First, the good news. Here in the far north of England, our summer time stretches like silk across the sky. We are almost in White Nights territory and can read outside until nearly midnight (see Week 47). It follows, however, that at this time of year what passes for daylight blinks by like a moth’s eyelash. For the last few days, befuddled and bemused by the lack of melatonin, we have taken to standing under the kitchen lights, faces turned upwards in the middle of the day. To no avail: we are creatures of the dark, and feel drugged and stupefied with perpetual night-time. Like Hamlet’s dodgy uncle, we want to shout ‘Give me some light: away!’
Because we humans are not built for nocturnal life. At some deep level of the soul we have always known this, and made our gods as creatures of the sun. Apollo Phoebus, Ra: the heavens are teeming with gods laying claim to being the sun-giver. GK Chesterton’s Father Brown story, ‘The Eye of Apollo’, which you will find in The Innocence of Father Brown, shows what happens, both physically and spiritually, to sun worshippers: nothing good, in short. Better Chesterton’s Priest of Apollo, a thoroughly bad hat, however, than the really rather embarrassing sun-lovers in DH Lawrence’s short story, ‘Sun’ (better by far, incidentally, if you are in the mood for short stories, to read Lawrence’s ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ and ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’). Even Agatha Christie’s outstandingly dull Evil Under the Sun plays along with what seems to be a theme, that sunlight is bad for us and we’re better off under our quiet English clouds. This is of course nonsense, as the good folk of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries knew. You will have noticed that all the most romping Renaissance tragedies take place in Hot Countries. Yes, yes, I know that their heroes and heroines do not live happily ever after, and that we are actually supposed to be appalled at the goings-on in the languorously Mediterranean countries in which they are set – Spain (Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, which, if you happen to be unfamiliar with it, is an absolute treat, full-to-bursting with horror and mayhem) and Italy (Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, Webster’s fabulously bizarre Duchess of Malfi). The point these English playwrights were ostensibly making was, in essence, my dear, murder and treachery, what else would you expect from Catholic countries? But actually of course they make Spain and Italy sound a lot more zizzy – all that sex, apart from anything else – than dreary old Puritan London in the drizzle
But can I find any heroes for this long darkness? My hat is off to polar explorers, who voluntarily put up with this sort of thing for months at a stretch (the contemplation of which should put my whining at a few shorter-than-average daylight hours into some sort of perspective). There are good solid biographies of Scott, Shackleton and Nansen out there, and Shackleton’s own gripping South: The Endurance Expedition: but my favourite approach to the whole subject of Arctic exploration is Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday. Ransome, as I’m sure you know, was thoroughly acquainted with the very frozen north, not just in his beloved Lake District but also trotting across the battlefields of revolutionary Russia in his capacity as War Correspondent for the Daily News and The Manchester Guardian. The children in Winter Holiday put the NorthernReader household to shame (not a difficult task even at the best of times) as they buckle cheerfully down to stumbling around in the dark outdoors or making rabbit-skin mittens by lamplight.
The lessening of the light is even more marked in Scandinavia than it is here, and the seemingly perpetual twilight provides the perfect sinister backdrop for a clutch of Swedish and Danish thriller writers. Henning Markell’s Wallander novels are atmospheric, bleak and disturbing: but if that’s your sort of thing, you must read the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. In ten novels, written at the kitchen table after the couple’s children had gone to bed, the modern crime novel is born. Calmly, meticulously, they create the genre of the police-procedural and use it to construct devastating critiques of contemporary society.
On second thoughts, perhaps gritty realism and gruesome murders are not my cup of tea at the moment. I’m having to keep the lights on all day as it is, just to get from room to room without bumping into the furniture: think of the reckless extravagance if I have to keep the lights on all night having frightened myself half to death. No, I shall be like Badger, who, you will recall, puts off even the urgent task of reforming Toad with the honest admission, ‘of course you know I can’t do anything now?’. And no sensible animal would question his wisdom. As Kenneth Grahame so rightly points out, ‘no animal […] is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter’ So that’s all right, then. If retiring to the study and putting a red spotted handkerchief over one’s face is good enough for the great Mr Badger at this time of year, it’s certainly good enough for me.