Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Lantern moon over Port Meadow

I’ve just seen the Northern Lights. And I’m sorry to say, it was a bit shit. There were no Joanna Lumley moments (I will admit to never having seen whatever programme Joanna Lumley was in gasping in awe at the Aurora Borealis, but it does always seem to come up when I tell people I saw it). It didn’t look anything like the coloured swirls on Windows Media Player. I’ve just found a wallpaper for my laptop depicting this natural phenomenon in all its glory – one of those stunning, unreal images that can be held responsible for nature never looking quite as stunning as we hoped, as human eyes do not view the world through filters and PhotoShop. It didn’t look like that either.

We searched for the Lights on two occasions during our (brilliant) trip to Iceland. Two coachloads of hyped-up tourists trailing around darkened scenery, imagining what the snowy hills must be like in the light, and stealing frequent, improbably hopeful glances up at the sky every few seconds. Coiffed 18-30s Aussies in North Face rubbed shoulders with Bob and Carol from Bognor, and the Tripod Brigade carted their expensive equipment around seriously. The first night’s light-seeking was unsuccessful, and we spent all evening stood in a layby in sub-zero temperatures, walking round and round the coach making up songs and male alter-egos and ideas for Backstreet’s Back flashmobs.

Attempt no 2 seemed more promising, and we headed out this time much further from the light pollution of Reykjavik and the seaside towns, towards Þingvellir National Park. Here we were greeted by stunning moon-on-snow blueness, a clear and expansive view of all the Northern hemisphere’s constellations, and the jagged rift caused by the epic leg-spreading of the American and European tectonic plates that Iceland straddles. This seemed the perfect setting for the aurora to put on its show – to curl and swirl gracefully across the pristine black canvas of the sky.

But alas, it was not to be. The crestfallen tripodists hoiked their equipment back into the coach and the Aussies reprised their analysis of the previous evening’s piss-up. Then, just as we thought all was lost, the driver swerved into a side road and we disembarked, blinking dazedly at the sky that was being pointed out enthusiastically before us.

I resisted a strong urge to yell “Is that IT?!” when I finally was able to make out the greyey-greenish smudges that were The Northern Lights, figment of imaginations, legend of literature and folklore. They built up in the sky so gently you could almost be imagining them into existence; they could easily be mistaken for clouds if you didn’t know what they were. The worst thing was, they moved and swished a bit in what would have been quite a cool way, had it not been for the mawkish, gaspingly exaggerated exclamations of the coach trippers. “WOW. It was soooo worth it wasn’t it?!” I heard Carol exclaim to Bob. “NOT REALLY!!” I wanted to yell into her completely deluded face. You can tell yourself that, that it wasn’t a waste of time and that you couldn’t have been having a delicious meal out in the city instead, that your feet being fully numb is a good return on investment once you have borne witness to this greyish smudge in the midnight sky. You can tell yourself that.

And the Tripod Brigade came out in full force, excitedly erecting their equipment and pointing it paparazzi style at the modest site ahead. Everyone started pushing and shoving and flapping around like flies round shit, as camera flashes did their utmost to fade out the waning view of the lights. I don’t know much about photography (or about a science book, or the French I took – okay scrub that last one), but surely pointing a flash at a black sky hoping to capture an ethereal, non-physical light phenomenon is not a winner? Haughtily annoyed by the almost tangibly self-aware delusion of the other tourists, I retreated out of minus 12 into the coach with a bah and a humbug.

A few weeks ago we took the Guides out onto Port Meadow in the dark. It was cold and misty, the kind of night where you can imagine a be-cloaked highwayman appearing out of nowhere and demanding that you part with your most treasured sapphire necklace. Icy swans floated across creepy-looking lakes formed from flooding either side of the footpath, and the edges of the meadow stretched out into the darkness with Haywain-esque charm. In the distance, the city shimmered and hummed, electric lights blinking magically through the night haze, and an eerie orangeness hued the girls’ faces as they scurried about excitedly. Then suddenly, I noticed a huge, round, yellow lantern balanced on the top of a house to the edge of the field. It looked completely unreal, like a paper lamp imported from an eighties kid’s TV programme with puppets. It took me a few seconds to realise that it was the moon, standing over us and radiating close-up magnificence.

As the heated coach transported us back to the Hotel Björk, I chortled at how much more beautiful I had found that Port Meadow scene than the famous aurora borealis, and realised that unexpected beauty right on your doorstep is much more memorable than beauty you hunt down and dull because you’ve treated it like a celebrity being hounded by Heat magazine.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Weird dream no 4

There were zombies. Lots of them. A dream very obviously inspired by Sunday evening's episode of Misfits. Except in my version, instead of having to thwack them over the head with a cricket bat in order to smash their brains in and stop them eliminating humankind, you had to placate them with one of three zombie solutions: intellectual stimulation, high amusement or death (no 3 being the conventional method of zombie dispatch I suppose).

So in some very odd fitful moments between wake and sleep, I found my imaginary dream self performing stand-up routines and pontificating on the meaning of life in front of a bunch of sceptical zombies, teetering on a knife-edge between succeeding in the demanding task of keeping them entertained and failing to amuse them, which would result in a blood-curdling fight to the death (theirs or mine). I'm not sure the narrative ever got as far as this violence, but the promise of it in return for a lacklustre performance was enough to make me wake up feeling highly unsettled, like I hadn't really been asleep at all.