It was suggested on the radio this week that a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, two thousand or so years ago, may have been the source of the bright light in the sky that led certain Magi and shepherds to seek out the newly born son of God. That being the case, I can only say that it was probably for the best that the child was born under the clear skies of the Levant, rather than under the thick cloud that is sitting over the Fens this evening. Had Joseph and Mary chosen Chatteris over Bethlehem on a night like this, the whole course of Western civilisation may have taken a rather different turn altogether.
Actually, it is a real shame – this was going to be a spectacular sight, all the more auspicious for taking place on the Winter Solstice. Fortunately, today’s murk was preceded by a few days of crystal clear skies – I got lucky, and the day before yesterday saw the two great planets sitting next to each other in the Western sky, with a picture book crescent moon to boot. I was driving and couldn’t linger, but even that brief glimpse was impressive; the sky looked wrong. It was still daylight, and they shone with a steady light – it isn’t hard to see why they might have set the ancients’ hearts aflutter. There is a scene in one of the original Star Wars films, where Luke is looking out over a sunset; standard stuff, except that there are two suns setting. That’s all it needed for the filmmaker to say, “this is somewhere else”. It was otherworldly, and so it is with these, sitting up in the sky somewhere over the A1; quite genuinely, for these are other worlds and, for a few days at least, they are going to join us in ours. It really does feel like an event, like something of note.
They stay in the memory, these cosmic happenings. Towards the end of the last century, the enormous comet Hale Bopp, which also appeared in the West, sat like a smudged thumb print across the night sky – it was there for weeks; all through that summer I would see it when I locked the back door of the pub at closing time. It won’t be back for two and a half thousand years. A year or two later and we had the total eclipse which momentarily silenced the world (and, eerily, the birds); more recently, a train ride over the Fens on a misty winter’s morning when the moon slid in front of a low orange sun, a partial eclipse this time – we were presented with the peculiar and thrilling vision of a solar crescent. These are rare events, once in a lifetime occurences, and presumably memorable for that very reason.
Some years back, I worked at Stanfords, the map shop that used to sit half way up Long Acre. A colleague, a marvellous man who revels in the world around him and likes to share the magic (he still sends me “moth de jour” photographs of the previous night’s moth trap highlights) beckoned excitedly and led me out into the middle of the road. Ignoring the traffic, he turned me so that I faced down the hill towards Leicester Square (again, to the West!) where, in the narrow rectangle of sky between the tall buildings on either side of the road could be seen three planets in a line, evenly spaced on top of each other, like the charcoal buttons on the front of a snowman. Mars, Jupiter and Saturn is what I remember, but in which order I couldn’t say. Recently, he reminded me of the time when he projected the transit of Venus onto the pavement of the Strand using a pinhole camera – nobody took a blind bit of notice.
There is something sobering about these huge cosmic events – it puts our own troubles and concerns, genuine and immediate as they are, into some kind of perspective. It’s a question of scale. One balmy summer’s evening, I was leaning out the back window, trying to catch sight of the Perseid meteor shower. It was a beautiful night, with a bright clear sky. Below, in the park that sits behind my house, a huge fight broke out; twenty or so young men, fuelled by the bevvy and the day’s hot sun, decided to resolve things the old fashioned way. There was a lot of noise, much pointing and posturing but little, thankfully, by way of real violence. And, for all the hue and cry, intense and real as it was to the participants enjoying the heat of the moment, it was completely and utterly insignificant; above them, in total silence, rocks were hurtling into the Earth’s atmosphere at 45,000 miles per hour and leaving streaks of flame a thousand miles long as they disintegrated into millions of tiny pieces. The contrast could not have been more stark. It feels like that now; our own planet, in a state of perpetual turmoil, reeling from one crisis to the next while, above us in quiet majesty, Saturn and Jupiter continue their timeless orbit, slow and steady, constant, as they carry on their beautiful dance across the sky.
Photograph by kind permission of Veronica in the Fens, an Ely based photographer and celebrant of the world around her – you can see more of her terrific work on her website, www.veronicainthefens.com