The Darkening

I wrote the following in 1999, when I was a teacher at Merchant Taylors’ School. It has deplorable stylistic shortcomings, but I am giving it prominence here in anticipation of the August 21 eclipse in North America, to which I am making a family expedition.

I can’t remember a time when I have been so interested in the weather.

The event that it threatened to screw up was, after all, one that I had been awaiting for most of my life. I hadn’t been crossing off the days for all that time, but I can remember, at the age of twelve or thirteen, reading in Patrick Moore’s The Amateur Astronomer that the next total eclipse of the sun would cross Cornwall on August 11th 1999, and deciding that I would be there.

Nigel Blight had been planning the school trip for two years. As a Cornishman himself, perhaps the event was even more significant to him. Total eclipses of the sun, after all, aren’t actually that rare. There’s usually one somewhere on the globe as often as every eighteen months. There was no reason why either of us couldn’t have seen one by now. Nor was there any reason why we couldn’t have gone abroad to view this one. There were plenty of places on its track much more likely to be blessed with clear skies than Liskeard.

But this was the British eclipse; the first since 1927, when Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set went up to Yorkshire to watch totality, only the second since 1724. To watch it from abroad would seem an act of treachery. Not for particularly patriotic reasons – simply that I wanted to see the moon’s shadow fall on my own familiar country, not a foreign one, where maybe such strange things happened every day. For Nigel, it was his home county too. How could he go elsewhere?

The papers had been full of it. The journalistic hype revolved around two issues – how Cornwall would grind to a halt and immediately collapse into a state of emergency from the billions of people who were going to cram into the peninsula for the heavenly spectacle, and how many people were going to be struck blind by staring at the sun. One mustn’t be too cynical about this – very careful safety precautions always have to be taken when observing the sun at any time. But the advice of the Chief Medical Officer – not even to project the image, but to watch the eclipse on television – was widely and rightly condemned as ludicrous. Why not, in that case, watch a video of an eclipse from another part of the world? If a Chief Medical Officer is going to be that cautious, why bother having one? It was like a Transport Minister advising that we all stay home. We had walked the sensible path and obtained eclipse viewers from a respected source and gave strict instructions about their use.

The traffic problem was another one that was difficult to guage accurately. In case it was bad, Nigel had allowed us a whole day’s slack. This meant that we, and the 22 boys with us, would have a lot of time to kill if there were no problems, but it was better than leaving on Tuesday afternoon and still being in a queue on the M3 when the Corona was flaring over Penzance. As for accommodation, Nigel had taken the shrewd step of arranging to have a sister who owned a farm, right on the path of totality, and who wouldn’t demand a Rackman rent for permission to pitch some tents on it.

In the event, traffic on the way down was no worse than any normal day, and we arrived at the farm in  Liskeard at about 5pm on the afternoon of Monday 9th August. We were all ushered into the house and given tea and cake, before being shown our field and starting the business of getting the tents put up.

Karen’s hospitality was nothing short of heroic. A barn had been set with refectory-style tables and a tea urn, and with scarcely any evident effort, she and her family produced delicious suppers and full English breakfasts for all of us, even accommodating the Byzantine food restrictions of some of our number.

On Tuesday, Nigel told the boys that we would go for a walk up Brown Willie, an announcement greeted with commendably few stifled guffaws, but little enthusiasm. In the event, the whole venture was plagued with mishap – the minibus I was driving developed a fault of such electronic complexity that we were told no-one in Cornwall could cure it. When it was persuaded into operation again, and we managed to get to the start point of our walk, we discovered that it would involve trespassing on private land. ‘I concede defeat,’ said Nigel, but at least it had kept us occupied for the morning.

On Tuesday evening, some of us (staff and OMTs only) paid a visit to the hostelry in St Neots. It was a warm, balmy evening, and the sense of anticipation was tangible. A careful ear could quickly discern that few of the many present were actually locals. There was a genuine feeling that people were coming together to witness something strange and dramatic. In retrospect, I realise that the eclipse will be my millenium experience – far more significant than any arbitrary moment of clock or calendar.

The walk back to the campsite was exceedingly dark (predictably, since it was, of course, the day before a new moon). The sky still carried banks of drifting cloud, and only occasional stars could be seen. The last few days had begun cloudy and had cleared in the afternoon. There was a despairing hope that somehow this weather pattern might suddenly alter.

That night, some of us sat up watching the stars for a long time. There are night skies in the country that city-dwellers would not believe. One of the reasons why astronomy is sometimes derided by urban ‘sophisticates’ is that none of them have ever seen the true spectacle of a dark night. By about midnight on the Tuesday, the sky was clear, and the whole of our galaxy stretched out, ghostly, across it. Meteors flashed occasionally, specks of dust burning up in the atmosphere. Satellites caught the sun as they lazily pursued their orbits, and brightened momentarily from obscurity. Some of the boys were convinced that they’d seen UFOs.

Could the sky be this clear tomorrow? Could it, please? Only until 11:15. I didn’t mind not seeing Fourth Contact.[1] Just let us see the Diamond Ring Effect. ‘Prayer!’ says Lisa Simpson, ‘the last refuge of a scoundrel.’

The first thing I remember seeing on the morning of Wednesday was shadow. The blades of grass just outside my tent cast little shadows onto the canvas, a tell-tale sign that the sun was out. That would do. After all, the only thing we were here for was to watch a shadow being cast.

