The End of Night by Paul Bogard: Are naturally dark skies really an inalienable human right?

Bogard's tirade against the loss of natural darkness to synthetic light is ultimately irrelevant. Unesco can whine all they want about light as "an inalienable human right" - but who is going to turn out their lights?

The End of Night
Paul Bogard
Fourth Estate, 336pp, £16.99

Some people, like many creatures, are drawn by the night. They are sure-footed in the dark, unfazed by what is hidden, at ease with the particular sounds and scents and sudden movements. There are anglers who like the dark. They haunt the banks of lakes and meres and flooded mines in pursuit of carp (or even eels) or wade inky-black pools on swift rivers to cast flies for sea trout.

I have tried to be such an angler and I have failed. When I was a lad, my brothers and I went night-fishing for carp, made a great deal of noise stumbling around and falling over things and never caught anything. Much later, I went after sea trout on the Towy in southern Wales, where – allegedly – the prime time is between 1am and 4am. Once, I fell down a steep bank and wrenched my shoulder so badly that I had to have an operation. On my last attempt, I became so disorientated that I couldn’t work out which direction the water was flowing.

I love to fish for trout at dusk, when the first bats dart and flit and the last gleam of the dying sun lightens the surface just enough for me to make out the rings made by feeding fish. After that, I go to bed. I do not have a special affinity for being out in the dark.

Nor, on the evidence of this book, does Paul Bogard. He admits as much: “I am still, especially on windy nights or nights of thunder and lightning, afraid of the dark,” he writes, disarmingly. He is not, therefore, the man to communicate the particular magic of nighttime, which is something of a handicap when his purpose is to explore how we can – in the words of one of his many interviewees – “restore the sacredness of night”.

Nevertheless, the case he makes, which is that we are unnecessarily and damagingly profligate in our use of lighting, is unarguable. The reason that is always cited to justify having more intense lighting in streets and around buildings is that more light results in better security. Bogard demolishes this effortlessly. Most lighting, he demonstrates, serves to increase glare and diminish contrast, thereby reducing visibility and assisting the villains. In his words, it “allows criminals to choose their victims, locate escape routes and see their surroundings”.

His inquiry begins in Las Vegas, “the brightest city on earth”, where the beam from the Luxor casino is the equivalent of 40 billion candles and attracts an uncountable number of insects and moths for birds and bats to feast on. It takes him to London, where he spends time with British Gas operatives responsible for the capital’s 1,600 gas lanterns; and to Paris, the so-called City of Light, where Louis XIV started the rot by ordering lamps to be hung so that Parisians could find their way around. “Street lighting,” Bogard writes, “marked a dramatic change in human interaction with the night.”

This is all very interesting. Unfortunately, Bogard then somewhat loses his way, embarking on an extended ramble around the familiar subject of working at night. Having spent more than 20 years doing horrendous rotating shifts at the BBC, I am well aware of its debilitating effects. But tendentious speculation about possible links with various cancers is unhelpful. At one point, Bogard asks himself, pointlessly and irritatingly, “Are we endangering ourselves even in our houses? . . . Does merely sleeping with artificial light coming through the window or seeping under the door spell trouble?” Where does that get us? As Bogard concedes, working in artificial light is not going to go away. Unesco can waffle on about an unpolluted night sky being “an inalienable human right” but who is going to start dimming the switches?

Bogard pitches up on Sark in the Channel Islands, recognised in 2011 as the first “International Dark-Sky Island” (by the International Dark-Sky Association). “What is so compelling about Sark,” he writes, “is that people actually live there.” Quite so – but are we expected to take Sark, which has no cars, no useful work and no poor people, as an example to be followed? Then there’s North Korea, another dark place but for different reasons. Pondering the contrast between the blackness in North Korea and the blaze of light in South Korea, Bogard decides, “No one would wish the lives North Koreans endure on anyone.” But at least they have darkness.

One of Bogard’s last stops is Flagstaff, Arizona, which is the world’s first “Dark-Sky City” and has had regulations in force to restrict lighting since 1958. The local International Dark-Sky Association activist Chris Luginbuhl reveals that Flagstaff is getting brighter all the time – not as fast as a lot of other towns but brighter, nonetheless.

Whatever Bogard and the well-meaning dark-sky enthusiasts may hope and say, that is the way of the world. The lesson is that if you want a sky that’s full of stars, go somewhere where there aren’t any people.

Tom Fort is the author of “The A303: Highway to the Sun” (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)

Lights out: night time by the Manhattan Bridge, New York City. Photograph: Jonathan Smith.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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In the name of the father: Patricia Lockwood on sex, centaurs and Catholicism

The author of the viral poem “Rape Joke” talks about growing up with her gun-toting Catholic “priestdaddy”.

