If you’d asked me I’d have said it felt like things were ending and not beginning. They were difficult, uncertain times. I was spending my days distracted, worrying about Trump and whether the Korean Peninsula was going to ignite. Or watching Davis and Bernier butt heads in Brussels; as mismatched as Mayweather and McGregor but with even more money at stake. Trucks on Las Ramblas, crossbow bolts on cricket pitches, Neo Nazis marching in small town America. Stuff I couldn’t do much about beyond post disapproving links to my own personal echo chamber on social media. I think everyone switched off from those sort of posts after the referendum anyway. Some kind of political fatigue. I imagine if the English Civil War had played out on Facebook then Charles may well have kept his head and his crown; all that simmering New Model Army agitation dissipating, threads about Leveller demands for suffrage lost in a sea of cat videos and personality quizzes. Burford might have trended on Twitter for a couple of hours. Hashtag Thompson, Perkins and Church. Everyone left to get back to checking out the Daily Mail’s pap shots of a bikini clad Henrietta Maria on the beach in France with England’s exiled monarch. I know, I know. There were no long lenses in the seventeenth century. Or cameras. Or bikinis. But you get the idea: nobody’s changing anyone’s mind on social.
Driving home that day I took the detour I’d been taking all summer, the one that passed the fields blanketed in sunflowers. Their heads were bowed slightly now as Autumn approached. There was something strangely somber, dignified, in their quiet genuflection. It was only poignant, I guess, if you’d seen them in the weeks before, rows upon rows of bright beaming faces raised in praise of the sun. Who am I kidding? We see reflected back what’s already inside us. Maybe you’d have just seen a field of nice flowers without all the attendant pathos. I saw some metaphorical expression of my state of mind. Wilting. Still straining for the sun but wilting nonetheless. I make it sound more melodramatic than it merited but I think I was in my Poundshop Shelley phase. Or CostCo Keats. Pick the discount retailer and romantic poet combination that works best for you. Woolworth’s Wordsworth. I wandered through the pick n’ mix lonely as a cloud. The important part, looking back, is that I was still straining for the sun. It’s not like I’d passed by a field of rotten, broken stalks, dead headed beyond recognition, and thought: hey, that’s me. By my standards it was a pretty optimistic outlook but, as I say, if you’d asked it didn’t feel like the beginning of anything.
It was round about the twentieth anniversary of Diana’s death. I mention it only as it seems relevant as a kind of cultural sign post, everyone looking back at how we all reacted then and what it said about us all. Apparently it was the event that broke the great British reserve and prefaced our now seemingly endless embrace of public displays of grief. All magnified on social but let’s not go there again (I’m betting if Charles had been beheaded in our alternatively imagined Civil War then the outpouring of dislikes and crying emoji’s would have brought down the Facebook servers). I say ‘apparently’ because that’s not how I remember it. I woke up with a hangover that day that probably just about makes my Greatest Hangover Hits (middle of side 1: not a real face melter that you’d start the album with or one of the really brutal slow burners that you’d stick on the end of side 2) but it was twenty years ago – back when you’d shake that shit off before the first coffee and half a bacon sandwich was done. Not like now when drinking punishes you for days, a crime that always delivers a custodial sentence instead of the slap-on-the-wrist community service order you used to enjoy. To blow away the cobwebs I’d wandered down to the local newsagents to pick up the Sunday rags and had made it all the way back to the flat before noticing the front page: I used to read the sports first. Things had evidently been in the balance at whatever point the papers went to print over night as the headlines described the crash and her condition as precarious. I was staying with a couple of friends who didn’t have a TV so we flicked on the radio. Yes, we were that bohemian (well, I wasn’t, I had a 32 inch monstrosity that took up half of my living room but they were always a little more sophisticated than me). All stations were playing quiet classical music and so we knew long before a very BBC Home Counties voice gently intoned that “out of respect” all regular programming had been suspended. It’s the voice they will roll out in the event of nuclear armageddon: regretfully we are all about to be annihilated in a fiery radioactive inferno so we have suspended Pete Tong and bring you, instead, this piece by Vivaldi. The Archers will continue as usual. So we knew that she’d died. And you know what? I don’t mean to sound callous about it but it meant literally nothing to us: nothing then and, looking back, it means even less to me now. To paraphrase Morrissey: she said nothing to us about our life. I think someone cracked an entirely inappropriate, coal black gag and we got on with the day. It was only in the weeks that followed as I tiptoed through the bizarre and extraordinary public grief that it felt like it mattered to me at all – and it only mattered in that it was maybe the first time that I felt completely out of step with the public mood. Then again I never was good at picking sides. I voted remain. I had a job interview the day of her funeral, driving past abandoned flowers on the M1.
Maybe it was Brian Cox that sparked the beginning. My own personal, if unlikely, Higgs Bosun. Maybe he kicked it all off. When I made it home I’d eaten dinner with my daughter and we’d turned to chatting about astronomy. She wanted to know whether there were any famous astronomers and, mistakenly figuring she wouldn’t know the difference, I offered up the former D: Ream keyboard wizard and booted up a lecture he’d delivered on Youtube. Straight away she called me out on the fact that he was a physicist and not an astronomer. She’s nine. I took comfort that she’d spotted it and more comfort that when I explained that there weren’t really any famous astronomers she thought that was another good reason to pursue it as potential career. She also offered up Edwin Hubble as an example of a famous astronomer which gave me a reassuring insight into her frame of reference for what should constitute fame. We didn’t make it that far through Cox’s lecture if I’m honest. I’m not going to pretend that me and the pre-tween were scribbling out e=mc squared and back solving calculus on the kitchen blackboard long into the evening. She returned to watching Sam & Kat on Netflix and I opened a bottle of wine. But we did make it far enough to hear him describe the number of galaxies in the universe that they’d observed through Hubble in a patch of sky that you could cover with a five pence piece if you held it twenty metres away from your eye. Ten thousand.
Ten thousand galaxies under a five pence piece. I think that was when I felt a tingle of wonder return. Felt the possibilities. I think that was maybe the beginning.