Star the twenty-sixth

I’m creating a virtual star chart, to record my progress in Dry July. The star for making it through Monday 26 July without touching the demon drink is the fiery star in the Bayeux tapestry, which we know as Halley’s Comet.

Section of Bayeux tapestry showing fiery star in top right corner.

(Description: Section of Bayeux tapestry showing fiery star in top right corner.)

Halley’s comet is a short period comet, appearing on a regular cycle. It appeared in 1066, just as William of Normandy was preparing his invasion of England – a bad omen for Harold Godwinson, but a good omen for William, who became the Conqueror. Its first recorded appearance was in 240 BC, but it wasn’t until 1705 that Edmond Halley calculated that the comets that had appeared in 1531 and 1607 and 1682 were the same comet. He predicted that it would return in 1758, and obligingly, it did so. Alas, Halley was no longer alive to see it: he died in 1742, aged 85. The periodicity of the comet is long enough that even though most people can be sure of seeing it in their lifetimes, not many people would see it twice. Last time round, the only time it is likely to appear in my lifetime (it’s next due in what will be my 96th year), it was a long distance from the earth, and it appeared only as a smudge in the sky. My flatmate and I went out to see it one evening, peering at the patch of sky where we had been told to look, and there it was, miserably pale. I was very disappointed.

Not so in its 1910 appearance, when it was very bright. My mother’s mother was about eight years old at the time, and in her old age she told me about the bright light that had flamed in the sky for night after night.

Black background, small white smears - stars - and a ball of light up towards the top right corner, with a long tail spreading down to the bottom corner.

(Description: Black background, small white smears – stars – and a ball of light up towards the top right corner, with a long tail spreading down to the bottom corner.)

For all its dullness in 1986, the comet’s appearance has been recorded in a tapestry. Along the endwall of the Great Hall in Australia’s federal parliament, there is a huge tapestry. The tapestry is based on a work by Australian artist Arthur Boyd, showing the painted gums on his property at Shoalhaven, in New South Wales. When the tapestry was being planned, the women who were to weave it suggested to Boyd that just as celestial events were recorded in other enduring pieces of art work, this tapestry should record the 1986 passage of Halley’s comet, as a means of dating it. Boyd agreed, and the comet now appears in the tapestry. You can see an image of the tapestry here, but I can’t pick out the comet on it. The white flash in the middle is a cockatoo.

I recall this story of the comet being included in the tapestry from when I visited Parliament House in the 1990s, but I can’t find any official record of this story. However it is clearly being passed on as oral history: I found several school webpages recounting the story as part of documenting a trips to Parliament. I’m sure this fascinating snippet about the tapestry is included in official histories, or at the very least, is in the Australian Tapestry Workshop’s files. But it would be nice to find a official record somewhere on the web too.

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7 comments on “Star the twenty-sixth

  1. Adele says:

    Here is a link to a close-up of the Parliment tapestry with the cockatoo and the comet circled: http://www.trekearth.com/workshops/621666/photo96320.htm

  2. merc says:

    My Step-Grandmother saw the comet twice.

  3. Carol says:

    Yes, I remember being very underwhelmed by Halley’s Comet too, back in my student days.
    But didn’t Comet McNaught, in early 2007, make up for it though? It was glorious.

    • Deborah says:

      Apparently. But I never got to see it, thanks to the seemingly permanent overcast in Wellington at the time. We tried several evenings, with no luck whatsoever. My mum and dad got some glorious views of it in New Plymouth.

      It’s one of my unfulfilled life ambitions – to see a magnificent comet.

  4. Katherine says:

    I was born in 1985, unfortunately the next time round is supposed to be as pathetic as the 1986 passage, but the one after (when I will be ~150) is supposed to be spectacular again. I’m hoping that medicine makes some spectacular advances in my lifetime for this very reason 😉

  5. violet says:

    you’re doing bloody well with your dry July. I wish the boy would do a smokefree month, but then I’d be more likely to come home to grown-up temper tanties…

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