By Nina Edwards

Reaktion Books. 288 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-78023-982-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Darkness. We talk about dark thoughts, dark deeds, the dark at the top of the stairs which might hide someone or something frightening. “Dark shadows everywhere/misery and despair”, sang vocalist Earl Coleman on a 1947 recording by Charlie Parker. There it is, the association of “misery and despair” with the dark and the shadowy side of our lives. There are songs and poems which extol the virtues of the night, though I’m hard pressed to think of too many of them. References to the dark seem to inevitably invoke unease and uncertainty: “When the sun goes down and it gets dark/I saw an animal in a park” wrote Robert Creeley, and for me it implies a possibility of danger from the animal. “A dark bell brings the dark down” is a line in a poem by Roy Fisher and there is something ominous in its tone. The title of the poem is “The Hospital in Winter”. We don’t usually associate winter and hospitals with light and well-being.

Nina Edwards points out that “the language of dark and light is so familiar a feature of our manner of speaking that it is easy to overlook its significance”. And she adds that “we are primed to look to the association of light for understanding and joy”. But darkness “feeds the imagination”, and it can have a special visual beauty all of its own. Think of paintings by the wonderful Atkinson Grimshaw. True, some of them do hint at mysteries when they portray lonely roads at night, or darkened houses half-hidden behind trees. But others, especially those of scenes in Leeds and Liverpool, with street lamps and the light cast from shop windows and restaurants creating their own kind of pictorial magic, can be immensely attractive. They can still point to hidden dangers in dark corners and areas where the light can’t penetrate with any great effectiveness . But the paintings largely present scenes that might not raise any doubts in most of our eyes.

This may be because what we see isn’t real darkness, the kind where it’s difficult to know where we are and what’s directly in front of us Most of us live in towns and cities, and it's unlikely that we’ve ever had any direct experience of perfect darkness, even within the safety of our own bedrooms. There is almost always light of some sort from one source or another. Moonllght penetrating a thin curtain, street llghts. When I was a child growing up in a house without lighting in any of the bedrooms, I’d sit near the window and read by the light of a street lamp directly outside the window. When I closed my book I easily fell asleep in the half-light of the bedroom.

Darkness doesn’t necessarily hold any terrors for many people. It can be quite comforting in some ways. There is a fine short-story by Jerome Weidman called “My Father Sits in the Dark” in which the narrator, coming down to the darkened kitchen for a drink, finds his father sitting there. “Why do you sit in the dark”? the boy asks, and his father says that it’s “restful” and he doesn’t think about anything special, he just likes to sit in the dark. We could also suggest that sleep is a kind of retreat into darkness that provides us with relief from the worries of the everyday world. Freud gets a look in here with his idea that “sleep is a narcissistic regression into the mother’s womb”. And dreams are discussed. As someone who can never remember what his dreams were about, I’m in no position to offer any useful comments on the subject. Freud would have found me a profound disappointment in more ways than one.  

Still, for a lot of the time we do tend to think of darkness as representing something inherent with danger. Crimes, particularly those, like mugging or burglary, which may affect us on a personal level, usually take place when it is dark. We know that we’re not necessarily always safe during daylight, but when we go to bed we carefully lock our doors at night and check that the burglar alarm is on. There is a suspicion that anyone who is out at night without a good reason might be up to no-good. When I was young and walking back from a party or seeing a girl home it never surprised me when I was stopped and questioned by the police. What was I doing hurrying down darkened streets?

It may be that our inclination to associate darkness, shadows, night-time, with the negative stems from cultural influences we grow up with. As mentioned earlier, terms such as dark thoughts and dark deeds are in common use. Books, plays, poems, all use the idea of the dark to suggest the morbid, the threatening, and the mysterious. Conrad wrote The Heart of Darkness, and Shakespeare has Macbeth saying, “Stars, hide your fires;/Let not light see my black and deep desires”. Dirty deeds need to be carried out in the dark by “night’s black agents”.

There is a whole genre of Hollywood films under the title, Film Noir. The classic images coming from them are of night-time, dark streets, albeit illuminated by street lighting, headlights from cars, and the flickering lights from cheap hotels and bars. The effect is to immediately plant a feeling of tension and something about to happen in the viewer’s mind. The Film Noir category has expanded to include films in which the action takes place in daylight, with little reference to the visual impact of lighting or lack of it, but the themes continue to focus on the dark in terms of the intentions of the characters. Women plot to murder their husbands, husbands to murder their wives. The shadowy corners where evil lurks are in the mind.

