I’m amazed I don’t seem to have written about it online, though I did write an article for The Guardian on the story some time in the last century – illustrated with a wonderful painting by Greg Becker. But the fact is that in the summer of 1969 I saw something that has illuminated my brain ever since, something Greg hinted at the weird majesty of.
Here’s what happened, as best I remember it. I was back from university at Hill House, Little Rissington, and we had just returned from Cheltenham, where we had seen the Peter Sellers film, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas. This was released in New York in October 1968, hence my guess that the year of the sighting must have been 1969.
Whatever I may have made of the film, some elements clearly chimed – and while Elaine and everyone else went to sleep indoors, I elected to sleep out on the front lawn, on a camp bed. Another example of serendipity in practice, it turned out.
I started awake in the early hours, probably because the night-scented honeysuckle on the nearby Cotswold stone wall was tickling my senses. When I looked up, the entire night sky was ablaze. It was as if a nuclear bomb blast was raining debris down all around – or, as I said to the family the next morning, it was as if I had been in the nosecone of existence speeding through the sort of starfield we would later see in the Star Wars films, which was still almost a decade into the future.
I would later discover that I had witnessed the biggest meteor display for many years. Am still not sure whether I saw a Perseid or Leonid meteor storm. But at first I thought the nuclear holocaust had begun. Then I realised that the sky was aflame with countless shooting stars.
Years later I began to think that I might have dreamed it all, not all clear as to why I hadn’t gone into the house to wake everyone else. But for some reason I didn’t. And then I came across an engraving from the 1800s of an overseer on an American slave plantation stumbling out of his hut while slaves erupted out of theirs. Above their heads the sky was ablaze with meteors. The description ran along the following lines: “It was if someone had emptied a scuttle of burning coals across the heavens.”
That was exactly what I had seen – and it turned out that that image dated back to a year when a very similar shower was recorded. I am still trying to track down that image, but in the meantime came across this one of another meteor shower over the Mississippi – capturing the raw essence of what I saw that long-ago summer night.
I have always kept an eye on the night sky, for example drinking up the startingly clear Milky Way spanning the night sky as a number of us went in our American friend Gail’s boat on a fish poaching expedition against an oil multi-millionaire in Skiathos in 1970.
The sea was bright with phosphorescence, the liquid gold running back down the oars as they came out of the water, illuminating the rower’s hands. And I have frequently spied shooting stars, plus a roaring object that flew over Hill House one night and blew up over Ireland. But, for me, 1969 still takes the stellar biscuit.