Tuesday, 9 August 2016
The first time I saw the Perseids I didn't really know what I was looking at. It was 1999, and I was in Cornwall with my friends Angela and Catherine for a totally different astronomical event - the total eclipse of the sun. It seemed like an extra bonus to catch shooting stars at our campsite the night before. We lay on our backs swigging whisky as we watched stars streak across the sky, with high hopes for a similar spectacle the next day. Alas! This being England, we experienced the main event under several layers of cloud. We stood with other huddled groups of people on the clifftops staring out to sea as if we were awaiting the apocalypse. The shadow approached and then enveloped us, the temperature dropped, the birds fell silent. For a brief couple of minutes day was night, and it felt like the end of the world. Then the moment passed, and as we wandered back to the car, the clouds disappeared allowing us to watch the partial eclipse created by the moon passing by. It was still memorable, but not quite the drama we'd been looking for (one day, I swear I will find a cloudless sky and witness the corona and Bailey's beads for myself) and so whenever I thought about the trip afterwards, the shooting stars were a vivid memory.
It wasn't till a few years later that I realised that what I had witnessed was an annual meteor display. By this time we were living in Oxford, and though we have a fair amount of light pollution, I was still able to catch one or two out on our patio. I had also begun 'Echo Hall' and it seemed natural to write the Perseids into a section to give Ruth, my 1990's character a moment of temptation with her husband's best friend. As the book progressed, I realised the other characters could also see them. I had already worked Christmas, Spring, Mayday and Remembrance into every story, so each one echoed the others, and now I could insert this summer event too. Thus Elsie watches the Perseids in 1939 with her husband Jack, their last moment of peace before he goes to war. Whilst Rachel celebrates her wedding night in 1912, watching the meteors from the garden of her new home.
Since putting the Perseids into the novel, I've become an avid meteor spotter. For several years, I've watched from the field by our holiday flat in Tenby, and have enjoyed introduced my kids to the phenomena. Last year was a bit special as I was helping pack up my Mother's house in Church Stretton, Shropshire just before it was sold. It had been cloudy at midnight but I happened to wake up at three to find a clear night, so I caught a spectacular show over Caer Caradoc and Bodbury Hill, which was a beautiful way to say goodbye to a place where I've been very happy.
This year I'm back in Cornwall, and hoping for cloudless skies on Thursday, so we can watch from the lovely garden where we're staying. And to celebrate,I'm doing a special offer on pledges. Between 11th and 15th August, if you pledge using the code perseids16, you can get £5 off your pledge. So please do spread the word and pledge (if you haven't already) and encourage your friends to pledge.
Although my niece Katie constantly reminds me it is simple mathematics that makes eclipses and meteor shows happen at the predictded moment, I am still totally in awe that the universe works like this. And if you've never witnessed them before, do get out on Thursday or Friday night this week and watch the Perseids fly through the sky. I guarantee you won't regret it.