One morning last month I woke just after seven, extended a chilly arm out from the bedclothes and turned on the radio. Clear skies, said the weather report; clear skies for the first time in weeks. A strange short-circuit sparked in my brain, and suddenly I was dressed, in the car, and driving. I was barely conscious, still. All I could think of was this:
Low to the horizon, and close to disappearing, it was the brightest comet in three decades. The Great Comet of 2007. You needed to see it early in the morning, or late at night, just before the sun came up, or just after it had gone down.
I was in the car because I was on a quest to find a comet. And to find a comet, I needed to find a horizon.
I'm still not sure why this quest was so excessively important that morning. I've taught the history of cometary theory to IB undergraduates, and I remember the thrill of disappointment at the thumbsmudge that was Halley through a telescope in 1986. Part of it's quite comprehensible: comets are cool.
But remember also that I grew up in an estate belonging to the Theosophical Society, where people wandered around faded sunken gardens and groves of ginkos and bean trees while quoting Blavatsky? The estate where the original prints of the Cottingley Fairies, faded and fly-specked, hung on the walls of Conan Doyle's favourite summer house on the terraces? It also held a chap who swore he'd seen an alien spaceship land in the meadow one summer evening; he'd watched it all from the battlements of his crenellated house. It was also, most importantly, where I spent about three years scheming how I could catch all of the newts in this pond:
Yes, sufficient weirdness all round for baby pluvialis to have caught just a hint, a tiny burring of it, surely. Because my reaction to the arrival of comet Mcnaught was slightly bonkers. See the comet! You must see the comet! It is very important, personally, to see the comet. I MUST SEE THE COMET.
It's important to realise I was barely, barely awake when I started driving. Because of course I should have gone to Castle Hill, five minutes away, where I could have had a perfect view.
Or the fens. Somewhere as gloriously, lake-flat as Lode or the hinterlands of Upware, where the Ouse flows through black, cake-mix fen. That’s where horizons are. You can guarantee a horizon there. Aside from nubbly willows and the occasional grain-dryer, it's probably the best place to see a horizon in the whole of bloody England.
But no! I was still, really, asleep. And my sleepy logic said: the sun rises in the east. Drive east. Off I went, driving through the faux-American mall-strips of Newmarket Road, and off towards Newmarket.
Newmarket: the home of English racing. Newmarket: a town with a ridge of hills named after it. I should have thought a little harder about what that might mean. Because I got more and more exasperated, in my sleepy state, as each time I crested a hill, a view with a rise in front of it reeled out in front. An endless rescinding of comet-viewing possibilities. Brushy combs, furzey wood-haze. Every hill, another hill behind it.
I need a horizon! There must be a horizon! I have never hated trees so much before. Or chalk. I started getting flickery, migrainous intimations in my sinuses as I passed the July Course at Newmarket, and turned up towards Tattersalls and the station. On and on I go. Dullingham, and on. At no point was there a good view. I got a bit crazed in the small villages east of Newmarket. I can’t even remember what they were called. There were hedges, game-strips, deep lanes and watertowers. My command to go east finally beached me in Stibbington, when I spun the steering wheel to tear up a small lane that narrowed and transformed to a farm track of indescribable narrowness — what were they using, a vineyard tractor? — and I got stuck, and had to get the car out of the mud, which was hard, and annoying, and involved shoving stones under the wheels and swearing a lot, only quietly because there was a possibility that someone might come out of the farmhouse and ask what the bloody hell I was doing there at 7.40am in a rusty 1987 volkswagen Polo .
Eventually, something broke inside me. Acceptance, I guess: the sun must be up by now. No chance of seeing the comet. So I drove back, sadly, cheered slightly by passing rooks, and a buzzard coasting over the car. I was so wallowing in my sad acceptance of failure that it took a very, very long time for me to realise something important. Something wasn't quite making sense. I spent some time glancing at the sky through my rear view mirror, and eventually parked in a layby on the B1011 near Quy, looking back over my shoulder at the lambent sky, irritated at the glowing contrails all at the wrong angles for comet tails, and: oh.
I saw a fractured bolt of incandescence glowing through what I'd thought was a clear sky. And another one below it. And I realised — the whole heel of the hand to the forehead “idiot!” realisation— that the reason I’d not seen the comet had bugger all to do with topography, but because it was cloudy. My whole trip had been conducted under a serious atmospheric misapprehension.
I remember feeling that there was an important lesson to all this. Beats me what it was.