Saturday on the Couch: with the Pole Stars

A reflection on a book, a Pole Star (there are many), and a trigger towards further understanding…

There are writers who have a vague idea about a subject, those who base perhaps 70 or 80,000 words on little more than a premise; then there are those of more serious intent who are at one with their subject. It is evident as you read the work which type of writer has put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), and I know which I prefer. No contest.

I recently read and reviewed Under A Pole Star, a book by Stef Penney. It was thoroughly researched by someone with first-hand knowledge of the environs in which it was set, an excellent read and, with one slight reservation, good to review. When I had written about it, I discovered someone else had the same reserve, although it made no difference to final adjudication. (It had to do with a slight ambivalence towards the main secondary character, although the story basically indicated why.)

But this is not meant to be about reviewing.

I found Stef Penney’s writing evocative; it prompted what is a lifelong stimulus by setting my mind off on a tangent. The book is written in nine parts and the start of each has a single page, an interleaf that bears a drawing and brief information that sent me along a number of lateral paths.

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For a start, the book’s title is Under A Pole Star, not Under The Pole Star; there is a perfectly good reason for this, one that Ms Penney covers in part through the storyline and, again in part, in her entr’actes. It has everything to do with her understanding a subject obviously close to her heart.

The Pole Star in our age, and in the timeline of the book, around a century ago, is Polaris. But Pole Stars change over time. As we all know, the Earth’s axis is tilted 24 degrees and through this oscillation, we alternate between the long days of Summer and long Winter nights, to the extent that the poles differ between 24-hour days and nights. Polaris is bright and gains its special role as the Pole Star despite the fact it is quite a few degrees away from direct alignment with the Earth’s axis. In other words, it is not – and will never be – perpendicular to the North Pole. It will be nearest to directly overhead about the year 2100 but, even then, remain visually offset by one full moon diameter.

That tilted axis is not stationary. Gravitational pull from the moon and the sun has an effect on more than just the Earth’s tides; they both pull at our planet’s equatorial bulge initiating a rotational oscillation that causes the axis to draw a circle in the far distant sky that takes around 27,000 years to complete. In that time, the star at which the North Pole points will change several times.

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Through history, some of the Pole Stars have included Thuban (4000 years ago at the time most of the great pyramids were built in the Egyptian ‘Old Kingdom’); then it moved gradually toward Polaris from where it will pass on to gamma Cephei, which will be Pole Star in 2,000 years’ time; a further 6,000 years and Deneb will assume the mantle and then, after the North Pole swings past the constellations Lyra and Hercules, the title will return once more to Thuban about 23,000 A.D.

There is another movement involved with which we need not be greatly bothered. The Sun and all the other nearby stars orbit the Milky Way every 250 million years or so, meaning there will be a full realignment. To a mere man, both the figure and the fact are beyond conception other than by computer modelling.

And thus did a work of fiction take me back to my schooldays. Do you find works that draw you away to further reading? This was my third in three weeks!

As I said earlier, Under A Pole Star was great reading, so much so that I ordered a copy of Stef Penney’s earlier book, The Tenderness of Wolves. Her thorough understanding of her subject and setting is palpable. I have the greatest respect for her writing integrity. Beyond that again is her ability to tell a good tale. Together, they prove an excellent combination. Bravo.

Under a Pole Star and The Tenderness of Wolves, both by Stef Penney, are available now from Dymocks. Click here to learn more.

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