“Oh my fricking God. It’s a centaur.” The American poet Patricia Lockwood and I are in the lobby of a Whitehall hotel and she is finding the quantity of equine art distracting. I have already been skipped along a corridor to examine the bizarrely detailed rendering of a horse’s anus in a Napoleonic painting (“They made a point of doing him straight up the butt”) that turns out to be a copy of Théodore Géricault’s Charging Chasseur. Now a statue on the mantelpiece has caught her eye, prompting a reverie on what she saw at the British Museum a couple of days ago: “A wonderful statue of a man kneeing a centaur in the balls. It’s the most important thing to me there. It’s so beautiful.”

The confluence of violence, sex, orifices, animals and mythology runs throughout Lockwood’s work in wild and witty poems such as “The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer” (inspired by the realisation that “Bambi is a puberty movie”) and “Revealing Nature Photographs” (pastoral verse meets porn spam) – and it also colours her new book, Priestdaddy, a deeply idiosyncratic family memoir in which copulation is a go-to metaphor. Her dad’s frenzied, tuneless playing raises the prospect that he might be “having sex with the guitar”; during Lockwood’s teenage depression, she writes, the only thing she was having sex with “was the intolerable sadness of the human condition, which sucked so much in bed”.

Lockwood (pictured at her First Holy Communion) has dark, cropped hair and elfin features, pearly white nails and sleeping cats on her knees (an effect achieved with decorated tights – “Let this be for the stocking boys,” she says). Her voice is deadpan, frequently dipping into laughter without losing her poise. She is one day off her 35th birthday and has been married since she was 21. Her father, Greg, is a priest and, along with her four siblings in a succession of rectories across the Midwest, she was raised a Catholic – thus ensuring, she says, the permanent sexual warping of her mind.

“We Catholics become perverts because of the way sex is discussed in strictly negative terms. I saw pictures of aborted foetuses before I knew what basic anatomy was.”

As a devout teenager, she attended a youth group called God’s Gang and was given a virginity pledge in the form of a business card. The group leaders had a “very hip and young” approach: “We’re going to tell you every single thing you can do, in explicit terms, and just be like, ‘But don’t do it.’”

The ribald humour of her writing – Lockwood is renowned on Twitter for her surreal “sexts” – often contains a darkness. The poem that made her name, “Rape Joke”, takes her experience of being raped at 19 by a boyfriend and metes it out in discrete, increasingly devastating soundbites and images. It was posted online in 2013 and went viral, leading to a publishing deal for her collection Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals.

After the rape, Lockwood was “absolutely insane” for about five years, but it’s not as if she was entirely happy before: at 16, she had attempted suicide by taking a hundred Tylenol tablets. Her memoir recounts, too, being embedded in a church mired in scandal, a claustrophobic situation that hit home when a priest close to her was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old boy. Such events led to Lockwood abandoning her faith and escaping with Jason, her future husband, whom she met on an online poetry messageboard.

When Patricia was 30, she and Jason ran out of money and moved back to the rectory, allowing her to observe her parents afresh. The resulting portraits in Priestdaddy are larger than life: her mother, Karen, is a hyperactive generator of mad puns and proverbs; her ex-navy father is a self-mythologising, right-wing whirlwind of talk radio, guns and Tom Clancy novels. Married Catholic priests are rare but Greg, previously a Lutheran minister, got the pope’s permission to convert. Usually to be found in his underwear, he wants for no new expensive gadget or guitar, though the family is expected to make sacrifices. In 2001, two weeks before Patricia – who learned to read at three and was writing poetry at seven – was supposed to leave for college, he told her that they couldn’t afford it. He later “changed the story in his mind so that I had said I don’t need to go”.

“Growing up in my household,” she says, “all of these far-right, retrograde ideas of gender roles and the man as patriarch existed from the very beginning. But I didn’t think of my house as a bellwether of what was going to happen.” It came as no surprise to her that Greg and many like him voted for Trump. When she reported on a Trump rally in February 2016, she “moved like a ghost through the crowd. They saw me as one of their own.”

Anger at her father’s selfishness “would be useless”, and Lockwood respects his sense of vocation, which she feels she has inherited. She has believed in her own genius ever since she was writing “mermaids-having-sex-with-Jesus poems” at the age of 19. Jason is her support staff, licking her envelopes and buying her clothes. His offering the previous day was a T-shirt emblazoned with Justin Bieber’s face: it revealed how much she resembles the singer – “a full 90 per cent overlap” – and is definitely not ironic.

“Do you think we only got irony after Christ was crucified?” she wonders, and then spots two black-clad priests in dog collars who have sat down across the room from us. “Ooh,” she exclaims, awed and delighted, and then, in a whisper, ever confident in her powers of creation: “I manifested them.”

“Priestdaddy: A Memoir” is published by Allen Lane. “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals” is published by Penguin

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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