The difficulty about writing a thousand words about ‘night’ is that my butterfly mind keeps landing on some other aspect I hadn’t considered; bear with me? Night – ‘The dark period after twilight and before dawn, generally one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise.’; so says my dictionary under the entry ‘night’. (Note 1)
For most of us it’s simpler to imagine the sun rising, climbing to its noon zenith before its gradual descent and disappearance below the horizon, than thinking of the sun stationary and earth revolving on its axis. Funny to know that we are spinning at 1000 miles per hour, at the equator, and we have no sense of this in any way! In addition we orbit the sun at an average speed of 67,000 mph …… and yet life here is extremely static. Weird what we get used to, or maybe we never knew anything different so ……
Late afternoon in the UK; deep in the night-time in Australasia
The setting of the sun, often in glorious technicolour, ushers in the beginning of the ‘night-time’ period. This varies enormously, depending on the seasons and where you actually live on the planet. In the United Kingdom, London is just north of the 51st parallel, where on the summer solstice night-time is a mere 7.5 hours; on the winter solstice this more than doubles to 16 hours. Within the whole of the UK there is wide variation as at this latitude the earth gets flatter towards the North Pole. The islands fit into 50-60º north (cf with New Zealand which lies between 35 and 50 degrees south) and has almost 19 hours of daylight at its northern tip on the summer solstice. (See note 2)
Enough of the geography refresher! Night and Day; black and white! The word night is associated with darkness, evil, the colour black, sinister activity etc etc. Politically you may recall Germany’s Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), the Nazi pogrom against the Jews on 9/10 November 1938, and ‘The Night of the Long Knives’ when Himmler’s black-shirted SS attempted the complete liquidation of Hitler’s brownshirts (SA). The latter has become a common label here in the UK to describe a surprise and complete reorganisation of a cabinet. And then, in 1997, Anne Widecombe, an ex-minister, said that the British Home Secretary at the time, a Michael Howard, was reckoned to ‘have something of the night about him’, as in shadiness or underhandedness!
So light becomes synonymous with living … and goodness ….. and the darkness with evil, ghosts and ghouls. But there are always some of us who enjoy the night time. In Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, the phantom sings of the ‘Music of the Night. He believes that night time sharpens and heightens each sensation, stirs and wakes imagination; that night will slowly and gently ‘unfurl its splendour’. Don McClean sang of the ‘starry starry night’ in his song about Vincent Van Gough and I hope we all wonder at the sights available to us if we look up on a cloudless night. You may recall PC 20 about The Pantanal in Brazil; with absolutely no light pollution seeing the stars arching across the heavens above and the fireflies lighting up the scrub at ground level was absolutely magical.
Many years ago I was visiting a work colleague near Barnard Castle in Northumberland. They lived in a little village in the middle of nowhere. It was night-time by the time I left; I remember walking outside to get the car which had been parked about 100 metres away. Wow! Couldn’t see a thing!
Absolutely pitch black (a nod to the colour of tar maybe?); there were no street lights; mobile phones and their built-in torch hadn’t been invented so I was dependent on walking with one foot in front of the other, arms outstretched ….. in the general direction of the car!
During Officer Training quite a lot of emphasis was placed on infantry tactics. One particular exercise concerned night patrolling to gather information; we were very green and tried to do our best. I had some form of laryngitis and as luck would have it I was the radio operator. When using the set I could only respond in a husky cigarette-racked whisper, at low volume. I didn’t tell the directing staff of my incredibly sore throat and I suppose they assumed we were being very professional! But the real lesson we learned was that one’s eyes needs to adjust to darkness, to night time. “30 minutes to maximise your ability to see” was the advice. And without any moonlight that’s about right.
I prefer the daylight but sometimes needs must! At 0300 I might have been seen walking my Labrador Tom around the streets of Battersea if his success at foraging for fox carcases had caused an upset stomach and he needed to get out. Always fascinating to see who’s up at that time or how to avoid being stopped by a police patrol car who assume that anyone out was up to no good!
Of course we all started off in the womb, in the dark. But did you know that the developing foetus is able to detect light through the outer wall of the womb, even though the eyelids are still shut? And you remember as a child shining a torch on the underside of your hand and seeing the pink light visible through the translucent skin?
Then the word night has been used as an adjective, as in:
Night cap – an old-fashioned idea to keep the head warm in bed at night but survives as a way of going to sleep with some infusion of alcohol.
Night mare – originally a female monster or evil spirit, an incubus, which descended on someone sleeping. And then fun aspects, as in night club, make a night of it, being a night owl.
Being an offshore sailor I am well used to navigating at sea at night, when the various navigation aids of lighthouses and marker buoys enables you to establish your position accurately. Sometimes you needed a stopwatch to tell the difference between a flashing 1 (3) ….. and an quick (3) ….. and these days you would need to know that a red light sequence of flashing 1 (1) 2 (1) 2 (composite group occulting) is actually the Rampion wind farm off the coast here in Hove; 116 wind turbines lit up like Christmas trees!
Richard 20th May 2018
Note 1. In fact there is a legal distinction between ‘housebreaking’ in the daylight and ‘burglary’ during the hours of darkness!
Note 1. I often ‘sense’ that New Zealand is geographically quite isolated but actually its reference in the northern hemisphere would be about Nantes in Northern France, such is the asymmetry of the earth.
Maybe it’s also something to do with the fact that the Antarctic is so much larger than the Arctic and its cooling effect extends hundreds of miles.