The Millennium? Blink and you'll miss it

`I was in no danger of going to Cornwall for the eclipse. I had inadvertently booked myself in for a haircut...'
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The Independent Culture
FOR MOST of this year, my local paper, The Bath Chronicle, has been filling up with news of local Millennium events, all those balls, bashes and bops that people have been planning for the great evening itself. It's almost as if Bath felt that, being such a grand place itself, it had to celebrate the Millennium on an equally grand scale.

Unfortunately, in the latter part of the year The Bath Chronicle has been equally full of news of the cancellation of such events, as organisers have gradually realised that ticket sales weren't going fast enough to justify the expenditure and it would be best to pull out now. What's more, I get the feeling that Bath isn't alone in this - that, generally speaking, the mood about Millennium Eve is one of reluctance to get involved in anything large-scale, grandiose and over-organised.

That being so, it is a repeat performance of the eclipse. We were told for months in advance of last August that Cornwall was the place to be on eclipse day, that accommodation would be hard to find, that all the roads would be choked with traffic...

Why, even up here in Wiltshire, I remember seeing emergency health units being set up to deal with eclipse-goers who would be travelling from the north of England or London and might come down with exhaustion on the way to Cornwall, and presumably to deal with sun-blindness in eclipse- viewers on the way back. But far from there being any trouble in Wiltshire, there wasn't any trouble in Cornwall either, except among those who had organised balls and accommodation and festivals and things, which lost money because the eclipse had been over-hyped and not enough people turned up.

(I was myself in no danger of going to Cornwall for the eclipse. I had inadvertently booked myself in for a haircut in Bath at 11am on eclipse day, and found myself having a trim in semi-darkness at the high point of the eclipse. Still, it was quite impressive driving into Bath at 10.45am, through streets lined with groups of people all wearing dark glasses and pointing excitedly behind me at the sun as it was eaten into by the moon. Indeed, because the sun was right behind me, I had the very strong impression they were all pointing at me, which gave me the fleeting sensation of either being very famous or driving a car that was on fire.)

But my memories of the eclipse, looking back, are very little to do with the big day itself, much more to do with the weeks and months of build- up. I remember seeing little books coming out, entitled Little Book of the Eclipse or some such. I remember all the stern warnings about looking directly at the sun. All the pros and cons of different kinds of dark glasses. All the scare stories. All the Cornwall bonanza stories... All the, yes, hype, the word we can't get away from, and which is so decried today, as if the hype surrounding big events somehow detracts from the event itself.

I think that is baloney. I think the hype is often a great deal better than the event, and a great deal more satisfactory. The eclipse was over in a few minutes. Eclipse hype went on for weeks and weeks and was much better value for money. Millennium Eve won't last much more than, well, an evening, but the build-up has been good value for a year or more.

You can see the same sort of thing happening on TV on cup final day. The cup final lasts less than two hours, but the build-up to the cup final (history of both clubs, how they got there, great cup finals of the past, policeman on a white horse, blah blah blah) goes on for hours and hours and is very often much more fun than the dreary cup final itself. If the cup final itself was so good, you'd have as much time devoted to the post- mortem and aftermath, but you never do.

Jules Verne knew this. It is reported of the great French writer that when he was a lad he often went to Brittany on holiday, and planned sailing trips to many of the islands off the coast. In fact, he planned these trips in such meticulous detail that very often, when the day came, he would cancel the outing. "I feel I've done it already," he would say.

For "sailing trip" read "Millennium Eve" or "eclipse", and you know exactly what he meant. It was the victory of hype over hope.