Creating In Dark And Light
Most of ‘A Christmas Carol’ takes place in semi-darkness or within candlelit rooms, and despite all attempts to open it out it still feels like a chamber piece. I’ve always felt that what it has, far more than seasonal redemption, is an atmosphere of death.
Light is linked to mood. Between November and the end of February the UK is immersed in gloom. The changed light levels drain colour from our palette, softening bright tones and sharp edges, reducing the range of colours we can register. When we compare our world during this time to say, Southern Europe, the change is obvious. The paintings of de Chirico (Italian) or Dali (Spanish) show us where they grew up and how light affected them. Drive through Dali territory and you’ll see all of the natural tones he used in his paintings. De Chirico uses hard Mediterranean shadows to delineate his images.
A lack of sunlight is linked to depression, of course, and I suspect we survive in the UK by knowing there are four seasons. The outside area of the bar opposite my living room window has a triangular patch of sunlight on it each afternoon (when there’s sun at all) and as the patch narrows, everyone shifts their chairs closer and closer. We crave light, which certainly accounts for why American films looked so exciting to us when we were young. While I find the flat glare of desert places disconcerting, Southern Europe never fails to lift the spirits.
Which is how I’m sitting here in the dark trying to work in Barcelona on Christmas Eve. Our electricity is out and the only light available is from my battery-powered laptop. But the arrival here is always shocking for the sheer intensity and concentration of light on eyes which are used to squinting and peering through certain days when the sun does not appear to rise at all.
No wonder British druids celebrate the diurnal change when the North Pole is tilted furthest from the Sun. The winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere is the darkest day of the year, which means it gets better from here.
But does it? The next two months are darker and colder; this is known as Seasonal Delay. The reason for this lag between maximum heating and maximum heat is that it takes time to warm up the ground. Heat stored in the ground gradually leaks out, giving us our coldest weather in January not when the shortest day occurs.
And it affects mood. The British write great ghost stories because they feel appropriate to low light and damp mist. Darkness is associated with death, and even dimness feels married to illness. Dickens’ books are saturated with gloom. Perversely, I write more efficiently in bright sunlight. Teachers will tell you that on rainy days children become agitated. On London’s darkest, rainiest afternoons I find it impossible to concentrate. Here, in a dark 170 year-old old Spanish flat, it’s enough to know that just a few feet away is a shining crystal sky. Sunlight powers us by guaranteeing that we can take work-breaks and walks. London’s light and weather imprisons us in interior worlds. Perhaps that’s how ‘A Christmas Carol’ came to be written (I don’t trust last year’s cinematic farrago of ‘The Man who Invented Christmas’)
If any ghosts come walking through the enforced darkness of my apartment tonight, they had better not have been sent by Mr Dickens, that’s all I can say.
A Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!