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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“My words stayed in folders”: life as a fandom lurker

I was listening to the conversations of other fans, but I wasn’t talking. For years—for more than a decade, in fact—I didn’t say a word.

When I was a child, I wrote stories about my favourite characters. Lots of children do this: whether they write it down or act it out, on playgrounds or with a handful of dolls, this kind of storytelling is a natural part of play.

As I entered adolescence, my stories grew elaborate. I took someone else’s characters and gave them massive backstories and a supporting crew of original characters in what I later realised was fanfiction, original stories drawn from someone else’s source material. (In this case, it was a corporate board: I was fixated on self-made millionaires, and told my parents and teachers I was going to grow up to be a “ruthless businesswoman.”) I wasn’t ashamed of my stories, but I didn’t share them with—or even mention them to—anyone else.

I’ve met a lot of people who played with other writers’ characters as a child. “I did that when I was a kid,” they tell me. “As I got older, I grew out of it.” But as I got older, I grew into it—and I went online. By the time the internet was truly accessible to me, past those blisteringly slow dial-up years to the point where, if I stayed up late enough, I could have the big, clunky desktop in my parents’ kitchen all to myself, I was fourteen. And right around then, I fell hard for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The fan sites of the late nineties looked like much of the organic web of the late nineties: garish colours and bad fonts. With Buffy, there was a lot of black. I don’t remember being surprised to find Buffy lovers on the web; after all, many of my friends were as obsessed as I was. (I modelled my Buffy scrapbook, painstakingly cut-out articles about the show and its cast, on one a friend had made, though hers was focussed on Angel, and mine was much more sensibly about Rupert Giles.) Many of the people making and reading these Buffy sites were adults, but that didn’t make a difference to me.

What did make a difference was the night I discovered that other people wrote fanfiction. I’ve written before about the utter dissonance of that moment of discovery, about how confused I was by the first story I encountered. Even though I loved writing this stuff, it never occurred to me that other people would want to spend their time rearranging beloved characters on the page.

There were whole archives built around it, I soon learned, and prolific authors who posted work on individual sites. (This was 1999, early days for future fanfic juggernauts like fanfiction.net and LiveJournal.) There was so much to read. People sorted work by character, by romantic pairing, by genre, by trope. They were using fiction to talk back to the show—and to each other.

I dipped a toe into online fanfiction waters, slowly at first, until suddenly, I was drowning in it. I left one fandom and entered another: within a few years, I was wholly consumed by Harry Potter, where I’d stick around for close to a decade (and where now, weirdly, I have returned). As I read, I kept writing - other peoples’ fanfic only gave me more ideas. My drafts migrated from notebooks to word processors and my desktop folders were full of outlines and half-finished fics.

But my words stayed put in those folders: they were as private as they’d ever been. Online fandom was a world where people were having conversations about the things they loved. For more than a decade, I was listening to the conversations, but I didn’t say a word. I was a lurker.

In fact, most people in online communities are lurkers. What was once relatively easy to define—there were people who posted things on or moderated message boards, for example, and people who didn’t—has grown murkier with the rise of social media. But the prevailing wisdom still favours the 90-10-1 rule, which argues that 90 per cent of the people on the web are largely passive readers, 10 per cent are actively engaging with content, and just one per cent create that content. I, like the majority of my fellow fans, have spent most of my fandom life in the broad base of that pyramid.

Loving something with that deep, fannish love, can be a complicated thing. It’s different for everyone, I suppose, but for me, lurking has always sprung from a weird duality: I simultaneously want to talk about the objects of my fandom while also wanting to keep them incredibly private. In my lurking years, I felt like I loved this stuff just as much as everyone who was posting and creating and sharing, but then, I didn’t have proof  beyond my thousands of words of fanfiction, sitting in endless folders on my desktop.

For me, online fanfiction has always been a very private space that paradoxically exists in the public sphere. Over the years I’ve encountered stories that I hold as close to my heart as the source material they were based upon. Cloistered in my fanfiction-reading world, cut off from a lot of other fannish discussion, I missed interpersonal dramas and ship wars and, as arguments are colloquially known in many fan communities, wank. Even when fanfic writers and readers moved en masse to LiveJournal, I steered clear of the personal posts and diary entries: the most I’d see of authors I was reading were little notes at the beginning of chapters: “Sorry this is going up late! Life got in the way.” Fanfiction writers were, for me, their writing alone.

Lurkers occupy a difficult space in fan communities, which are usually built on unpaid labour. For many fic writers, part of the reward of writing lies in communicating with their readers, who are fellow fans. For most of my lurking life, I read in spaces where the only way to interact with writers was to leave a comment, but in recent years, I’ve done most of my fic reading at the Archive of Our Own, where a “kudos,” a little heart button, can be used instead. I regularly see Tumblr posts about the vast gulf between the number of people who leave kudos versus comments. Fandom, many argue, is powered on dialogue and verbal encouragement, and writers need more than a little “like.” And who can blame them?

But after years lurking, of revelling in fanfiction communities while staying resolutely silent, how do I learn to speak up? Social media has helped: I’ve made fandom friends on Twitter and Tumblr, aided by my pivot into writing about fan culture as a journalist. (I’m not going to pretend this doesn’t make my story fairly unusual amongst fanfic lurkers, but still!) I’ve floated little pieces of my personal fannishness out into the world. Now, people know what I ship, what characters I relate to, even some of the stories I love, as I shyly recommend the stuff that’s left me flailing or smacking the couch in glee or saying aloud to literally no one, “This is so good,” as I read it.

My natural instinct remains to lurk. I pepper the web with little hearts and favourites and kudos, but I rarely go in deep on public forums about the things I really love. It’s a curious position for someone who writes and talks a lot about fan culture: I am the perpetual observer, and the incredibly reluctant participant. But as the web has evolved, so have I: I’m inching closer to participatory culture, not just creating, but sharing what I create. And I’ve got thousands of words of new fanfiction, sitting in a folder in my desktop. Perhaps it’s time to finally speak up.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.