Laurie Taylor questions yet another time-honoured certainty
It's beginning to look as though sunsets have fallen out of favour. I haven't any statistics to hand but careful observation of friends and acquaintances suggests that watching the sun go down is now rather less popular as a leisure pursuit than pogo-dancing or collecting bus tickets with numbers that add up to twenty-one. This is a wholly welcome development. A few years ago it was almost impossible to go on holiday anywhere without being badgered by one or other companion to go and watch darkness fall. Sometimes they were content to drive to a nearby sea cliff, park up alongside a dozen other sunset lovers, and watch the entire performance through a misted windscreen. But on other occasions it was felt that the only proper way to watch the sun drop over the horizon was to stand stock still ("Oh look. It hasn't quite gone yet. You can still see a little golden patch on that cloud in the far distance").
Most of my hostility to sunsets is a straightforward consequence of my mother regarding them as one of the most telling proofs of divine existence. Whether we were holidaying in Llandudno or Torquay or Skegness, she would always propose an early evening trip to some high point where we might gain a proper appreciation of God's mighty work. "Doesn't it make you think," she'd say.
Her hope that glowing sunsets might encourage thought did not extend to my father. She had no desire at all to hear his views on the way in which the divine light show depended upon the manner in which dust, pollution, moisture and other particulate matter contributed to refracting the rays of light as they entered the atmosphere. As she explained to us in a confidential bedside whisper after the one seaside occasion when Dad had managed to get a scientific word in edgeways, such talk "took away all the magic".
It must have been my general intolerance of sunsets, my feeling that they were part of what my materialist dad liked to call, in a compendious allusion to all his wife's religious promptings, "your mother's muck", that led me to keep such a sharp eye open for anything that might reduce their spiritual significance.
Which is why I revelled in a little footnote to an essay by the German sociologist Georg Simmel, which noted that sunsets were only really suited to dyadic situations. Their basic lack of intrinsic interest meant that they were unsuitable for watching alone while their dependence upon some sort of mutual mood-mongering ("Oh darling, isn't it beautiful. Doesn't it make everything else seem so trivial?") meant that it was virtually impossible to enjoy one as part of a threesome.
But none of these sunset impediments could compare with the one quietly advanced by my father over afternoon tea one autumn day in Lytham St Annes. My mother had just suggested that we all wrap up warm for our trip to that night's sunset and my sisters and I were about to go back to our guest house bedrooms to collect hats and scarves, when Dad suddenly said that we might all be wasting our time. What did he mean?
He didn't bother with my mother. He turned to me and explained that the fact that the sun had set every day in our experience, and in the experience of our forebears, did not guarantee that it would do so again today. It is just as conceivable, he told me, as my mother strove to interrupt his blasphemy, that it will not set tonight.
At the time, that seemed a much more amazing and incredible proposition than the idea that God was personally arranging the nightly light show as a big thank you gesture to all true believers.
Only later did I realise that Dad had been starting to tell me about Hume's account of causation, that he was, like the brave and sceptical Emily Dickinson nearly 100 years earlier, warning me about the fallibility of sunsets:
Sunset at Night is natural
But Sunset on the Dawn
Reverses Nature Master
So Midnight's due at Noon
Eclipses be predicted
And Science bows them in
But do one face us suddenly
Jehovah's Watch is wrong.