‘The Deep Blue Sea’ and the Gas Supply

There really is no accounting for what thoughts and memories will be conjured by experiences, books and films, is there?

Last week’s viewing of Terence Davies’ film of Terrence Rattigan’s ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ has set off a lot of thinking about gas.  The film, an atmospheric telling of a self destructive love affair set in a sepia toned London in the 1950s, begins with Hester, played by Rachel Weisz attempting to gas herself, lying in front of an unlit fire.  After the drama of the dying days of the romance, she is shown lighting the same fire, symbolically bringing the story to a fitting conclusion.

Suicide by gas fire or oven is a feature of a particular era, between the time of widespread installation of the energy supply to homes, and the conversion in the UK from coal gas to natural gas in the 1970s; so we know we are somewhere between then and the 1920s when we see it in a story.  It also, to me, seems like a particularly tragic British phenomenon; recorded in films and novels taking place in dreary bedsits, chilly little scenes in which the protagonist has to first stoke the meter with enough shillings to pay for the gas to get the job done, and to tape up the drafty doors and windows that will otherwise save them with unwanted ventilation.  You rarely see someone living in a comfortable house, in a warm dressing gown resorting to this.

The strong representation in literary and popular culture must also be a reflection of real life tragedies, and the recognition that a potentially fatal substance was pumped into nearly every household in the country.  The switchover to natural gas may have been overdue when it finally happened.

I remember when my family first travelled to the US in 1967, on arrival we stayed in a rather creepy hotel cum serviced apartment place called the Albany Towers.  As well as being unnerving to a child who had never before been in a hotel, there was a very strange stuffy smell in the lobby and all the corridors which my parents couldn’t identify for me.  It was only when, back in the UK in about 1974, our house was converted to natural gas that I smelt that odour again.

Even now, if I inadvertently delay the lighting of the ring on the hob and get a whiff of the gas it throws me back to that experience, and one morning when my mother sent me down to the lobby on my own to buy some matches.  I crept along the corridors, fearful of being stopped by a stranger, down in the lift to the shop, where the assistant laughed at my cute accent, told me that matches were free ‘in this great country’ and sent me back upstairs with a handful of matchbooks.

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