I can still remember it. Sometime round about when I was 10, some quirk of meteorology and atmosphere rendered London’s night time sky, for one evening, clear enough to see the stars. Not the handful of stars that fight their way through the pollution murk and the splurging of neon, but some fraction of the thousands of stars that had enthralled the sky-turned eyes of our ancestors when they coined phrases like, “As many as the stars in the sky.” Growing up in London, that did not seem like that many. But for that one night – maybe it coincided with one of the electricity blackouts when the power workers went on strike in the early 1970s – I could see the stars.
We have sealed ourselves off with light. The artificial light with which we banish darkness has made of the stars a sight that many children might never know. I would not be surprised if most of this generation has never seen a night sky in all its wonder. As such, we have made the world a hunched, closed-in space. I wonder if part of the sense of contemporary hopelessness is down to this closing off of the daily wonder of a sky full of stars and the sense of mystery and infinite depth that it conveys: it’s a shrunken, lidded-over world we now inhabit.
Gary Fildes, a proper Sunderland lad growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, was fortunate in living where truly dark skies were not far away – and they saved him. A passion, a genuine, lifelong passion for a subject or interest can be the making of a man and it proved to be so for Fildes: destined for a life of labour as a bricklayer, married and a young father, he combined this with a secret love of astronomy. The book is a series of anecdotes about growing up within the world and within the astronomical community, telling how Fildes ended up, to his own surprise more than anyone else’s, as the director of the Kielder Observatory set in the largest Dark Skies Park in Britain, combined with an astronomer’s guide to the changing night sky through the year. It’s a lovely book – just a shame that, barring another series of power cuts, the night sky here in London remains as unpopulated as Rome during the coronavirus outbreak.