My late father – may his non-material essence continue joyously to explore the mysteries of the universe – decided when I was about 11 years of age that he would teach me about Astronomy.
Incidentally, please don’t laugh too much at my idea, expressed above, as to what might constitute an afterlife for Humankind – most of the world’s religions are founded on much sillier precepts than THAT!
And, you may have noticed, I didn’t split an infinitive in the first sentence either.
Anyway, back to early 1964 and the back garden of what was then our brand new house on the edge of Ipswich (my Mother still lives in it 46 years on!) where the skies were very conducive to naked-eye astronomy on a clear winter’s night.
This was mainly because, as with the house, the whole estate was brand new and the very last thing the builders put in were the street lights – so it was not at all as light-polluted as you’d normally expect it to be in a town. A year or two later it was somewhat different but for now (or then!) you could, buildings permitting, see stars almost down to the horizon in all directions.
I had been interested in “space” ever since Yuri Gagarin had successfully gone up and come down again in April 1961 but was much more impressed nearly a year later when John Glenn did the same thing for the Americans on my 9th birthday!
The Christmas before we moved had seen me acquire a book that has been on my bookshelf ever since. It is only a little book but size (as I seem to have said way too many times during my adult life) isn’t everything!
The book in question is “The Observer Book of Astronomy” by the redoubtable Patrick Moore and even then Dad and I were great fans of this mad enthusiast on TV. The book breaks down into a couple of pages on each of the major constellations and even tells the classic Greek myth in which each character or creature appears.
It ‘s one of those books from which I am aware of absorbing a great deal of the information of the sort that causes team-mates (and sometimes opponents) to comment “how the hell did you come to know that!” whenever it surfaces in quizzes.
The one drawback it has in terms of real back-garden stargazing is that it does not tell you exactly where all of those “star-shapes” are in relation to each other. For that you need a map.
And having decided to teach me (and probably himself also because I don’t think he knew that much more than me when we started) he went out and bought a star map. I remember it perfectly – it was published by The Daily Telegraph, cost three shillings and sixpence (17 ½ pence in decimal coinage) and folded out to an extremely cumbersome single sheet about the same size as an Ordnance Survey Land Ranger map.
Awkward though it was, we were able to take turns at holding it while the other compared the features with the actual sky and I can still identify most of the constellations we picked out in that way.
We also took great enjoyment in spotting and tracking satellites as they moved through the sunlit parts of their orbits. Of course we couldn’t identify individual ones but you could tell which were the property of the USSR because theirs were nearly all in North-South polar orbits while the USA tended to favour East-West equatorial paths.
As usual I expect you are wondering where I’m going with this and possibly what it was that set me off on the above reminiscence.
Well I’ll tell you.
This year at the beginning of August there was obviously nothing else of any importance happening in the world and so the BBC devoted many more minutes of news time than usual reminding us to have a look at the annual Perseid meteor shower – so called because the “shooting stars” involved appear to emanate from the constellation of Perseus (Directions? Look at the pole star, take half a turn to the right and look about half way up from the horizon to the zenith. And if none of those terms meant anything to you I give up! Take an interest in something outside of soap operas and “reality” TV, PLEASE!)
Anyway, just for once, the skies over this particular part of the UK were actually clear on the night of Thursday 12th August when the “peak” was anticipated and at about 9.30 pm Faith and I went out to have a look. We weren’t really equipped for it – just knew roughly where to look and which part of our house wall to lean up against.
Nothing happened at first and after about 5 minutes Faith started to get a neck ache and went in. Then of course they started and in about 10 minutes I had seen about fifteen! I didn’t stick with it however because another of those disproportionately annoying things that drive me absolutely nuts happened!
I shifted position a couple of paces to the left down the side of my house to get a little more comfortable and “WHAM!” on came next-door’s bloody security light!! Night vision gone instantly!
So I waited a couple of minutes and moved out onto the back lawn. “WHAM!” On came the security light of the house that stands side on to us at the bottom of the garden. Night vision gone again! So I gave up.
Now these intrusions into my dark space – which I consider to be just as much a breach of my privacy as would be shining torches into my bedroom window – will have to wait for a more organised rant on the subject because this is supposed to be a relaxed friendly piece about star-gazing!
It did, however, get me thinking about particular occasions when I have been able to see the stars in all their glory. Specifically I was reminded of the time a few years ago when I went night fishing on a really isolated beach near Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast. The sky was perfectly clear, there were no town lights nearby and we were even shielded from nearby lighthouses by the low cliffs we were under.
It was gorgeous! The sky seemed to be ablaze with stars and as I lay on the shingle staring at them with no thought whatsoever about what might be on the end of my fishing line, I felt I could reach out and touch them. I found it almost impossible to believe that this was the same washed out scenery that I get in Orton Wistow with its street lights and uncontrolled security lights ruining it all.
However, do you remember a posting I did back in May 2009 called “The Microsoft Code” where I explained the feelings I had that something bad was going to happen through my entering Windows access codes? No? Go and read it after you’ve finished this.
Well, I have to confess to feeling similarly ill at ease when I get to stare at a really bright starry sky for too long! I am pleased to say it isn’t the feeling that the universe is about to come to an end as a result of my actions – which is what the Microsoft piece was about.
What I get when I take one of those rare opportunities to stare at the night sky is a very odd feeling that up there, just out of my field of view, something BIG is moving. It doesn’t matter if I adjust my view slightly to accommodate the area it seemed to be in – the THING moves too and remains always just out of range of my peripheral vision!
I wonder what it is!
And just maybe, if Local Authorities carry out their “threats” (“Oh yes please” says Alfie) to turn out street lights during the night as cost saving measures, you’ll get to look up at proper starlight and can tell me if you feel it too!