But is darkness, with all its associations of night and shadows, necessarily always to be suspected? Edwards asserts that “Darkness can be thrilling. It can seem like everything is latent, without borders, without limitations, and the entire universe thrown in. It is full of scintillating potential for poets and playwrights, musicians and visual artists. The dark has always been able to entertain us”. I suppose obvious examples would be ghost stories, which inevitably take place at night, often in buildings which are badly-lit and full of shadows, and if there is a moon, it is likely to be obscured by clouds at strategic moments. A sudden plunge into near-total darkness is enough to un-nerve even the most courageous of people. And send a shiver down the spine of the reader, even though he or she may be sitting in a warm, well-lit room at the time. As an avid reader of ghostly tales (The Supernatural Omnibus. a classic collection edited by Montague Summers, has been in my possession for many years) I still ensure that the landing light is on before I venture upstairs. My imagination, and whatever primeval fears have been aroused, combine to make me wary of the dark.

Edwards observes that “In the nineteenth century The Gothic Revival created an enthusiasm for an imagined dark medieval period, which was cast as a time of thrilling ghostly excitement”. Jane Austen nicely lampooned the taste for Gothic novels in Northanger Abbey, where the heroine, Catherine, her mind awash with The Mysteries of Udolpho, imagines all kinds of hidden passages and  dark secrets when she is invited to stay with a family who live in an abbey. Personally, I always rather liked Bulwer-Lytton’s comment on the cult of the Gothic in his Pelham or Adventures of a Gentleman (1828): “There seems”, said I, “an unaccountable prepossession among all persons, to imagine that whatever seems gloomy must be profound, and whatever is cheerful must be shallow. They have put poor philosophy into deep mourning, and given her a coffin for a writing desk, and a skull for an inkstand”.        

We go out at night to have a good time. Edwards discusses Vauxhall Gardens which, in its heyday, was a popular place for entertainment of various sorts. It was there that meetings were arranged between lovers, and places could be found where they might engage in whatever activities they had a taste for. Night-time lends itself to furtive fumbllngs in the bushes, whereas day-time would hardly provide the cover needed. Prostitutes plied their trade in Vauxhall Gardens, needless to say, which gave moralists the opportunity to condemn the area as encouraging vice and debauchery. The same condemnations cropped up in wartime when street lighting was switched off and no-one quite knew what was taking place in back-alleys and darkened corners.

Leaving aside the sexual aspect, there is a practical reason why Vauxhall didn’t flourish in the day-time. Fireworks displays were a feature of the entertainment, but when they were put on during the daytime they were a flop. Obviously, fireworks needed the contrast between their light and the night-time sky to bring out their full effect.

Edwards ranges far and wide in all aspects of darkness. She writes about how dress code over the years has dictated that men, if they want to be taken seriously, inevitably wear dark suits: “Darkness somehow lends a garment intrinsic gravitas”. There are, perhaps, valid reasons for suggesting that “In the recent past, as now, dark clothing was often preferred because it was easier to maintain”. But modern cleaning methods make it easier to get rid of most stains. And yet, dark suits continue to be the standard garb of many leading businessmen and politicians. Is it that if they wore something lighter they might be viewed as frivolous, and it would be supposed that their clothing reflected their character? And why should it be seen as disrespectful if one wears light, even colourful, clothing at a funeral? It’s surely the quality of the emotion that counts, not the colour of one’s shirt? Many funerals are attended by men in dark suits who cared little for the deceased. They’re simply conforming to a convention by being there and dressing appropriately.

A friend of mine used to walk dogs that were being trained to accompany blind persons. Labradors are a favourite breed for this work, and she recalled that, wherever she went, on trains, buses, in the streets, people would make a fuss of the light-coloured dogs but would be noticeably less enthusiastic about the black ones. There was, of course, no difference in the temperaments of the dogs or their ability to learn quickly and adapt to their circumstances. It was the colour that determined the responses to them.  It raises interesting questions about colour and how black people have been viewed over the years. I’m old enough to remember a time when “black man” was sometimes used in working-class circles, at least, in the same way as “bogie man” as a means of frightening children. Those days have happily gone, or at least I hope so. Edwards doesn’t explore the racial angle too far in relation to reactions to blackness, though she does note that Othello is “damned for his colour”.

Darkness: A Cultural History is a stimulating book with a wide range of examples drawn from literature, art, music, philosophy, and other sources. Darkness is an integral part of our lives in every sense of the word. Would we like to live in a world of permanent light or of endless darkness? It’s unlikely. We need the contrast to help us sleep, add variety to our lives, and carry out all kinds of  functions. Think of the ways in which people could be exploited in permanent light. Factory owners were quick to extend the working day once artificial lighting was installed in their premises. And now certain locations, such as airports, can operate around the clock, thanks to artificial lighting. Not everyone finds this beneficial.   The book has ample notes and a good bibliography.