Standing on BestMate's front doorstep last night, I spotted something I haven't seen for ages. It's a rarity in London, something I ought to seek out more often but never do. It only appears after dark, and even then only if you know where to look. An endangered species, you could say, and definitely something that was more common during my childhood. I paused briefly and stared, before it slipped out of sight as I continued my journey home.
Standing beneath the soaring streetlights on the Bow Flyover, my view was very different. Traffic streamed relentlessly by, blinding me in its successive headlamps. A pair of billboards at flyover-height beamed down advertising slogans for unwanted products and services. From the neighbouring tower block, uncurtained windows revealed the silhouettes of highrise residents flitting around inside their elevated empires. The golden arches of a well-known burger chain shone forth across the roundabout, luring customers inside illuminated portals. And, high above it all, the sodium glare of a blurred featureless sky, open to the universe yet completely concealed.
Standing on BestMate's front doorstep last night, I saw stars. Not a single pinpoint of light but several, twinkling in the night sky above backwater E13. Globes of fire radiating out across the universe from umpteen light years distant. Entire constellations - that's Orion, there's Taurus - hanging like a glittering net across the firmament. The glories of the cosmos just as I remembered them, and just as awe-inspiring as they'd been when I was eight. Except not quite. There were nowhere near as many stars as there ought to have been, only the major players. Only those of the highest magnitude had the strength to shine through these suburban skies, even at the end of a dimly-lit cul-de-sac away from major lamppost clusters. Even London's darkest skies aren't dark enough.
Standing on my Dad's gravel drive, the view is considerably better. Rural Norfolk's not over-blessed by artificial overnight illumination, which leaves the night sky free to shine forth in celestial splendour. So long as I don't accidentally set off the dazzling security light, I can stand and stare up at the heavens almost as nature intended. A hierarchy of brilliance, from sharp pinpricks down to indistinguishable speckles, twinkling out across a background of sweeping starlight. Far more than three constellations appear, and there are usually planets to pick out as they wheel imperceptibly across the heavens night by night and year by year. It's everything the amateur astronomer could desire, utterly telescope-worthy, and ultimately relentlessly awe-inspiring.
Back standing outside my own place in Bow, it's as if none of the rest of the universe exists. The sky's not somewhere to stare, it's somewhere to ignore. The only star I ever see from home is the Sun, and when that sets any hope of urban astronomy fades. Betelgeuse never intrudes, Ursa Major hides from view, and the Milky Way might as well not exist. I live in perpetual light, surrounded by safely-illuminated streets, in a leaky photon-rich bubble. My city-bound neighbourhood has no window on outer space, no sense of ultimate scale, no sense of cosmic insignificance. I may only notice when I'm standing on somebody else's doorstep, but what my life lacks is star quality.