When I grew up, I wanted to be a lighthouse keeper. Just like Moominpappa in Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, my ambition was to live on the loneliest lighthouse on the remotest skerry farthest from land. It didn’t end well for Moominpappa, the island he and the other Moomins settled on being barren and desolate, inhabited only by a silent fisherman who turned out to be the ex-lighthouse keeper driven mad by loneliness. It didn’t put me off.
I have since met many of my compatriots who had or still have the same dream, for there is something about lighthouses that seems to speak to our islanded souls. Now, to celebrate the quincentenary of Trinity House, the organisation responsible for the lighthouses of England and Wales, an exhibition is opening at the National Maritime Museum. “Guiding Lights” will display intricate models of lighthouses and lighthouse keepers’ personal effects. It is hard to imagine a similarly pulse-quickening exhibition about air traffic controllers or road safety officers, although our lives are similarly in their hands.
“I meant nothing by the lighthouse,” Virginia Woolf wrote of its role in her most celebrated novel, “but I trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own emotions.” Lighthouses, Woolf realised, are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation and our ultimate connectedness to each other. Countless British artists, from John Constable to Eric Ravilious, have made them the focus of their paintings, which can’t simply be to do with their pleasingly vertical contrast with the horizon.
I suspect that lighthouses appeal especially to introverts like me, who need to make strategic withdrawals from the social world but also want to retain some basic link with humanity. A beam sweeping the horizon for the benefit of ships passing in the night is just that kind of minimal human connection. “Nothing must be allowed to silence our voices … We must call out to one another,” wrote Janet Frame, a shy New Zealand writer also fascinated by lighthouses, “across seas and deserts flashing words instead of mirrors and lights.”
I finally cured my lighthouse fantasy by reading Tony Parker’s Lighthouse, his oral history of the lighthouse keepers. Looking after a light – no keeper ever called it a lighthouse – was, I learned, a tedious job, with little to do but linger over meals and make ships in bottles. The clincher was reading about the keeper who was so lonely that in the middle of the night he switched on the transmitter and listened to the ships radioing each other, just to hear some other human voices. The tower lights, the ones that rise impossibly out of the sea and carry the most romantic connotations for landlubberly ignoramuses like me, were the most dreaded by the keepers. Without even a bit of rock to walk around on and escape from your housemates, they were the lighthouse-keeping equivalent of being posted to Siberia.
In any case, I was well out of it because lighthouse keeping was not a job with prospects. The lighthouses began to be automated in the 1970s and the last keeper left the last occupied lighthouse in 1998. Now, in an age of radar and computerised navigation systems, working lighthouses are an endangered species. Their haunting fog signals are being switched off. Their black and red painted stripes, meant to stand out against the land and sky, are being left to peel off without being retouched. And many lighthouses are being decommissioned, turned into holiday cottages or expensively renovated homes.
No doubt satnav will now do the job just as well, but it will be a shame when the last lighthouse turns off its light. In an age when we have to justify public projects with reference to the consumerist language of stakeholders and end users, lighthouses still feel like an uncomplicated social good that belongs to us all. They are the concrete symbol of our common humanity, of the fact that people we may never meet – whom we may do no more than flash our lights at in the dark – are also our concern.