A note on fairy lights on portaloos

A house at the end of my road is undergoing some construction.

One side is completely demolished, and there are bricks and debris everywhere.

Scaffolding encases the entire house, peppered with empty bottles and sandwich packets betraying the builders’ fondness for an M&S meal deal.

The overall impression is, to put it mildly, one of complete and utter carnage.

The residents of the house are living there while the work is going on. I see them coming and going each day, brushing the brick dust off their coats before getting into their car. They look stressed.

Outside the house is a portaloo: a big blue plastic thing standing between the wall and the front window. Positioned as it is, it blocks any daylight threatening to enter the house.

As most portaloos are, it is ugly.


Draped across the portaloo—wound around the railings and the branches of the hedge at the front of the house—is a string of fairy lights.

I noticed them for the first time a couple of nights ago when I went out for an evening run.

I run past this house often, and I tend to notice things like fairy lights as I’m sweating and swearing and lamenting my decision to exercise.

And because of this, there’s something I’m quite certain of: these fairy lights are new.






What that means is that at some point, during the destruction and the dust and the seemingly relentless hammering of a pneumatic drill, someone in that house held their index finger triumphantly aloft and said: “I know what to do!”.

They travelled up into a dusty loft to fetch the fairy lights.

They stepped outside into the cold and the rain, and they wrestled those fairly lights around the railings, and through the branches of their laurel bush, and across the top of their portaloo.

They sourced an extension lead to plug them in, and fed it through a small gap at the edge of their front door.

They switched the lights on, and they stood back to admire their handiwork.

I pondered this.

“Why bother?” I thought crossly as my protesting legs propelled me past the house. “You’re living in complete chaos, your house is in ruins, the sound is driving me to distraction and I’m not living in it—and you’ve chosen to expend your presumably waning energy on illuminating a vessel into which multiple people defecate.”

I won’t lie, it felt metaphorical.

And then I realised.

And now it was my turn to hold an index finger triumphantly aloft. Aha!

“This isn’t about the fairy lights at all!” I observed, shrewdly.

We are living in an age of uncertainty, misery and mayhem.

We are crawling our way through the fringes of a deadly pandemic.

We are witnessing extinction and forced-migration on a scale I doubt any of us thought we’d live through.

Billionaires are jaunting into space while the planet burns and societal fractures seem to become more deeply entrenched with every day that passes.

“Why bother?” has become an internal mantra I recite without thinking, anytime I bear witness to the irksome practice of “fun.”

Seeing people getting on with their lives has begun to feel like a deeply personal slight when I feel so frozen in anxiety and gloom.

But—and I’ll bet you can see where this is going—that’s wrong.

It’s not wrong to feel sad. It’s not wrong to feel embittered and nihilistic and hopeless. It’s not wrong to feel anxious. It’s somewhat rational to feel those things in these times, and I do say that knowing there are many people dealing with much worse things than me.

What is wrong, though, is to begrudge people their efforts to seek joy in the darkness.

Happiness is one of our most basic human needs and it is our right to find it in whichever way we can—as long as we don’t hurt anyone in the process.

So the least I can do is to get out of their way and to respect them when they do.

The next time I run past that house—sweating and swearing and lamenting my decision to exercise—I will nod to my neighbours’ house.

I will mentally salute their optimism and fortitude.

If the world can hold space for sadness, joy, and a festooned lavatory or two, then so can I.