I read that the moon would come unusually close to the northern hemisphere last night. As it was also the day after the summer solstice, I thought I’d have to wait until quite late before being able to see it properly. In fact, like many another midsummer evening, yesterday’s was squally and darkness fell relatively early. An ominously large moon revealed itself, a huge silver-yellow disk in the sky, shadowed in places, and getting ever larger, as if it might keep on coming closer until it crashed into the Earth. That it was repeatedly occluded by rapidly scudding clouds made it the more sinister, a laughing witch at her games.
Regardless of culture or creed, the moon has dominated as one of the great motifs of literature. From earliest times, she has been celebrated in religion and ritual, often as the gentle feminine foil to the sun’s aggressive masculinity, but sometimes with a stronger and more violent persona. Implacable, she demanded sacrifice from the Incas and other ancient societies. She was Diana the Huntress, among the fiercer goddesses of the Roman pantheon and symbol of assertive virginity. She is the subject of the contemporary Wiccan practice of ‘drawing down the moon’, said to derive from a picture of two women and the moon which was painted on an ancient Greek vase. It is the moon that controls the tides and therefore influences shipwrecks. No wonder that so many old sailors’ superstitions are about her. Eighteenth century smugglers waited for the full moon to give them enough light to bring their goods ashore, though sometimes she was a fickle friend, enabling the customs officers to spot them as clearly as they could themselves see their contraband crates of rum and bales of silk. “Watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by.”
There is a long list of books and films that I’ve enjoyed that have the word ‘moon’ in the title. Here are some of them: The Moon and Sixpence, The Moon’s a Balloon, Moon Tiger, Paper Moon, Moonfleet, Moonraker, and, of course, The Moonstone, arguably the first English detective novel and also, many readers of crime would claim, still the finest. Mine is a disparate and eclectic list; no doubt you could produce one that is equally idiosyncratic. What all these titles – and the many others – have in common is that none of them is directly about the moon. Instead, their authors have invoked her name to convey that their books engage with one or more of her many qualities: mystique, exoticism, ambition, cruelty, the fickle, the unattainable, the preternaturally beautiful.
Looking at my photographs of last night, one of which I am now sharing with you, I am reminded of the elusive nature of the moon so brilliantly and humorously conveyed in Charles Laughton’s drunken puddle sequence in the 1954 David Lean Hobson’s Choice film; I madly toy with the idea of her in the word ‘lunacy’; quotations from many poems about the moon flit amongst the clouds of my mind; I feel that the moon is a deserving mistress and I catch glimpses of all her qualities as she dips her face towards the earth and holds me in her thrall. By tonight, she will have retreated a little; apparently, she won’t stoop to kiss us again until August 2014.
Now that’s fickle.