I suppose that, of all the phrases that have pretty nearly dropped out of the language during my life, ‘green cheese’ must be one of them, as in ‘the moon is made of green cheese’, which was a common saw, even in the days of Dan Dare, about the constitution of that lunar lovely which hangs about our planet.
Nobody thought, at the time, that the mission forty years ago (the anniversary is not yet on us, but the documentaries are) was destined to be only on of six, and, three years later, no-one really knew or cared that a sixth and final pair of astronauts had just completed the last visit. It must have been the most expensive ‘been there, done that’ in history. And all really, I suspect, not so much because it was ‘there’, as Malory allegedly said of Everest, but because it would have brought shame and disgrace if the Russians had got there first. Silly.
At the time, I was all for it. I saw it as a necessity, the life of the planet being finite, for explorers to boldly go, and so on (like Star Trek, the mission to the moon was partly a homage to JFK). Then you look at the state of the world, the poverty, the starvation, and you think, ‘Was that kind of money really necessary to spend?’ It’s one of those hopeless conundrums: the more you convince yourself that it was a good idea, the more you convince yourself that it wasn’t.
On an Oprah Winfrey show, about fifteen years ago, she assembled six of the twelve astronauts (a number are now no longer with us), and talked about their experiences. The most peculiar of them were Alan Bean and James Irwin. Bean, who is still alive, is now an artist who paints nothing but the moon. On the show, he gave us a glimpse of his painting skill, which, even to an eye of negligible knowledge of the visual arts, like mine, was patently minimal (he may have improved, of course). He showed off a painting he made, into the paint of which he had mixed mashed up bits of part of his space-suit (the flag, I think, but memory might not be serving me well). The students to whom I showed this clip (all art students) were aghast. A precious memento chopped up in the service of a GCSE grade D art-work! They couldn’t believe it.
Irwin – who is the original of the character Spike Tiggler in Julian Barnes’ A History Of The World In 10½ Chapters – claimed (he’s been dead for over a decade) that he had heard the voice of God while standing on the moon. Specifically? That Irwin should go and find the remains of the Ark on Mt. Ararat. He went to the Turkish-Armenian border at least nine times, without any success.
In fact, there was a documentary about a year later than this Oprah show, in which a pair of archaeologists came across what looked very much like the remains of a large boat in northern Turkey, but quite a way from Ararat. The archaeologists were rounded up by the Turkish authorities for their own safety, there being some (I think) Kurdish insurgency in the area. In the hotel to which they were directed, they came across Irwin. Irwin was a shy man, but he had a garrulous fundamentalist friend who gave the archaeologists a really hard time. The Bible was The Bible was The Bible.
I once met a Devonian sergeant-major (retired) on a train who regaled me with a number of pieces of advice, and several handy saws, one of which was ‘That there Bible, ’tis full of lies – and most of ’em ent true.’