Among the first things one notices about the British is their dysfunctional relationship with electricity.
There seems to be an underlying conviction that, at any moment, this unpredictable menace will leap from the wall and strike one dead. There is a presumption of evil here, of malicious intent. When and by what means, in the infancy of the creation of a national grid, the collective psyche suffered such an injurious and enduring trauma I will leave to qualified commentators of history, but clearly no other explanation can be found at the root of the overly cautious measures taken to protect the populace from a shocking end.
There’s a switch on everything. No, there are switches, plural, on everything.
The steaming cup of tea at my elbow illustrates the point admirably. Before the powers inherent in the force of nature we know as electricity can be applied to the problem of turning cold water to hot, the unsuspecting current must pass the watchful eye of no fewer than three gatekeepers, each fully capable of halting its progress. The first and last of these are familiar enough in all developed nations: a fuse box where the current enters the household, and an “on / off” switch at the end of the journey, on the appliance itself, in this case a kettle.
But a system that so admirably suffices for the protection and maintenance of the good health and wellbeing of citizens flying other flags has, inexplicably, been found sorely lacking in this otherwise so sensible realm. Here, an extra sentinel has been deemed essential. Standing between the vibrant power hidden in the wiring behind the wall socket and the chord of the appliance itself is a third, ubiquitous, barrier: every wall socket has its own “on / off” switch which, after having received the abuse of a three-pronged, fist-sized earthed plug thrust upon it, must itself be switched on.
And lest one be so feeble of mind as to forget that the potentially fatal energy is now free to roam hither and thither where it will, a helpful reminder is prominently displayed on the side of the activated button in the form of an indelibly printed red mark or (Capital Letters) “ON” notice.
But, I observe, this too is not enough. In practice the average Brit will not be satisfied to merely switch the wall socket off again once the required electrical current has been utilized. No, after turning the switch off they will instinctively take the additional, and wholly extraneous, measure of unplugging the appliance entirely. There is no trust whatsoever that the multiple safeguards already built into the system will avail the user of adequate protection.
I’ve not been in Britain more than a day and already I find myself markedly more skeptical and wary of the intentions of electricity. Suddenly it seems an inexcusable misdemeanor, if not the highest order of negligence, that I should fail to flip that red-tipped switch to “off” just as soon as my tea is ready. How long before I succumb to the habit of pulling the plug from the wall as well?
Never mind; I purpose to become fully enculturated in my newfound home; to embrace these curious rituals even as I am left to ponder anew the grace of God in securing my survival during so many blissfully ignorant and apparently dangerous years as I sojourned among other, less cautious, peoples.