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Book review: Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight, by James Attlee

James Attlee is a true lunar enthusiast

By John Banville  /  The Guardian, London

Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight by James Attlee.

There may be nothing new under the sun, but the moon it seems is a different matter. Certainly James Attlee in the course of his picaresque travels in pursuit of moonbeams stumbled on some phenomena that were, if not new, then novel, in the demotic sense of the word. Chief among these wonders surely is the Interstellar Light Collector, “a five-story-high array of parabolic mirrors” set up in the Arizona desert near Tucson, the aim of which is to gather and focus the light of the moon into a concentrated stream that the gadget’s endearingly dotty inventors believe can help to cure anything from depression through asthma to cancer of the colon. And maybe it can, once in a blue moon.

There seems to be a force at work deep in the psyches of certain English men, and a few English women, that will not let them rest, but sends them out, the heirs of Raleigh and of Drake, to roam the world in search of adventure, diversion and precious scraps of arcane and for the most part useless knowledge. What fascinates the rest of us stay-at-homes is the insouciance with which a Wilfred Thesiger, a Freya Stark, a Patrick Leigh Fermor or a Colin Thubron will take themselves off to the wilder regions of the world with not much more in their rucksacks than a couple of clean pairs of underpants and a packet of tea. George Mallory in the 1920s tackled Everest — and may have reached the summit before dying in a snowdrift on the way down — kitted out in a Norfolk jacket and a pair of stout brogues.

Attlee, a publisher, and the author of Isolarion, a sort of internal travel book about Oxford, where he lives, is fascinated not only by light, and the light of the moon especially, but also by the peculiarly cockeyed manner in which we see, or “see,” the world. As he points out, “the patterns of light that fall on the retina do not correspond with our mental image of the universe”; that image is formed through a marvelously intricate and awkward process that might have been dreamed up by Heath Robinson. “This then is the visual ‘reality’ most of us rely on for so many of our activities: light bounced off objects around us and projected upside down on to the backs of our eyes, translated into electric signals and unscrambled by our brains.” Yet what a magnificent instrument is the eye. Did you know, as Attlee does, that, far from being hopelessly inferior to nocturnal animals in the matter of eyesight, human beings can detect light “a billionth of the strength of daylight — the equivalent of the flame of a single candle seventeen miles away”?

Publication Notes

Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight

By James Attlee

320 pages

Hamish Hamilton


Nocturne — a term taken over by Chopin from the Irish composer John Field, but frequently employed by painters, too, particularly Whistler — is written in the relaxed, ambulatory tone of an 18th-century rambler’s tale. Attlee conducts us on a latterday grand tour that takes in, among many other places, Turner’s Thames, Basho’s Japan, Pliny’s Vesuvius and Rudolf Hess’s solitary cell in Spandau prison. We learn little about the author, not necessarily a bad thing in these confessional times, although he does throw us hints as to his predilections and anathemas; for instance, he has a keen interest in painters — Samuel Palmer, Joseph Wright of Derby, England, the aforementioned Whistler — and in Japanese poetry; he deplores the seemingly unstoppable spread of light pollution yet considers Las Vegas at night one of the wonders of the world; he is not too happy about noise pollution, either — “Why aren’t we ever content to just shut the fuck up?” — and declares “a particular hatred for wind chimes, hanging bells and all such paraphernalia.”

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