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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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