Like most children probably, my sons are inquisitive by nature. They ask a lot of questions. Normally I can field these satisfactorily but sometimes they happen upon a gap in my knowledge. This is always a concern to me because I’d rather the boys regard me as wise and all-knowing so later in life when important decisions need to be made they’ll seek my advice and in this way I’ll exert some sinister form of mind-control.
One area in which I failed them recently is the stars of the night-sky. My awareness of the constellations deteriorated when I moved to London, where the rich starry tapestry is obliterated by the offensive pollution of a million streetlights. Now that I live on the edge of the metropolis the stars have revealed themselves again. But these days I can only recognise one constellation, Orion’s Belt. And that is only because they’re the only stars that resemble anything: a short dotted line.
It started with a trip to the Peter Harrison Planetarium in Greenwich, where they put on a show especially for small children. The show follows a small teddy bear on a journey through space, during which he visits every planet in the solar system. The creators of the show have sensibly glossed over the gruesome realities of such a trip, editing out the bit where Ted is asphyxiated by noxious gases or pummelled to death by an ice-crystal the size of a truck.
This didn’t prevent one unfortunate little boy becoming extremely upset and demanding immediate removal by his father. Perhaps sitting there looking at the vast universe sprawling around his head he suddenly felt quite tiny and insignificant, and experienced an existential crisis. He was quite tiny after all.
The point of Ted’s jaunt was to find the Great Bear, perhaps the most famous constellation of all. I promised the Major and Minor that once we were home and night had fallen we would find the Great Bear for ourselves. Except when it came to it I had no clue where it was. I could only point out a short dotted line, at which the Major became very excited because we had discovered “Ryan’s Belt”.
These days if there’s a gap in my knowledge, I can normally plug it with an app. And there is an app which charts all the constellations of the night-sky when you point your phone at it and helpfully labels them. One thing that was immediately striking once we loaded it up is that the ancient Greeks took a few liberties when plotting the stars: a crab, a goat and a set of weighing scales all appeared magically from a few random scattered stars. You could probably dream up anything to go up there: a sink plunger, a badger, a piece of toast. Angela Merkel.
In truth the Major became preoccupied with the phone and not the sky. He found that even if pointed it at the floor, more constellations would reveal themselves. I tried to explain that these constellations were only visible to people in Australia such as his uncle, but by this time he had found Virgo on the landing carpet and wasn’t listening. Incidentally Virgo was wearing a saucy low-cut dress, to be honest I’m surprised she’s still a virgo.
By this stage the Minor had moved to our bedroom window where he claimed to have spotted Jupiter and Saturn, where in actual fact he was looking at some street lights. In fairness, the ‘my first binoculars’ he was using were about as effective as two bog rolls glued together.
But when the Major held the phone to the window we discovered something genuinely thrilling: Venus. I’d spotted it previously but it was so bright I assumed it was a plane. But it didn’t move, so unless the plane had stopped to let someone out for a wee, then it was something else. It was Venus. I found some actual grown-up binoculars in the attic, shoved the boys aside and took a closer look. It was even possible to make out the sunlight shining on the underside of the planet.
And the chargrilled body of Ted floating in its atmosphere.