Thursday, 29 October 2009

Did the earth move?

There always comes those particular points in the home educating day when I think to myself that if I do not leave the house right now, right this minute, away from this one square centimetre where four people are standing to growl simultaneously, then I may pick up the nearest blunt instrument, in this case the Exciting Book of Fish, and bludgeon myself to death with it.

So it is fortunate that tonight I can spare Shark, Tiger and Squirrel the sight of blood and send them scattering in different directions to find knickers, socks and footwear. Because this is the evening we have waited for, since the last one was cancelled due to cloud cover, and that is the astronomy night down in the desolate and dark beyond in a field somewhere south of Bletchley.

Do not laugh, by the way, at Bletchley. It was chosen as the wartime code-breaking place partly because it was situated in the abandoned part of England where no-one wanted to go. And today's Bletchley town centre is hardly the bright light city centre for your evening social whirl. Everything round here closes down at six. So it's either dogging or star gazing.

Of course we arrive late, despite setting off for early, because in the dark I cannot find a field south of Bletchley just by driving around, cursing at the Satnav. Although I try it.

When we do arrive, park the car, stumble out into darkness, I am blinded by the organiser who probably does not realise you cannot have a sensible conversation with someone if you wear a head torch. After having my retinas burned out, I am guided towards the pitch black field where I think there might be a huddled group of would be astronomers, listening to a talk by an astronomer who knows what he is talking about. With his slow, unhurried way of talking, pausing, thinking, describing, he is immediately recognisable as one of those experts we follow, literally blindly, into fields all over England.

It takes ten minutes or so for my eyes to adjust to the blackness. There are a lot of people here. I think they might be people. They might be hideous reptiles beamed down from Planet Zelta and staring at the skies waiting for the pickup from the mothership for all I know, because in this unfathomable darkness I can make precious little out of anything except for a crowd of great lumpychunk shapes, attended by mini creatures clinging at ground level and whining. I recognise that sound. They must be the offspring, so that almost guarantees we have found the right group.

Although the proper astronomer is very interesting and explaining all about globular star clusters and the magnitude of Venus, I'm only hearing half of it. Squirrel is cold, and that despite me having said a million times that people in this country wear clothing if they are going to take to autumn fields after dark. But a Squirrel who is cold clings onto the back of your coat and slowly throttles you with your own neckline and zipper, forcing you to make gurgling noises as you unsteadily try to fix yourself on grassy lumps in the darkness to look for Venus.

I could cope with that were it not for Tiger who suddenly takes fright at the mini people at ground level. She probably thinks they might be dogs and thus clings onto my left arm, perhaps hoping to pull it off and club one of the mini shapes to death should it crawl too close.

In between choking and whispering getoff me you are pulling my arm off stoppit stoppit stand up look at the damn sky you should have worn a coat stop doing that and standstill I feel sure that all the reptiles are going to start turning and tut. Shark legs it over the other side of the crowd. Even though it is dark I can sense that expression of exasperation. She will have nothing to do with this embarrassment and is already pretending she is someone else's daughter. Even a reptilian parent from the Planet Zelta waiting for the bus back home might be preferable to the spluttering one-armed Grit thrashing around on a grassy knoll beating off two replicants.

But after I have unpeeled Tiger and trekked back to the car to retrieve Squirrel scarves, I manage to stare at the skies and catch the end of the talk.

Our astronomer guide is wonderfully knowledgeable, and does not come across as a person who maybe also likes model railways in sheds, not at all. He is enthusiastic, jolly, and describes how seeing these stars is like looking at old friends, ones who have been around to help build the universe. And he cautions how astronomy is not without hazards, because one night he had his toes nibbled by badgers.

It is deeply relaxing, this hour, staring at the night sky. I forget about my cold feet and crick neck, and become absorbed in finding the constellations, those tiny twinkling eyes peering back to earth. If I could reach back thousands of years I would see myself standing looking at this miraculous sight, the huge breadth and depth of that immense sky dome. I could have spent hours, or days, or years watching, and I would think that there was something timeless and eternal too reflected back to earth in those shining lights.

When the proper astronomer finishes his talk, and we have to pull ourselves away, we all stumble off and look through the very expensive telescopes. If I were those enthusiasts, I would be wrapping those tripod legs in fluorescent hazard tape, because there is no small amount of stumbling and pushing in the queues to ooh and aaah at the moons of Jupiter and the wide bomb blasted craters on the moon surface.

By the end, everyone's delighted; if someone saw a satellite track across the sky, I believe it took an effort of will for us all not to applaud, and whistle and laugh in shared delight. Rarely have I met a sudden community of people come close together for that experience.

And who knows, I might yet become an astronomer. It is the simplest, most fulfilling and most satisfying way to have the earth move and, even better, there was never a moment of guilt or worry or fear that things would have gone better if only I had made an effort to shave my legs first.


Rachel M. said...

Awesome post Grit, so often I forget to look up at the sky in my busy life.

Potty Mummy said...

Just saw the piece in the Sunday Times with you in it - congratulations (and obviously, very well deserved!)

Firebird said...

Also read the Times article, go you! I hope lots of new people click on over and learn something.

Sam said...

Love this post :-)

Yes, congratulations on the Times article. It will be standing room only here, soon!

Elaine said...

Thumbed through the Times mag this morning while munching on healthy Frosties - lovely to see you in it, well done! Lovely pic of the little Grits too.

Grit said...

hi folks, thank you for your comments. i do confess to finding it fun this weekend watching the secret stat counter go from 6 visitors to 32.

kelly said...

Blast from the past generator.....loved this the first time round but even funnier the second!