I have seen the Milky Way. Here on the edges of the Kielder Dark Skies, when we step out and look up, we see light, but it is the light of millions – perhaps billions – of other worlds and their suns. Sometimes the sky is so thick with stars that it is hard to find a patch of darkness between them. With my knowledge of astronomy previously limited to being able to spot Orion and the Plough, I need more books.
No matter how hard I try, most astronomy guide books do not hit the spot. Somewhere between Baby’s First Book of Looking Up (sadly, not an actual title, but one I’m now itching to write) and Professor Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, my allergic reactions to charts and numbers bigger than about three kick in and I realise that I’m not absorbing a single word of what I’m reading. This is my personal tragedy and not the fault of the books, many of which I’m sure are excellent. And I’m afraid I could never get past Patrick Moore’s magnificent eyebrows, striking style of delivery and awesome ability to play the xylophone to get to grips with what he was actually saying on The Sky at Night.
So my firmest grasp of the finer points of star-gazing has come from Antoine St-Exupéry (don’t lie to me: you knew this was going to happen). For those of you who have been living on another planet (sorry) or for other unfathomable reasons have not yet read The Little Prince, let me explain. Briefly. St-Exupéry’s hero, the eponymous and otherwise nameless princeling, falls to earth from an asteroid, where he meets the book’s narrator, an airman who has just about survived crashing in the desert (which is what happened to St-Exupéry himself: the crash and the almost-dying of dehydration, definitely: the meeting with a small alien, more debatably). After philosophical musings that are gently profound, the Little Prince prepares to leave, telling the narrator not to watch him leave, not to be upset if he leaves his body behind, and to remember him laughing whenever he looks at the stars. Oh, go and read it. You’ll feel better for having done so. And once you’ve done that, you can add St-Exupéry’s Earth, Wind and Stars to your reading list (you could also start wearing Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit, named in honour of another of his books. And Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez rave about it in their completely indispensable Perfumes: the A-Z Guide).
Most stars in fiction exist in the fevered genre of science fiction which is on the whole not my sort of thing. How very great an achievement, therefore, that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – which is on several of its many levels a work of science fiction – should be so hugely enjoyable, memorable and informative. If I feel I can bandy terms such as Alpha Centauri and Betelgeuse, it is entirely thanks to the very-much lamented Douglas Adams.
John Donne tells us to ‘Go and catch a falling star’ among his bitter list of things one is more likely to be able to achieve than bump into an honest woman. Harsh, Jack, harsh: and jolly unfair as he and Anne risked all for love but she paid the higher price (we will definitely talk about Donne one day, because, this little example of misogyny notwithstanding, he is fabulous and I want you to love him). Poets, on the whole, have a bit of a thing about stars (I am prepared to concede that ‘a bit of a thing’ is not the most scholarly term I have ever used but hey, we’re all friends here). Shakespeare, obviously: not just his star-cross’d lovers, but his ever-constant star as well. A favourite – do you know it? – is Walt Whitman’s ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer’: he too was left cold by the charts and diagrams, and ‘rising and gliding’ he went off by himself and ‘from time to time/ Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.’ A rebuke to pedants everywhere. It’s that ‘from time to time’ that’s so perfect. Sadly, I run into my usual problem with Keats in ‘Bright Star’: I think it’s the final ‘swoon to death’ that makes me irritable and inclined to mutter, ‘Oh, pull yourself together’ – which is very rarely the most helpful approach to the Romantics who, on the whole, like themselves like that.
Enough of looking up. What about AJ Cronin’s The Stars Look Down? Set here in the north-east and written in the 1930s, it is a quite gripping and moving tale of the hard life of a mining community: the novel was an influence on the creators of Billy Elliott. Longfellow felt the indifference of the ‘cold light of stars’, but sadly, his poem, ‘The Light of Stars’ is fatally flawed by being recognisably his, frankly: it’s the dum-di-dum rhythm and the trite rhyming. I’m sorry if you love him: but think what fun you’re going to have when you shake of the repetitive beat of Hiawatha and read some real poetry instead.
A last one to balance on the pile of books by the bed – for where better to contemplate the stars? we can always leave the curtains open – Bertolt Brecht’s A Life of Galileo. We’ll talk about reading plays, if you like, some time soon, but Brecht is a good one for reading (and we’ve already started to think about the joys and pitfalls of translation – last week, you simply can’t have forgotten already – so we’re all set). I have few regrets in life, but here are two: not being born at the right time to see Charles Laughton play Galileo – Brecht wrote the play for him – and not having seen Simon Russell Beale’s performance at the National Theatre in 2006. Now Ian McDiarmid is the RSC’s Galileo. Let’s hope the production gets added to their splendid new streaming-live-to-cinemas-everywhere service. Meanwhile, hand me my star book and my telescope, and grant me a cloudless night tonight.