Lilt and lustre of the moonlit night - The New Indian Express

Lilt and lustre of the moonlit night

Published: 16th September 2012 12:00 AM

Last Updated: 14th September 2012 12:11 PM

People have been mooning over the moon for centuries, but the reason James Attlee decided to write a whole book about it happened in a most unexpected manner. He was lying on his back in a dentist’s chair looking up at the ceiling, where there happened to be a poster of the earth from space at night. The poster showed that much of the world is now lit up 24 hours a day, and this gave Attlee reason to ponder. “For thousands of years human beings lived in tune with the cycles of the moon, and the world’s great religions are organised by the lunar calendar; yet those of us who live in cities now inhabit a realm of perpetual daylight.”

Attlee set out to find places where the moon still plays an important role in people’s lives. His journeys in search of moonlight take him across the globe from Naples to Kyoto to the Sonora desert in southern Arizona where he meets a couple who hoist him up on their interstellar light collector and bathe him in concentrated moonlight (to cure ailments, they claim)! The resulting book — Nocturne — is part travelogue, part philosophical meditation, part moon-obsessed ramblings that throw together figures as diverse as Galileo, Basho and Rudolf Hess. Nocturne isn’t just about waxing poetic, it asks very important questions about what we have lost with the onslaught of urbanisation. All living things, Attlee says, have evolved in response to the movement of the moon across the sky. So losing touch with the moon’s rhythm, as many have done in the last century, has been a profound change.

The great irony of the big city-bright lights way of living of course, is that while we may be living in the age of the greatest illumination, it hasn’t improved our ability to see. Eastern cultures have always placed a premium on darkness (no treatise more beautiful to my mind than Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows), and Attlee makes a similarly impassioned case to fall in love with darkness, to consider the night as a kind of country, worthy of exploration. “The vast majority of us,” Attlee says, “spend hours of darkness indoors, asleep. We’re used to the idea that our ability to see at night is inferior to that of many animals. In fact, the human eye is very sensitive and can detect extremely low levels of light. It’s just that those of us who live in urban situations have got so used to depending on artificial lighting that we’ve lost confidence, even grown afraid, of the dark. We are, in terms of our senses, devolving.”

Attlee has a unique way of seeing the world, of travelling without moving very far at all. His previous book, Isolarion, took the form of a pilgrimage down a multicultural street in his neighbourhood in Oxford. Why travel to the other side of the world, he asked, when the world has come to you? His latest project is a railway blog as writer-in-residence on the First Great Western rail network in the UK. In keeping with the notion of the world being at your doorstep, he’s particularly interested in hearing about what Indian commuters have to say about their daily railway experiences, so do write in to

The writer is a dancer, poet and novelist. You can reach her at

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