An energising gift of light

Image of Harry Eyres

Seeking heat, I used to head south in early spring. The reliable Barcelona March balminess was symbolised for me by the huge Joan Miró mural on the terminal building of the airport, with its vivid colours (red, blue, yellow, green, black) and its sense of vibrant, bristling vivacity. Having touched down, but not really touched the ground, I would head along the escalator to the airport train station and sit in the sun with my sausage bag, glad to be there, feeling the warmth unlock my frozen English tension.

How much of that was symbolic and how much was real? I didn’t really know then and I didn’t care. True, the first time I had ever visited Barcelona was a mild and sunny March when I had fallen in love with Gaudí’s ecstatic Parc Guell, the goose-filled cloister of the Gothic cathedral (la Seu) and also with a local girl studying art history who wrote down an address that did not exist (it didn’t matter: I could fall in love with the whole city). But the city really was warm – or at least warmer than London – and full of light and it worked for me and on me, unfreezing my cool reserve and lightening my mood.

Maybe one of the things I was reacting to was the maddening sense of delay in England – the time-lag between the coming of spring, the lightening or at least lengthening days, and the warming of the weather. March in England can be as cold as November, two months closer to the winter solstice. “See how spring opens with disabling cold,/ And hunting winds and the long-lying snow” is how Gerard Manley Hopkins begins one of his sternest sonnets; “Is it a wonder if the buds are slow?/ Or where is strength to make the leaf unfold?”

Some of this is pure meteorology – the earth and the oceans take a while to heat up and a while to cool down – but some of it is clearly not. I felt that there had been delays in my life – even a delay in living or coming alive, a lag between intellectual and emotional development – and I did not want to be detained any longer. If you’d asked me then which was more important, heat or light, I would have said heat. I desperately needed the warmth; I needed to thaw out. This, I suppose, ultimately had more to do with people than with climate.

But nowadays I can see that light is perhaps even more important than heat. You might think that human beings, born without fur, would shun the world’s cold regions. I always wondered why the Romans bothered to invade and colonise my cloudy and ague-ridden island (no doubt many a legionary posted to the far north-western outpost felt the same). But they did not consider Britannia too cold to conquer and returned repeatedly after Julius Caesar’s first expeditions, devoting huge resources to subduing the troublesome island, (never completely) established cities, built villas and planted vineyards.

Britannia, at least as far as the line between Carlisle and Newcastle, was deemed fully Roman, just as Roman as warm north Africa.

Apart from Antarctica, human beings have inhabited every continent. The Inuit, the Sami, the Nenet and other indigenous peoples of the north have thrived; there are resilient cities in the far north of Norway and in northern Siberia.

Human populations are only following the great biological laws of the planet. Life is so amazingly persistent that it proliferates in the depths of the coldest oceans. In fact, the cold Arctic and Southern oceans are among the richest of all in marine life. On land, reindeer and musk oxen are equipped to withstand the iciest winters. But in the absence of light, and therefore of photosynthesis, there would be no plant life at all.

On his death bed, Goethe called for “more light”, (what he actually said, apparently, was “do open the shutter so that more light may enter”). The great polymath in his 30s had been drawn to the south, to Italy. Impulsively he had taken leave of absence from his job as chief adviser to the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, jumped in a coach and set off across the Alps. There he experienced life as it should be, as sun-drenched outdoor pleasure, or, as he put it, “exactly like a youthful dream”. Out of the Italian journey would come not just the travel book of that name, which inspired countless imitators, but poetry with a new physical frankness.

In Italy Goethe was struck not just by the light and colour but by the fact that no one had investigated it properly (phenomenologically, that is, not mathematically). In the end, as he said to fellow poet and writer Eckermann: “As to what I have done as a poet, I take no pride in it ... But that in my century I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours, of that ... I am not a little proud.” He had shed some light on light itself, “the simplest, most undivided, most homogenous being that we know”.

More columns at

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.