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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Pedro Almodóvar: "I do wake up and feel that the world is coming to an end"

Mark Lawson talks to the director about hope, despair and why he wants to make a sequel to Deadpool.

When Pedro Almodóvar’s characters are in crisis, grief or even comas, they tend towards an optimistic view of the human condition. The Spanish film-maker confesses that this reflects his temperament but reports that he is cur­rently struggling to maintain his enthusiastic world-view off-screen.

“I have to be optimistic, because it’s the only way to survive,” he says, on a trip to London to launch his 20th feature film, Julieta. “I want to think that next month or next year will be better than now. But . . .”
He switches at this point from his near-fluent English to Spanish for translation by Maria Delgado, the Anglo-Spanish academic who is present at his request to act as his interpreter. Modest and wry, suggesting a rare combination of genius and sweetie, Almodóvar uses his home vocabulary for complex issues: in this case, the xenophobic politics, fuelled by fears of terrorism and immigration, that have engulfed European cities, including Madrid, where he lives on the exclusive west side, close to the home of his partner, the actor Fernando Iglesias.

“In Spain, the situation is awful,” he says, backcombing his trademark frizz of now grey hair with one hand. “We are on the edge of the third general election in a year and this is very bad for the country. The country doesn’t actually recognise itself in its institutions: the monarchy [and] the parliament have lost their identity.”

If Spain were to have an EU referendum, would it result in (as it were) Spexit?

“I think we would vote to stay. Brexit has served as an example – I’m sorry to say this – of what shouldn’t happen. And I say that with full respect for the decision taken.”

It’s not just Spanish politics that is challenging his usual equilibrium. “I do wake up and feel that the world is coming to an end. I pray each and every night that Donald Trump does not become US president. And my prayers are actually more significant in this respect because I’m a non-believer, so imagine how heartfelt they are!”

Although Julieta was completed before the Spanish elections, Britain’s EU referendum and the Republican presidential nomination, it is prophetically attuned to the serious mood of the news. Such is the shift in gravity from Almodóvar’s last film, I’m So Excited! – a musical farce set on a jet – that it is as if the Zucker brothers had followed the success of Airplane! with an adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.

“I did set out to approach Julieta with as much sombreness as possible,” he says. “So it really was a matter of rejecting the habitual characteristics of my own cinema, the way I’m identified. I have made 20 movies now and so if there is a possibility to change in the 20th, then it is very welcome . . . There aren’t that many opportunities to change, because one carries on being oneself!”

He became himself 66 years ago in ­Calzada de Calatrava, a Castilian village of a few thousand souls. From his parents – a winemaker father and a mother who wrote and read for uneducated local people – it is tempting to see an inheritance of the sensual pleasure and literary intelligence that mark his films. His early efforts to make cinema were frustrated by the closure of the Spanish national film school in Madrid by Francisco Franco, but the constitutional monarchy that followed the fascist dictator’s death allowed him to start producing work – reflecting his liberal, gay, atheist, male-feminist sensibilities – that would have been unthinkable under the military regime.

Even after more than three decades of creative freedom, Almodóvar feels he needed to have made so many films and accumulated so much life experience before being able to deal with the depth of emotion in Julieta, the story of a character who is unable to communicate with her mother, because of Alzheimer’s disease, or her daughter, from whom she is estranged. Although it tones down the comic warmth of his signature films and eschews their fantastical sequences, Julieta is recognisably the work of a great original. For instance, a potentially crucial meeting between two characters, which in a Hollywood version might last half of the film, simply does not appear here.

What Almodóvar also does is fill each film with images that could hang in the Prado. Even by his standards of painterly cinema, the tableau in which Julieta dresses her bedridden mother and brings her outdoors is extraordinary: the carefully chosen tones of the wall, the clothes and the food on a table would have thrilled Velázquez. “In dresses, in colours, in wallpaper, there is a dramatic intention, even if it is not necessarily obvious to the viewer,” he says. “Colour is one of the best instruments to convey emotion.”

As a writer-director, he doesn’t consider the “look” of his films until he has finished the first draft of the script, and does not visualise characters when he is writing – though there have been exceptions when he was working with Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas and his long-time muse Penélope Cruz. With Julieta, he could see no role for any of his “family of actors” and so threw the casting net wider, dividing the old and young parts of the title role between Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, both newcomers to his movies.

Linguistically, he is less adaptive. Hispanic directors such as Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón have taken on anglophone projects in Hollywood, but Almodóvar has refused numerous offers.

Directors are usually wary of revealing the successful films they might have made, but he does say that he was “very close” to doing Brokeback Mountain (it was eventually directed by Ang Lee). “They were very patient waiting for me,” he tells me. “But, in the end, I thought that my way of shooting wasn’t right for it. I’m accustomed to a freedom, an independence that I don’t think the production system of Hollywood would ever allow me.”

Yet he unexpectedly reveals an ambition to direct a Deadpool movie, following Tim Miller’s recent blockbuster about a superhero with healing powers. “I’d love to do that, but the script would have to be by Quentin Tarantino, who would be prefect for this movie. I’d like to co-direct that script with him. That would be a real possibility, if he wanted to do it.”

Even the big franchises are reaching out to unexpected directors – Sam Mendes for Bond, Paul Greengrass for the Bourne movies – so would Almodóvar take a call from the producers of either?
“These sorts of films, they are really in the hands of second-, third- and fourth-unit directors and post-production – but in my films, everything you see, I have had contact with,” he says. “Many of the elements in the film are actually mine: I buy things and then use them in a movie, or bring them to the set from my own home. And I couldn’t give up that control.” 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser