Working in a school, of course I met several people who seemed genuinely frightened by the eerie sky that only half-illumined our collective journey to work on Monday – some, only some, of them were pupils …
Conditions really were awe-inspiring up here in the frozen North of England.
Visibility was good (and on my walk to work you can see a long, LONG way – across Morecambe Bay, to Lancaster and beyond, 15-odd miles as the crow flies and almost double more, to Blackpool, on a clear day), but there was a decidedly yellow-red (not orange, and perhaps that made it odder) cast to everything, like a sick sunset. And it was dark, in a way that I can’t really define by reference to any other hour of the average day. It was, quintessentially, twilight – an atavistic semi-darkness that made me think of superstition, omens, and the legends in which terms like ‘apocalyptic’ really meant something: not least to the unfortunates so often sacrificed to appease the unhappy gods, like a human antacid trying to cure a celestial case of indigestion. The closest I’ve seen recently is video footage of the solar eclipse that so excited the US. (If only it had been a portent of regime change there, I hear you say …)
How could this not lead me to Shakespeare, not least to the instinctive superstition of the Elizabethans and Jacobeans? I dealt with this sort of thing, in fact, in a recent Quote of the Week.
The natural, perhaps obvious, reference is to the storm that precedes Julius Caesar‘s death. It’s a scene I enjoy in a play I love, not least Cassius daring the gods to strike him down, offering himself as the appeasing sacrifice I described earlier. What an image that is – baring your chest (like David Hasselhoff, perhaps) and defying the pantheon to provide a divine sign that your plan to kill your boss doesn’t have divine approval. But … the hurricane was called Ophelia, after all, and as I walked uphill to school: skirting the mature woodland at the boundary of the playing fields; lingering as long as I dared to drink in every remarkable detail; noting the unusual silence of the enormous resident colony of jackdaws; it was Hamlet, Act I scene i that my excited mind reached for, even if it is, essentially, the same storm:
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets;
As stars with trains of fire, and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.
My emphasis, obviously. We know that our sky was due to particles transported from the Sahara. It didn’t make the spectacle any less wonderful for me, on my walk to work …