Too many nights by the Albert Hall…


Is it evening where you are? I could never handle the writer-reader timezone difference properly, you see. I could go with the assumption that you’re reading this assiduously in your Friday morning lectures, but that seems as unlikely as the assumption that you go to your Friday morning lectures. It’s far more likely that you’re reading this on Monday afternoon, sipping your free coffee in the SCR, scanning me briefly on Tuesday morning as you walk into Beit quad, or lifting your exhausted eyelids in a departmental common room late on a Thursday evening. If that is in fact what you’re doing, try not to be overly spooked out. Unless your name is James, you have a mole behind your left ear and are currently resisting the urge to do something amusing with a spoon. Stop that.

Wherever and whenever you are, attempting to cater to all of you is giving me a pretty bad case of emotional jetlag. Because the time of day you read something has a significant impact on your ‘relationship with the text’., to use a pointless A-levelism. To those early birds among you, good morning. If I’ve caught you early enough, you’re still ensconced in your warm, protective sconces, game for some whimsical raillerie before the day’s tribulations commence. For those of you at GMT+5 (noon, Gilead Mean Time), we’re playing an entirely different ball game. You’ve got things on your mind, places to go and deadlines to meet. If it’s after lunch time then someone has probably already had the time to annoy you. You want good old-fashioned invective and a liberal dose of vitriol, accompanied with a light cliche sauce to assure you of the righteousness of your wrath. Those of you reading this in the evening, however, are probably looking for something different.

The dying hours of the day are really remarkable. In the preceding hours the mind has been compressed, extended, jumped on, forced into boxes, forced to extract itself from boxes, attacked, teased, threatened, soothed, twisted, numbed and generally mistreated. It is, to put it simply, exhausted. The electronics of the human mind have been ripped out of their sockets come sundown, and strange currents and unusual connections start to appear. Things make sense in the dark that never made sense in the daytime and will never make sense again. Ideas click, phrases form, theories spring into being and problems vanish. The evening is the best time for a writer to be read at, as one doesn’t have to go out there to fetch the emotional reactions: the hearts of the readers come to you.

So I’m hoping it’s evening, your time. It’s God-knows-what-time on my end – I started writing this on Tuesday morning and by the time I’ve reached this sentence it’s five o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. But let’s not talk about me. If it is evening where you are, look up. No no. Stand outside and look up. And while I realize the inherent stupidity of my giving you instructions to look up while blatantly forcing you to look down, genuinely take a look at the stars. Take a minute. Don’t worry about me. I’ll wait.

Now when was the last time you did that? Don’t worry – this isn’t another panegyric about the rare beauty of the cosmos or an opportunity to show off my knowledge of astronomy. The extent of my understanding is that if you look very carefully under Orion’s belt, you may be able to see the Big Dipper. Or at least, that’s what he calls it.

No, my central theme this week is a microscopic one. About the size of Antares in the night sky. All I want to point out is how easily things can get out of your control. To take the mundane example that has come to symbolize what I mean, there was a time quite recently when I saw the stars on a regular basis. Since I arrived in London thirteen months ago, I have only actively searched for them on five occasions. Five times.

And while there’s nothing wrong with not looking for the stars, it was a strange realization to tilt my head upwards and see a pinpoint-on-black pattern that had become unfamiliar to me. There. That’s all I have to say. That was the centre of this piece: unfortunately not accompanied by Michael Palin wearing a dress and carrying a small sign. Just a small point; blink and you’d have missed it.

The reason this suddenly struck me was because, over the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to see the Moon from a bewildering array of vantage points within throwing distance of the Albert Hall. No matter how often you see it, the Moon at 01:30 in the morning is an ethereally beautiful sight. It has also pervaded our Romantic mythos to an amazing degree; and while I am of the Wodehousean belief that the fact that it rhymes with ‘June’ is largely responsible, there is no getting away from its exhilarating purity.

A seemingly perfect white circle in a black sky, reflecting all the cyclical patterns of human existence, there is no mystery over why the Moon is such a constant feature of love songs, poems, paintings and mythologies. Because the Moon is, at the end of the day, the artist’s closest companion. The one face that unites any creative soul desperate to catch the midnight wave of inspiration, looking on its blank expression out of the nearest window. The light which shines over whatever we do in the godforsaken hours of the morning when we can fool ourselves into believing the world has gone to sleep, and that we are alone with our talents.

For an object with one-sixth the value of Earth’s gravity, it exerts an entirely disproportionate attraction over us.


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