Goodbye Moon

Andrew O’Hagan

  • The Book of the Moon by Rick Stroud
    Doubleday, 368 pp, £16.99, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 385 61386 6
  • Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon by Craig Nelson
    John Murray, 404 pp, £18.99, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 7195 6948 7
  • Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon by Buzz Aldrin, with Ken Abraham
    Bloomsbury, 336 pp, £16.99, July 2009, ISBN 978 1 4088 0402 5

Since the beginning of time – or of poetry – people have imagined the Moon is watching them. When I was a child I thought the Moon was a chum. Every boy had a torch and at night I shone mine from the bedroom window, refusing to be upstaged by the big torch in the sky. I remember asking my mother if the Moon could come on holiday with us, and she laughed, exactly the same laugh as my father gave out when I said I wanted to be a film star. I think the great joke lay in the idea that we might go on holiday. In any event, we did eventually go on holiday – to Butlin’s holiday camp in Skegness – and the Moon came along very loyally. I was getting into poetry and the Moon was becoming a thing to conjure with for the solo flier. At Skegness, I sat on the edge of a fountain with a neon sign behind me which said: ‘Our True Intent Is All for Your Delight.’ The Moon was bright and impervious but I remember coming to a decision about the Moon and me. I’m going to be around for a while, I thought, so we should probably try to get along.

I only wish Rick Stroud’s book had been available then. It is the most surprising, capacious and elegant book about the Moon you could imagine. First, we have the familiar facts. The Moon is 240,000 miles from the Earth. The surface temperature is 134ºC. Age of the oldest rock collected from the Moon: over four billion years. Then we have the first in a serious of perfect Stroudisms: driving time (to the Moon) by car at 70 mph: 135 days. Walking time at three miles per hour: 8.6 years. The water on the side of the Earth which faces the Moon bulges towards it (the water on the other side bulges away). Things change very slowly on the Moon: ‘Neil Armstrong’s first footprint will be visible in thousands of years.’ You learn about craters, basins and lunar seas. Far from being a stable, distant globe of tranquillity, the Moon has been subject to billions of years of mega-violence, eruption and molten existence, its surface not a spotless face but a mass of scars, where meteors of all kinds, some the size of Manhattan, are known once to have impacted.

Man has made a fuss of the Moon because it is much more constant than we are, much more visible than our ancestors. The megaliths near Abu Simbel, the stones aligned to mark the moonrise and moonset at Stonehenge, the 5000-year-old stone circle at Callanish on the Isle of Lewis: they all appear to describe the extent of our capacity for wonder, the full midsummer Moon at the Callanish stones in certain years appearing ‘to skim the horizon in a ghostly and prophetic way’. Stroud is a connoisseur of Moon spells and werewolves, a student of Ptolemy and Democritus, and through him you come to see how the life of the Moon accords with our deepest humours. For my generation, born as Apollo 11 cleared the launch pad, the attempt to reach the Moon seemed like the definition of human adventure.

The closing down of the Moon programme therefore seems baffling to me. In frontier literature, conquering a bit of the unknown always heralds a massive alteration in the conditions of living. The wagons travelled west and a new period was born. Not so with the Moon: there our exploration served only itself, leaving the Moon much as we found it, empty and desolate and far away. It was the greatest feat of exploration in human history, but we are left with a sense of stasis and of excommunication. It was imagined that everything would change once we had looked back at the Earth from another place, but, to everyone’s surprise (especially Nasa’s), we retired into our fetishistic world of goods and wars. No real routines were set in place by the lunar achievement: when the space agency announced a plan to head once again for the Moon, they said it would take until 2020 (longer than the original programme, which had had to do much of the science from scratch).

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[*] A nice selection of them can be found in To the Moon: An Anthology of Lunar Poetry edited by Carol Ann Duffy (Picador, 187 pp., £14.99, October 2009, 978 0 330 46131 3).

[†] Moon, directed by Duncan Jones (£19.99, November 2009).