Wandering lonely as a cloud
Whether you caught a glimpse of the actual event through the clouds or not, the fuss surrounding August's eclipse of the sun did throw a little light on some darker aspects of life on Earth.
In the first place, the spectacle of the eclipse provided an opportunity for those lost souls seeking to recreate the Diana Effect - the feeling of togetherness that many claim to have experienced while publicly mourning the princess. Two summers ago they had wept, hugged and laid flowers together before and during her funeral. This time they fell silent, held hands, shared viewers and then whooped together before, during and after the eclipse. As one Essex girl told Sky News, 'What a great time to be alive, where we can all put our differences and pettiness aside, if only for a few minutes, and be united as one'.
Nobody, it seemed, was more keen to turn the eclipse into another illusive shared experience than those running the media coverage. Television commentators reporting live from Cornwall banged on and on about how everybody involved, from Druids to day-trippers, was sharing a 'once-in-a-lifetime experience' that 'you had to be there to believe'. One newspaper claimed that 'Even Princess Diana was forgotten' as the crowd outside her Kensington Palace turned its face to the sky as one.
It might be thought mad to promote the eclipse as a symbol of popular unity, since the effect could so easily be spoiled by a slight turn in the British weather. Yet, as it turned out, the clouds and rain failed to dampen the spirits of the committed eclipse-watchers who travelled to Cornwall. Since the eclipse itself was not really the point of the exercise, but more of a pretext for some pop festival-style hanging out together, it did not seem to matter much what they did or did not see.
Just as queuing for hours to reach Diana's remembrance books became a more important part of the ritual than actually signing them, so the experience of standing about together in pretty miserable weather on cliffs and beaches seemed to eclipse any problems with the solar spectacle itself. The eclipse became the latest pretext for a display of the manufactured modern equivalent of the Blitz Spirit. We might call it Glastonbury Grit.
In the week before the eclipse, the Mirror had published a full front-page protest about the government's failure to erect a proper memorial to Diana, complaining that the People's princess had been all but forgotten. But that misses the point. Most of the national outpouring of emotionalism which followed her death was never really about Diana herself. Rather, her untimely death provided a timely release, allowing feelings and frustrations that had been welling up within British society to come rushing to the surface. Since then Diana has indeed faded into the background, as various other events, from the World Cup to Jill Dando's murder, provide the shifting sands upon which waves of ersatz emotion can crash.
The desperate desire to turn a celebrity death or a solar blip into a meaningful shared experience is a pretty sad reflection on New Britain. For all the soothing Blairite talk of community, if this is the best they can offer there is a danger that too many will be left wandering lonely as a cloud, searching for the next two-minute eclipse as an excuse for a bit of hollow hand-holding.
Then there is the second contemporary phenomenon which was highlighted around the eclipse: the obsession with risk and the demand for caution. Even though the powers that be were so keen to promote the eclipse as a kind of national festival, they could not resist the temptation to press the panic button about it endangering everything from your eyesight to public order.
These days the control freaks who run society get nervous about large crowds gathering for anything more exciting than a funeral. Parts of south-west England appeared close to a state of emergency in the run-up to the eclipse. While some local authorities seemed to be doing their best to scare tourists off coming, the riot police were tooling up to deal with a few travelling ravers. After the eclipse John Evans, chief constable of Devon and Cornwall, told Sky News: 'It was a very special moment for us.' Why? Because 'it has been a very gentle morning'. Never mind the clouds; so long as the rocks weren't raining down on his head, the paranoid police chief was happy.
Every familiar issue to do with risk seemed to be dragged out and given an eclipse spin. In the health department, experts from the government's chief health officer downwards warned us not to look at the sun for a split second, but to view the eclipse through artificial means. As Emily Winterburn of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich notes in this issue, this left many people with wildly inflated fears about viewing the eclipse. One was left with the distinct impression that the way the authorities would like us to share experiences is safely indoors, watching it on television, or at worst in our back gardens looking at a pale reflection of the real thing in a bucket of water. They even prefer their total eclipses to be virtual these days.
There was a scare about people drinking (as a certain sort will on holiday) and falling out of boats during the eclipse. There was also a minor panic about the prospect of motorists (so often the villains of the piece) bringing havoc to London's roads by watching the eclipse through the sun roof while driving. On the roads down to Cornwall, meanwhile, counsellors from the Samaritans were reported to be stationed in lay-bys to help calm those overheating motorists whom Chief Constable Evans' men considered to be at risk of developing road rage.
And most vigorously of all, we were warned about the dangers of allowing children to look anywhere near the eclipse - despite the fact that most of them will probably never see another one in their lives. The nursery where my young daughters go said that they intended to keep the children shut indoors until it was over, and the other nurseries I know about all said the same. When one friend of mine complained about his son missing the eclipse, he was answered with the cri de coeur of the overprotective child protection industry: 'Better to be safe than sorry.'
Yet, as Thomas Crump points out in his book Solar Eclipse, 'Except as a psychological trauma, eclipses cause no harm to any natural species, including Homo sapiens'. The risks posed by the eclipse were not so much in the eye as in the mind - perhaps giving a taste of what is to come as pre-millennial tensions take hold.
The homespun philosophy of 'better safe than sorry' has been elevated into a semi-official doctrine. There was a time when something as exciting as an eclipse might have encouraged a new interest in astronomy and the stars, especially among children. Now it becomes just another cause for caution and cotton-woolling. The same lowering of horizons was evident earlier in the summer, when the thirtieth anniversary of the moon landing reminded us of how far people thought they could boldly go then, and how little progress has been made since.
Reactions to the August eclipse illustrated how far humanity's ambition and self-image has slipped in recent times. The desire to conquer space would now be dismissed by many as colonial arrogance. Instead, the eclipse was widely interpreted as conclusive evidence that humanity should be humble before the might of nature and the planets. As one report put it, the scale of the solar eclipse and the ease with which our world was plunged into darkness showed that we are just 'insignificant specks of dust in the universe'.
Speak for yourself. The eclipse was certainly a wonderful and inspiring spectacle for those who got a clear look at it, and something to make one see the relationship between humanity and nature in perspective. But the balance we put on that relationship should be far more in our favour. For all the power of the eclipse, the fact is that modern science was able to predict it, interpret it and even use it to further our understanding and control of nature. (As for plunging us into darkness, many city-dwellers were rather disappointed that the street lights came on automatically when the eclipse kicked in.) No mature civilised society need live in awe or fear of nature.
Almost 400 years ago, the story goes, Christopher Columbus was stranded in Jamaica where the locals refused to give him food and water. Columbus, a man who knew a bit about planetary movements, warned them that he would demonstrate his anger by making the sun disappear. When the eclipse which he was expecting arrived, the terrified natives caved in and he was able to continue his voyage of discovery. But then Columbus never had 'better safe than sorry' painted on his ship's bow.
By contrast, many reactions to the recent eclipse were symptomatic of an anxious society which lacks faith in itself, where even the most inspiring of phenomena can be internalised as a reflection of personal insecurity. When an event like a total eclipse of the sun has to be reduced to the status of a rave in the park, or seen darkly through clouds of warning leaflets and panicky press releases, it is time to take a clear look at exactly where we are heading.
Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999