job to UK Power Networks, who promptly outsourced it to a company called Skanska. Skanska could not give me a date sooner than the end of November to come and change the mains box, but insisted that I must be able to get British Gas to give me lights before then, because there should be no need to touch the mains box to do the rewiring.
UK Power, who came to the flat after I begged them to help, agreed with this but wanted nothing further to do with any of it unless it became a ‘proper emergency’. In other words, they will only help me if and when I do go up in smoke.
So I called British Gas again and insisted they come and quote me for rewiring. I must now add into this heady mix the fact that every time I call British Gas, they fail to keep their appointment and each time they reschedule they send me a long letter of apology and £44.
Since my electrical problems started, they have missed at least four appointments, racking me up a tidy little British Gas savings pot of £176 – almost enough for a week’s heating. (I’m kidding. Two weeks.)
This is super, but I still have no lights and, on balance, I think I would rather not sit in the dark waiting for my electrical wiring to kill me than be paid £44 every few days in compensation.
Anyway, British Gas missed their first appointment to come and quote me for re-wiring — ker-ching! — but their electrician did turn up the next day. A very nice young chap called Alex went under the stairs and came back with the joyous news that it was not as big a job as first feared. And he could do it without touching the mains box. Hurray!
‘But…’ he said, as he surveyed the old fuses…His face darkened and there was a terrible pause.
‘But?’ I said, feeling my lifeline slip away.
‘But you will need your isolation switch changing first.’
‘Is the isolation switch anything to do with the mains box?’
‘Not exactly. But in order to fit the isolation switch you will have to shut off the electricity and that means going into the mains box and we might not be able to do that because of the asbestos.’
‘But that means we really can’t rewire until Skanska come and change the blasted box.’
‘I-I don’t know,’ said Alex, looking quite keen to get away now. ‘If you decide to go ahead s-someone will deal with it.’
S-someone? Who? ‘Who?’ I shouted, hysterically.
Alex then garbled some mumbo-jumbo about my also urgently needing a new ‘protective earth bonding cable’, all the while backing towards the door. At which point, I’m afraid to say, I looked up at him and said in a very faint, silly voice, ‘I’m just a girl with no lights.’
As soon as the words were out of my mouth I shrank in shame. Who was I kidding? I’m no Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, batting her eyelids at Hugh Grant and cooing, ‘I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love me.’
I’m a forty-something south London singleton in grey tracksuit bottoms, with uncombed hair and the remnants of last night’s mascara halfway down her face — the results of a morning’s weeping with frustration.
Needless to say, the British Gas man did not look moved to do anything other than get the hell out. He made me sign the checklist sheet before leaving me standing in my gloomy hallway. I surveyed my options: call British Gas and argue; call Skanska and argue; call UK Power and argue; call all of the above at once on three different phones and put the headsets together and argue. Then I thought, ‘Candles are lovely.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 10 November 2012