When I was eight, I’d sit with my father in our basement in St. Louis drinking grape soda and trying to ferret something sensible out of the whistles and whines of his short-wave radio. We’d lean into the speaker as he ran the dial slowly around the world, picking up one whispery broadcast after another, each filled with language and meaning, but clearly not caring whether we knew what it was all about. They weren’t talking to us, we knew, though we were welcome to enjoy it if we found a way.
And we did. Dad would listen to the language for a minute, then point to a spot on the globe, then to us, usually well on the other side. They’re having lunch about now, he’d say, or just waking up, or just turning in. I was dazzled.
At last the dial would always bring us to the only one I could understand, ringing through in my own language, albeit a better, smarter version of it. The voice seemed to know every thing, but modestly shared only one – the time, the exact time, clothed in the silk tie and starched linen of the BBC.
At the tone, the voice assured us, the time will be 0645 hours, Greenwich Mean Time. Bip…bip…bip…BEEP.
At the tone, he continued, by way of update, the time will be 0645 hours, thirty seconds, Greenwich Mean Time. Bip…bip… bip…BEEP. I already knew what time it was, but this guy knew what time it was.
My dad would smile whenever we found that GMT signal, spinning the globe with a little extra verve, then letting it slow a bit before resting his finger on London. He’d then trace out north and south along the red line of the Prime Meridian, radiating around the world from the Royal Naval Observatory at Greenwich, England.
Royal navel observatory, I always thought. Named after the king’s belly button for some reason.
Thirty-five years later, I was there. I walked to Greenwich along the Thames from the World’s End district in Chelsea, then in the doors of the Maritime Museum and out the back, headed for the Observatory.
As a kid, I’d pictured the Prime Meridian as a visible line, a huge, thick, red band running from pole to pole through the Observatory that was now coming into view on the hilltop before me. All the other longitude lines were black; only the zero, the Prime, was brilliant red. What a thing that must be to see!
I eventually realized that it wasn’t an actual red line going around the world—it was probably just black like the others. And later still, probably later than most, I came to realize that it was just a line in the mathematical sense, a vector, an abstraction, not a thing in and of itself. Another disenchantment in an ongoing series.
Later still, I learned what might be the most significant feature of the line: it is arbitrary. The Equator is not arbitrary. No amount of international agreement is going to move it from its current position, because zero degrees latitude means something globally non-negotiable—the halfway point between the poles. But zero degrees longitude was assigned by fiat in 1884 at the zenith of the British Empire. And when it came time to choose that Zero Line, the center of the world, the mark from which all other places and peoples would be measured—of all the lines available, the great political power of the time coincidentally got the one that ran right under its own feet.
It’s what we do: we all put ourselves at the center of the universe every chance we get. It’s as human as voiding wind, this kind of self-important navel-gazing—just the thing you’d need a navel observatory for in the first place. And though it’s easy enough to think no real harm came from putting the Prime Meridian through Greenwich, the decision stroked the British self-concept in a way that might well have perpetuated the imperial phase of things. The world itself seemed to spin on a British axis at the time. To then have that axis painted bright red on every globe in every study and classroom and library and palace in the world—why, it only seemed fitting, a further confirmation of God’s favor.
It has to do something to one’s worldview, imagining that axis turning under your own feet. Rome imagined it for a while, and Alexander, Charlemagne and Genghis Khan; slaughterous Spain and plundering Portugal in the 1500s; France under Napoleon, Britain under Victoria; the Fascists of the 1930s, who cut right to the metaphor and called themselves the Axis; and the United States today. Much of the worst vomitus in human history has come hurtling out of the mouth of exactly that kind of Romantic self-centeredness, whether individual or national, racial or religious. Whenever anyone anywhere picks up the red crayon and puts a bright line under his own feet, it’s time for a family meeting.
I paid my entrance fee and entered the Observatory courtyard, the center of space and time. And there it was, running down the wall of the Observatory building and across the courtyard, out of London, barely missing a fist-shaking Cambridge, soaring through Lincolnshire and plunging into the North Sea before becoming, in Santa’s living room, the International Dateline, heading south again, swerving around the Pacific island nation of Kiribati before skiing across Antarctica where it hands the baton back to the Prime Meridian at the South Pole and hightails it, by way of West Africa and Western Europe, back to the Navel. I’d walked from World’s End to the world’s center, only to have to relearn what I’d so carefully unlearned while educating myself out of childhood– to relearn something about the Zero Line on which I stood at last.
It is red.