Eclipsed

Originally in The Third Half

In 2015 I wrote a 'pendant' to this piece called Time Passes.

This is what we didn't see.

To spend the second week of August, 1999 in West Cornwall, as I did, was in some ways an unedifying experience. Every other television programme, every other newspaper headline shouted about the coming eclipse. There seemed to be a Portaloo in every farmer's field, hastily erected in anticipation of the thousands of eager campers who were to rush in to spend their money and a few days among the cow-pats.

When the monied hordes failed to materialise, the tone of the TV and radio programmes changed noticeably. There was implicit and explicit support and sympathy for those who were called, in a quite straight-faced way, the 'organisers of the event'. It was as if this astronomical phenomenon had been staged by and for a kind of Grand Committee comprising the Cornish Tourist Board, various concert promoters, and a gaggle of disc-jockeys.

My family and I had decided to combine a week in this special part of the world with the chance to see the eclipse. Less than twenty-four hours before, we had been spending a pleasant, if hot and sweaty, morning and afternoon walking the stunningly beautiful coastal path, but the day of 11 August dawned grey and cloudy, with sombre warnings on the weather forecasts of heavy rain in the Scilly Isles, whose inhabitants were to have been the first to see the eclipse.

Undeterred, we found a vantage point in some gardens close to the Jubilee Pool on the sea front at Penzance. My wife and I had chosen a bench sited against a sheltered wall and surrounded by shrubs. Our two teenage sons were on sentry duty under a nearby cluster of palm trees. We made sure that our equipment was on hand - solar glasses, a pinhole camera we'd made from a cooking-foil tube, and umbrellas - and we waited.

As it turned out, the only equipment we needed was the umbrellas. At about ten-thirty, Newlyn harbour, a mile or so to our west, started to take on a hazy appearance, and before long the rains came. It wasn't many minutes before rain was dripping down wall, bench, palm tree, and ourselves. Our precious pinhole camera was soon sodden and forlorn.

An opportunist preacher-type had taken up a station about fifty yards to the left of us and was addressing his drenched little congregation. Through some trick of the wind the only words that carried clearly to me, ludicrously, were ' the end is nigh'. My sons suggested that he wasn't really a preacher at all, but a comedy turn. He sounded authentic enough to me, but even now I don't know which of us was right.

As wave after wave of rain sheeted in toward us from Newlyn, I switched on our little radio in desperation, only to hear the chirruping tones of a DJ broadcasting from nearby Marazion Football Club, exhorting his audience to never mind the rain and join in the fun. I wondered what on Earth we were doing here.

Then, quite suddenly, not long before eleven o'clock, the rain stopped and we desperately searched the sky for hints of blue and a parting in the clouds. They didn't come, of course, but after a time the grey sky started to darken, slowly and almost imperceptibly. Just before ten past eleven, everything went suddenly silent. Even the preacher-comedian was hushed.

Totality swept in upon us like the shadow of some monstrous, black bird. The street lights in Newlyn, then in Penzance, came on. A thousand camera flash guns popped, pointlessly. All about there was a sepia-clad silence. It was easy to understand how ancient man would have been thrown into panic by this unworldly spectacle - the popping of flash guns was only a modern version of the gong-banging of the ancients trying to chase away the sun-eating dragon.

Although there must have been thousands of people lining the sea-front, I was reminded just how small, insignificant, and alone man is when confronted with nature at its most magnificent, and was grateful for the company of my wife and sons. After a full minute of silence, a dog barked somewhere and, finding their harsh voices at last, outraged seagulls screamed.

Another minute, and the sepia tints changed momentarily to dusky orange, then to a dirty pink, and finally back to the prosaic greyness of the morning. I had seen no corona, no solar prominence, no Venus or Mercury in the morning sky. I hadn't even seen the crescent sun, as had millions of people outside the zone of totality. But it didn't matter. I knew now that the difference between ninety-five percent, and even ninety-eight or ninety-nine percent totality, and totality itself, was the difference between seeing and understanding. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

We did see the crescent sun after all. We saw it ten minutes or so later, through a thin cloud cover as we walked past the Tolcarne Inn on our way through Newlyn. It was there for less than a minute, and then was gone, to reappear to us sporadically as we walked on to the village of Mousehole. Our last sight of the crescent sun, now shining quite brightly and all but restored to the dignity of a sphere, was just outside Mousehole. Fittingly, perhaps, we saw it as a reflection in a big puddle left by the heavy rain of the morning.

In the afternoon, as we were coming back into Penzance, we passed by two local ladies who were gossiping on the topic of the day. I overheard a fragment of their conversation: "D'ye see the eclipse?" [Laughter.] "Damp squib, warn' it."

Well, ladies, I didn't think it was a damp squib. I'm already making plans to see the next one. It will be in 2015, and will be visible from the Faroe Islands. And I don't care if it does rain.


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