I scrambled from my sleeping bag, and saw that the sky was indeed mostly blue. But there was a big bank of cloud coming in from the East, and there were still two hours before First Contact.

We ate our hearty breakfasts, and a TV was installed in the barn, so that we could see totality’s reflection in the crystal bucket if nowhere else. Camp was struck, the minibuses prepared for a hasty departure after the event. The News was telling that the rush to Cornwall had finally materialised, and showing gridlock on the roads to Plymouth. It could be a slow trip home.

Sure enough, the clouds came, and by the time eclipse goggles were given out, there was nothing to try them on.

Then, mere minutes before the start of the eclipse, Nigel called everyone together. It was, he said, an important day for three reasons. The second and third of those were revealed to be the birthdays of Sam Knights and Chris Cockle. There’s a famous probability question about the chances of any pair of people from a group of 25 sharing the same birthday being surprisingly high. The odds that it should be the day in question are, of course, a lot smaller. In celebration of this triple festival Karen had baked a cake in the shape of a partial eclipse, and we sang ‘Happy Birthday’ twice.

So it was with gobs being crammed with sponge that we all first looked to see if the sun would come out to play, (and then put his hat on, so to speak). The TV crowed about First Contact having been sighted off the Land’s End, and it wasn’t long after that the clouds parted and we were able to see the first little nick appearing on the limb of the sun’s disk. Then the clouds closed again.

The whole of the partial phase continued in this frustrating manner, exacerbated by the need for the eclipse goggles. For, though the clouds were sometimes thin enough to reveal the sun to the naked eye, it would still remain invisible through goggles, and we were each forced to choose between ignoring safety advice (by assuming that the clouds were protection enough), and missing the thing altogether.

Nonetheless, the moon’s outline slowly began to devour the sun’s disk, and there were enough cloud gaps to witness each stage.

The boys had placed the chairs in a long line at the top of our field, as if in the Grand Circle of a topographic theatre, where the performers were no less than the heavenly spheres themselves, the hills of Liskeard and St Neots the scenery.

I’d told my four-year-old daughter, at home in London, that something special was going to happen and that she would see the sky go dark. I had assumed, like many people, that 90 percent total meant 90 percent dark; but there in Cornwall it soon became obvious that even when only the tiniest crescent of sun remained showing, the day was as bright as any other cloudy day – even if notably cooler. We saw seabirds flying low, heading inland. Someone pointed out that the sheep on the hills were clustering together as they do at evening.

It had been too much to hope that the clouds would clear at the moment of totality and we would see the darkened disk and the corona. Some lucky watchers in other parts of Cornwall did, but not us. What we saw instead will remain with me until I die.

I had moved down the hillside towards the middle of our field. At 11:10, the sky to the West darkened like the opposite of a sunset, as if some hellish celestial body that radiated darkness were rising there, or a storm of such anger that there could be no survivors. It raced towards us.

Then the darkening began. Over a period of no more than ten seconds, the hillside was plunged into a gloom that was not like any twilight, not like any night, an eerie, orangey darkness that was unlike any other.

Nigel had arranged a signal, now redundant, that would mean totality had begun and we could remove our eclipse goggles. Most of these had been discarded in frustration anyway. Two blasts of his whistle sounded from the top of the field, the beginning of just over a minute which was the whole reason for our coming here. Conscious thought stood aside. In my memory, those eighty three seconds seemed to pass slowly, as in a dream. The sky was certainly the thing of nightmares. Columbus famously tricked natives into doing his bidding by calling on his god to obliterate the sun at a time when he knew there to be a total eclipse (a story that recurs in fiction from Rider Haggard to Tintin). Small wonder that they were terrified. Here was I, supposedly rational, on the brink of the 21st century, an amateur astronomer since childhood, knowing exactly what was happening, and I felt like weeping. Some part of me deep inside my mind wanted its Mummy. The Sun! The Sun is going out! Do something!

But it was all right. The sky in the West was brightening. The daytime night wasn’t permanent. The whistle sounded a single blast, and the dark lifted once more, the moon’s shadow racing off into the East at a thousand miles an hour, not to fall on this part of the world until 23rd September 2090.

I phoned home. ‘It hasn’t gone dark yet, Daddy.’ So much for paternal hype.

Needless to say, after that, no one was much interested in the second partial phase, or watching for fourth contact – in fact, by the time fourth contact came we were well on the way home, hoping to beat the traffic queues, which we did.

I don’t think it was purely fatigue that accounted for the curious placidity of the passengers in the minibus I drove. We were all conscious that we’d been part of something special, even if we hadn’t seen all that we’d have liked. ‘The eclipse that would be seen by the most people ever’ as Nigel Blight had put it. We’d been part of their number.

There’s now talk of a trip to Turkey to see the eclipse of 29th March 2006. There’ll be a much greater chance of clear skies, at least. As for the next English eclipse, I don’t hold much hope of being alive to see it, but life expectancies being what they are, maybe it’s not impossible that one or two of the boys will.

I wish them good weather for it.

[1] The moment when the Moon’s disk finally leaves the Sun’s. First Contact represents the beginning of the eclipse, Second and Third Contact the beginning and end, respectively, of the total phase.

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