Sunday, 21 July 2019


You may not have realised this, but this week has marked the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11's voyage to the Moon and back. Today, in fact, is the very day on which we, humanity, left our very first beer cans on the Moon. What, you already knew?

I'm being facetious, of course. Eddie Mair, when he hosted BBC Radio 4's PM programme, had a running gag, in which, at any opportunity, he would play that crackly clip of Buzz Lightyear's fumbled lunar soundbite. You know the one: That's one small step... um... It became profoundly annoying, and listeners had to beg him to stop. He must be getting a taste of his own medicine at the moment. For an entire week, it has seemed like every radio programme, every news bulletin, every drama, every trailer for every programme, etc., has been featuring the Moon landing, all using the exact same set of clips. You'd have thought a little editorial co-ordination would have been applied: People, people, you can't ALL do the fucking Moon, not all week!

As with the Kennedy assassinations, I was there, so to speak, but similarly can't recall a thing about it. On Monday July 21st 1969 I was 15 years old, starting what I'd guess was the last week of my last term in the fourth year of my recently comprehensivized grammar school. My partner says that at her London girls' grammar they watched the broadcast recordings on TV that day in the school science lab, but I have no such memory. I'm not even sure our school had a TV, or where it was kept, if we did. Although, of course, those Historic Moments have been replayed so frequently over the past 50 years that, like various Motown chart-toppers, I couldn't now say with any certainty when I really first encountered them. That's one small step... um... I'm pretty sure, though, that the whole thing got less media coverage back then than it has had in the past week.

W.H. Auden published a grumpy poem, "Moon Landing", in the New Yorker of September 6th 1969. It's not one of his best, but includes these lines:
We were always adroiter
with objects than lives, and more facile
at courage than kindness: from the moment
the first flint was flaked this landing was merely
a matter of time. But our selves, like Adam’s,
still don’t fit us exactly, modern
only in this—our lack of decorum.
Homer’s heroes were certainly no braver
than our Trio, but more fortunate: Hector
was excused the insult of having
his valor covered by television.
Do I detect a discreet echo of "Hogan's Heroes" in there? Probably not, but I like the idea of Wystan settling down for a chuckle at the antics of Sergeant Schultz after a hard day's prosody. However, there must surely be a bit of a borrowing from the extraordinary opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, in "from the moment / the first flint was flaked this landing was merely /a matter of time". Talking of Stanley Kubrick and Apollo 11, conspiracy theory aficionados may enjoy this article, "How Stanley Kubrick Staged the Moon Landing" by Rich Cohen, in the Paris Review.

But, from my point of view, there was simply a lot more significant action going on that year. A little thing like a moon landing is easy to forget, and I seriously doubt I gave it a second thought, once school was out for the summer. After all, 1969 was the year the three best Fairport Convention albums were released, not to mention the first two Led Zeppelin albums, and July 20th was the very week "Honky Tonk Women" by the Rolling Stones topped the UK singles chart. That Easter I had learned to drink like a Rhinelander, and in the summer to come, would have my very first holiday romance, by the very romantic shores of Lake Como in Northern Italy. Life was kicking off, and the Moon, as it turned out, is deader than dead.

Besides, the whole point of the Moon, surely, is to be gazed at from down here, and not trampled over by Homeric oafs in space suits, armed with golf clubs and scripted platitudes. In Auden's words, "Worth going to see? I can well believe it./ Worth seeing? Mneh!"[1] Although, clearly, the one true prize and spectacle – the thing that inadvertently justified the whole enterprise, the single spin-off that everyone acknowledges as priceless – was not non-stick frying pans or scratch-resistant lenses, but the simple sight of our fertile blue planet floating vulnerably in an infinity of black space, as seen from the sterile, dusty plains of the Moon.

Meanwhile, back on Earth:
Full Moon and Little Frieda
A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a

And you listening.
A spider's web, tense for the dew's touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming—mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor.

Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges
  with their warm wreaths of breath—
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk.

'Moon!' you cry suddenly, 'Moon!  Moon!'

The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed.
Ted Hughes (1967)
Now, that's a poem.

1. Some people seem to regard this as a first appearance in print of "meh". I disagree: if you say it aloud, this is surely not a noise of ambivalence, but a streetwise and sarcastic version of "nah!", isn't it? Closer to "you gotta be kidding me!", than "maybe, kinda, sorta".


Zouk Delors said...

The National Theatre of Brent performed a marvellous dramatic telling of the story of the first moon landing on BBC R4, including many details never before revealed to the public:

PS Is that really what 'Meh' means?

Mike C. said...


"Meh"... Probably depends on the context, but I've always taken it to mean something like a general lack of interest or enthusiasm in or for something, but not so total as to warrant vigorous contradiction...