“Solitude is the word, not loneliness.”
That’s how one lighthouse keeper describes his work, a kind of work almost no one does anymore, in "Behind the Light," a beautiful short documentary about lighthouse keepers in Britain.
According to filmmaker Ronan Glynn, all lighthouses in the United Kingdom are now automated, and there’s no longer a place for the stoic men who braved ocean storms and months with little human contact. “Those that we interviewed, though old enough to be retired, would have gladly continued on,” he points out.
It’s impossible not to romanticize the keeper’s life. “You had the time,” one of the interviewees says. “And when you read a book, you read a book. You had time to read the book. I mean, most of the things now, we just skip through them, don’t we?”
In the film, the keepers’ sense of loss is palpable, though each handled the shift to automation differently. “Handel Bluer, the eldest keeper, was the least disgruntled,” Glynn says. “He had seen various benefits from new technologies throughout his career and recognized it as necessary. The youngest, Bill Arnold, was less at peace with leaving the job. He was forcibly retired.”
Though less than six minutes long, the film manages to be remarkably rich, its nautical scenes side by side with the faces and voices of the keepers, honest and worn. Dreamy animations emphasize that we’re in a world of memory.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.