If you see Big Tony, tell him I'll be on Bodmin Moor
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 08 August 1998
And who better to be among than the Cornish when the planets start playing up? Don't ask me why, but they're more astronomically connected down there. Some Celtic or Druidical thing. Something to do with stone circles and tides.
The Halley-Bop Comet had every white witch in the county out. You couldn't move on Bodmin Moor for virgins in their nighties. Nine months after Telstar was spotted over Helston, twin children with heavenly blue eyes were born to elderly and infertile parents who hadn't coupled for a decade. Everyone knows that full moons occasion riotous behaviour in Cornwall, but a half moon can get them going just as well; and some of the wildest parties I've ever been to in Boscastle or Tintagel were thrown when there was no moon around to speak of.
Not being a reader of Nostradamus I don't know precisely what to expect of Britain's last total solar eclipse until Tony Blair loses the 2080 election. But I'll be surprised if the Cornish don't seize upon it as another pretext for celebrating the end of the world. I lived in Cornwall for a number of years and we were always celebrating the end of the world. Why not? Wake up in a strange place the next morning with streamers in your hair and chicken giblets in your pockets only to discover that the world hasn't ended after all -well, you can always find a way of coming to terms with that.
The most committed planetary end-of-the-worlder I ever met in Cornwall wasn't himself Cornish. He was from Walthamstow. Big Tony. A huge, bearded shmaltzball of a man - a cross between Father Christmas, Falstaff, Chas and Dave, and Oliver Reed - who ran a Waltham Forest street market in the winter and drove down to Cornwall in a van loaded with cheap sunglasses the moment the sun so much as winked from behind a cloud. He was how we knew the sun was coming. We measured the seasons by him. He was our harbinger of light.
I met him while I was in the employ of my wife, systematically lowering the standard of her craft shop. All very nice, the stoneware teapots and the hand-blown wine goblets at forty smackers a throw, but where were the bunce lines: the Chinese paperweights, the slate paintings, the plaster of Paris pixies? I'd grown up in a market trader family. I liked to see the gear moving out. So when Big Tony blew into the village with a vanload of sort-of-Raybans and a collection of glitzy carousels to display them on, I couldn't say no to him. I took the vanload.
My wife sent every last pair back. And the carousels. The fact that you could mark up sunglasses by anything up to a thousand per cent didn't cut any ice with her. She wasn't in it for the money. But then neither was Big Tony. They were both in it for the sun.
He loved whatever you could see the sun through. Champagne, chablis, tequila sunrises. He loved whatever you could smell the sea on also. Oysters, lobsters, caviar. He would come for a night and stay for a week, drinking the village dry, eating seafood faster than the fishermen could catch it. Hearing his vanload of crappy sunglasses rattling from as far away as Bude, wives would hide their husbands under the beds. Do I have that the wrong way round? No. Lover of women though he was - because you can see the sun through women too, if you know which way to hold them - he loved laughing with men even more. There was an atmosphere of Dionysiac knees-up about him. The trouble was, every other man's knees buckled long before his. After a week of Big Tony the village looked as though it had been hit by famine and plague. And a mysterious outbreak of male migraine.
He gave it all up himself, in the end, to become an artist. Since when I haven't seen him. But I'm banking on running into him on Bodmin Moor when the sun goes black. Solar eclipses are dangerous things - someone has to be out there selling protective glasses. And should it turn out to be the end of the world after all, he'll be just the man to toast the final dying of the light with.
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