What are sodium lights? They’re the yellow street lights that are ubiquitous in the UK and are gradually being replaced in Liverpool (I don’t know about other cities) with white ones.
This burnt-yellow light is a big part of me. As a teenager I hung around after dark on street corners drenched with it. In adulthood I have walked home from nights out countless times in the strangely narcotic yellow atmosphere. I never thought about it until recently. Why does it have to be yellow? I don’t know but it has a magic of its own. Not exactly cosy. Quite artificial. Industrial. But somehow romantic.
I remember as a kid there was a park in Sheffield where you could look down on the entire city and see the whole city’s twinkling orangey-yellow lights. They mapped out the street patterns and merged in the distance like a galaxy of sweets. We have the same on in Liverpool on Everton Brow.
The sodium lights of a nearby city or town are a comfort to the night-time driver as they are glimpsed from the motorway.
The other magical thing about sodium lights is that they change colour slowly as they warm up. I remember playing out on the streets in my childhood, seeing a whole street light up at dusk and the lights gradually go from pink, to orange to Lucozade yellow as the night fell.
Now certain streets including mine have had their sodium lights replaced. Presumably they are not inefficient enough (god save us from the evil of inefficiency!!) It’s happening all over the city, probably the whole country, with white light flooding much more area than before. As a result, some of the quaint, odd character from the suburban British street is being lost.
It all seems to me part of a kind of gradual increase in the brightness of our night-time world. Look back to old films and you see a gentler world of interior gas lamps in houses, streetlights shrouded in fog and phone boxes lit with a soft glow. Nowadays a violent brightness is creeping everywhere. Under the relentless pressure of ‘safety’ concerns and 24-hour retail we are turning the night into the day.
Technology is already leading to an over-stimulation, with continuously flashing sources of electronic light, but the built environment has a similar effect. Electronic billboards blaze across our cities, while ATM machines have recently got a lot brighter, as have the interior lighting on buses which find unbearable. It’s like having your retinas scoured. I know I sound like an old man complaining about the way the world is, but I really feel this is an unstoppable process where designers and engineers will not be happy until they have eliminated darkness altogether.
I asked a female friend about the safety theory for brighter lighting. She said “Well, it just increases the fear doesn’t it? If you play up to the idea of the night being dangerous then it will be. We need to create more trust not less”
Night is the flipside of day, where we don’t have to be over-stimulated, even if we are active. The delights of a night stargazing are increasingly becoming impossible in cities, as the wash of light drown out the fainter heavenly objects.
I would like to keep the sodium lights burning, and leave a little mystery and atmosphere in the night. You don’t what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.