A sign for our times

An eclipse - unlike a dome - cannot be commercialised or politicised. But the portent is real, says Blake Morrison
Click to follow
`Iwas so enthralled with this celestial shadow tearing across the world that I almost forgot everything else." So wrote an observer of the last total solar eclipse in mainland Britain, in 1927, when three million people travelled north to watch. Plus ca change. On Wednesday, a similar number of people are expected to forget everything else and head south-west, for the last eclipse of the millennium.

If eclipses, like hurricanes, were given names, this one might be called Merlin, since a strange magic seems to have possessed the kingdom. Why are people so spellbound? What is driving them in such numbers towards King Arthur's realm? It won't be a comfortable experience. The traffic queues may reach gridlock. To stay in a hotel, if there is room left at the inn, will cost a small fortune. There's a 40 per cent chance of cloud and rain obscuring the spectacle. And, even from the best vantage point in Cornwall, total eclipse will last for only two minutes 0.6 seconds, which is a good minute short of satisfying the average human attention span. In 1927, totality was only 25 seconds. But people did not have television then.

Now we do, and the Government's advice is that we watch the eclipse from the comfort of our own living-rooms, on the box. Yet a significant part of the British population will ignore the advice. Why? In part, because of a desire to bear witness, to be able to say I Was There - something which few among us will be able to say a second time, since the next solar eclipse in these islands is not till 2090.

Eclipse-chasing is not new: amateurs have travelled the globe hunting totals and partials and annuals for at least a century. You'd have thought that the growth of visual technologies which allow us to be present even while absent might have diminished this need to bear witness - but, no, there's the feeling you have to be there live and in person for the experience to count. And for many that means going to Falmouth for the full Monty, rather than making do with 90 per cent in Leeds.

Even more surprisingly - and here's a second reason for eclipse fever - the growth of scientific knowledge has not diminished our awe at nature and, more especially, for the planets. In ancient China they believed that an eclipse was a giant dragon devouring the Sun - people would shout and bang drums to chase the beast away. In Tahiti, an eclipse meant the Sun and Moon stealing a kiss.

There are no such pretty illusions now, yet the facts are just as enchanting. Baily's Beads (caused by sunlight passing through the gaps between the Moon's mountains), the diamond ring effect (observable just as the phase of totality begins and ends), the birds falling silent as though at dusk: there's genuine excitement at the prospect of these. It may seem puzzling that an urban late-20th-century population should be moved by such stuff (how many of us even notice the calls of birds any more, let alone can identify them?). But, as the Hale-Bopp comet showed two years ago, we are less immune to natural wonders than we thought.

Third and most important, the eclipse is a perfect symbol of the end of the millennium, a spectacle of nature, rather than - as 31 December will be - a commercial stunt. Fireworks over the Thames, the great and good partying at the Dome, the hands of Big Ben overlapping on the figure XII (as they do twice every day), a digital clock displaying a row of noughts - none of this adequately expresses the end of an era.

An eclipse says it better: the day going dark and silent on us for two minutes, as if in respectful commemoration of the dead; then the light dawning on the future. Here is a planetary, elemental, summer party to see in the new age. No sponsorship deals are involved, no logos will be projected on buildings, and no one - not even God - is running the show. The eclipse is the people's millennium bash.

Which is not to say that various factions haven't tried to hijack it. You might have thought you already knew what this eclipse was - darkness at elevenses, the Moon passing between the Sun and the Earth - but a host of voices are clamouring to tell you different. Indeed so many different groups are laying claim to ownership, you start to wonder: whose eclipse is this anyway? First come the health lobby, the doctors, nannies and general mitherers who have appointed themselves patrol guards, so that we don't observe the eclipse directly - who insist on us seeing it through a glass darkly or by some other means: with a pinhole camera, or in a bucket of water, or through an overexposed black and white film, or with mirrors, or in the dapple light under a tree, anything but with our own eyes. If we don't heed them, we will, it seems, go blind. This won't be the first pleasure alleged to make people go blind, and though my solar shades are at the ready I've yet to understand why briefly perusing a Sun part-hidden by the Moon is any more dangerous than looking at a Sun part-hidden by cloud (which most of us have done many times). Perhaps the scientists will explain.

If they have time, that is - for the scientists, too, are busily racing about the place dispensing their expertise. The best of them have dazzling tales to tell of nodes, apogees, perigees, coronal streamers and saros cycles; the worst leave the average mortal even more in the dark than before. Thanks to two of the more informative of the current eclipse gurus, Duncan Steel and J P McEvoy (whose books are published by Headline and Fourth Estate respectively), I now know, for what it's worth, that the Sun is 330,000 times the bulk of the Earth; that the Moon is drifting away from us at the rate of an inch and a half a year; and that over a century the length of a day increases by an average of 1.7 milliseconds. Drabber scientists give you tables and charts with every solar and lunar eclipse for the next 50 years.

Nerdier still are the literal-minded, who take metaphor-laden accounts of the Crucifixion - "And it was about the sixth hour, and there was darkness all over the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened; and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst" - to date Christ's death to 3 April AD33. Religious fundamentalists are, of course, grateful for such help, since to them this is their eclipse, and evidence that the Great Sadist in the Sky will shortly visit his wrath on the sinful.

In most cultures, eclipses have traditionally been perceived as a curse - as Shakespeare puts it in King Lear, "These late Eclipses in Sun and Moon/Portend no good to us" - and at the wilder fringes of faith, among the table-rappers, scientologists and readers of tarot packs and tea-leaves, old habits of credulity die hard.

The looniest superstition attached to the current eclipse is what has been called Stargate: because totality will come at 11.11am on the 11th (two days before the last Friday the 13th of the millennium - spooky!), aliens will use it as a wake-up call to Earth and transmit intelligence to the elite few able to hear it, that's to say the seers "in tune with the resonance of the space/time portal". It's apt that this eclipse should fall in the South-west, land of pagan theo-babble and home to Druids, Tintagel and Stonehenge (the stones of which, according to some, are aligned to foretell eclipses). But even in the City of London some looniness can be expected, with financial astrologers prophesying market crashes.

To these various groups might be added several others, including the Cassandras of the right-wing press (who warn of planned anarchist uprisings), the Cornish Nimbys (who are appalled by all the incomers and travellers) and the boating fraternity (who predict disaster at sea, as thousands row out for a better view), all adding their bit to the age of unreason.

It's depressing how many people seem to want to turn next Wednesday into a disaster movie on the lines of Twister or Volcano. Eclipse! How a two- minute black-out caused panic and mayhem! A story of power, beauty, obsession, blinding courage and human catastrophe, coming to a screen near you.

Given the bad karma around eclipses, it's little wonder that Tony Blair has distanced himself from the phenomenon. On Wednesday our leader will be in Tuscany, where there is only a partial eclipse. Being on-message means being off-track. Here is one Sun he doesn't want to cosy up with. Political leaders haven't always been so shy of exploiting eclipses for their own ends. There's a well-rehearsed story (though it may be racist apocrypha) of Christopher Columbus using his knowledge of a coming lunar eclipse to outwit and subdue credulous Jamaican tribal chiefs. But New Labour seems to have decided that it's too risky to hitch itself to this star, and is saving its fire for New Year.

Kepler described an eclipse as a "gift to us from the Creator". If it's a pity our politicians can't see it that way, it's also, frankly, a relief. Leave them out. Leave out all the other busybodies too. This one's for us. You don't even have to believe in the Creator to enjoy it. Myself, I'm making do with 95 per cent in the South-east. But I don't blame anyone for going west.