Felix came home from his cousin’s house much enthused.
“We’ve got a plan, mum,” he informed me excitedly. “We’re going to make things like bracelets and stuff, and then we’re going to set up a stall at the shops and sell everything.”
He grinned beatifically. My son likes money very much.I pictured the two princesses and my son flogging bracelets to the shoppers: some, given, middle and upper class, but with a sprinkling of burly tattooed woman and their brauny possible-spouses. And dodgy dogs.
I blanched: and I thought quickly.
“Darling,” I ventured, “selling to strangers can be fine, but it can also get complicated. How about making a catalogue of the things you are going to sell, and then all our friends can take them to their friends?”
That – mercifully – was the correct answer.
Felix nodded vigorously, because a catalogue has glamour. It has charm. It promises Things, and it does so in annotated lists. For my logico-mathematical son it is close to heaven.
And so he has sprung into action, and is creating the perfect catalogue for the children’s wares.
When I was a child, catalogues held such glamour that I would cut out pictures and use them to stick on the walls of my dolls house. For all of us, a catalogue from a place we like is the perfect reading material to accompany a mug of tea and a biscuit. We use them to dream, and muse on what might be. And just occasionally we turn that dream into reality.
There are catalogues of just about anything: wellington boots, silverware, Tupperware, zimmer frames, pushchairs. Each, for the right person, holds promise. You can tell a lot about a person by the catalogues that drop through their door, or into their mailbox.
I wonder how many of us have a Star Catalogue arrive on a regular basis?
Yes: for thousands of years, people have been making catalogues on starry nights.
There were only 36 stars in the first known lists.
Known as the ‘Three Stars Each” lists, they were written on clay tablets by the Ancient Babylonians. Twelve stars were listed in honour of three of the old Babylonian gods, Anu, Ea and Enlil. The Ancient Chinese wrote theirs on oracle bones. The line between mathematics and astronomy, and an unshaking belief that the stars knew something we didn’t ,was already becoming blurred.
Ancient Greece had its star catalogues: one by Eudoxus, a poem, describing constellations and their rising and setting; by the time of Roman Egypt Ptolemy was cataloguing 1,022 stars as they glittered over Alexandria in Almagest.
The Andromeda Galaxy was first catalogued by an Islamic astronomer, Adzophi, in around 964AD.
By the 1600s things were getting really organised. Johan Bayer used the letters of the Greek alphabet, followed by the constellation to which they belonged – like Alpha Centauri. But with only 24 letters and all the constellations in the sky to name, he was bound to run out of letters sooner or later. It was John Flamsteed who hit on the idea of using numbers instead of Greek letters. With this infinite source of cataloguing, the modern star catalogues were born.
One sad little emission, from these more modern catalogues.
There are no pictures.
The poetry, the whimsy, the what-if: it’s all gone, replaced with systematic lists of the positions of the stars on a given day at a given time. Look at the Histoire Céleste Française, by France’s Jérome Lalande:
This is a catalogue for scientists, not dreamers. It is an essential tool for understanding a starry night: a great advance in astronomical science.
But: do we still believe that the stars know something we don’t?
Written in response to Side View’s weekend theme: Starry night