Column: Stuart Maconie
CW’s regular columnist explains how he loves exploring the twilight world. With not a surly vampire in sight.
Crepuscular tintinnabulation, innit.
CREPUSCULAR. GOOD WORD, isn’t it?
Like ‘tintinnabulation’ (the ringing of bells) and ‘plangent’ (resonant and mournful) it’s both beautiful in its own right and perfectly fitted for what it means. In the case of crepuscular, that means ‘pertaining to twilight’. Gloomy, but just this side of downright creepy, which of course it has an echo of. There was once was a very cool Belgian record label called Les Disque De Crepuscule – Twilight Records – which put out aptly penumbral music by Joy Division, Wim Wenders and Cabaret Voltaire.
Twilight is technically that period of the day between daylight and darkness. Dawn therefore is strictly speaking twilight, as well as dusk. But I always think of it as that slightly melancholic part of the evening when the sun has set but enough diffused light is spraying about to make for an atmospheric half hour.
I’ve spent time in Arizona and Texas and I was never comfortable with the sudden arrival of dark. Over there, night falls like a stone, and it’s disorienting for anyone used to gentle English dusks. One minute you’re tending the barbecue, next minute you’re falling over things and scrabbling for a torch.
I know now that the reason for this is that twilight gets shorter the nearer you get to the equator. I know this, but I can’t explain it to you without doing a lot of stuff with oranges and candles that I don’t fully grasp. Just take my word for it. Astronomers identify three kinds of twilight: civil (enough light to see, but lights are needed to drive a car and streetlights are on), nautical (when the distant line of a sea horizon stops being visible against the sky) and astronomical (all glow gone from sky – stargazing can begin).
I love the English twilight, as do generations of artists, musicians and especially writers. Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard is perhaps the most famous evocation of that time of day (“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, and leaves the world to darkness and to me”) but everyone from Keats to Stephanie Meyer has had a go. I haven’t read the latter’s books but I know from the experience of writing this that if you Google for a definition of ‘twilight’ you get a whole lot of stuff about Robert Pattinson and vampires before you get to astronomical sunset tables.
Autumn is the best time for twilight walking I think. Long summer evenings have their joys, as do, in their own way, the sharp, icy, velvet nightfalls of winter. But September and October’s quiet dusks are perfect for a stroll full of sound, shadow and atmosphere. I’m lucky enough to live a few paces from a huge area of woodland and this month I’ve fallen into a pleasurable routine. Tea finished, I head out into the ‘gloaming’, to use the lovely Scots expression, and weave through trees and up grassy slopes by the last of the light. It’s beautiful and mysterious and ever so slightly spooky, soundtracked by the rustle of leaves, the crack of twigs and the caw of crows. Actually, this is the only time I listen to music on walks, knowing that I don’t need to be aware of traffic or such. If you fancy it yourself, I can put together a great, eclectic playlist for you that I guarantee will not be over-familiar and all on your favourite streaming service: Gentle Giant’s Edge Of Twilight, Howard Skempton’s Lento, Tangerine Dream’s Sequent C, Morton Feldman’s Three Voices. And maybe when back by the fire, a dip into Wilfred Owen’s dark, sad Anthem for Doomed Youth: “And each slow dusk, a drawing down of blinds.”
Hear Stuart on BBC 6 Music, 1pm to 4pm Monday to Friday. Radcliffe and Maconie,