Magazine article The Spectator

Darkness Visible

Magazine article The Spectator

Darkness Visible

Article excerpt

There are times when cynicism is dissolved, when apathy is vaporised, and when the dull bourgeois mind is just blown, blown - there is no other word - by the natural world. So we forgive them, the hype-merchants who have been bending our ear about this astronomical billiard game for the last weeks and months. We now look indulgently at all those who prosed about traffic jams in Cornwall, and threats to hoteliers; and a measure of fellow-feeling is even extended to the bossyboots who nagged us about not looking up directly, and making sure that we had the right sort of specs, and wouldn't it be better to do it by cutting a hole in a piece of paper or by staring at the bottom of a bucket.

Yes, this was just three spheres which happened to be temporarily aligned in the heavens; and yet you would have to be pretty barren of soul not to be moved. There was the Sun, the giver of life, the creator of every hydrocarbon molecule on this planet, without whose agency our ancestors would never have crawled from the primordial ooze, his face steadily darkened by a lump of rock in the orbit of our planet; and by some weird coincidence, the Moon is stationed at exactly the right distance from the earth to blot out the totality of the Sun's raging visage, all except a halo of fire. And for the first time in three generations, we were able to look directly at him.

We could look straight at the Sun, something that is normally forbidden to mankind, and as the seconds ticked by of what was, for Londoners, at least, a 95 per cent eclipse, one felt the superstitious awe of the pre-Galilean era, and one wondered what it meant, for it seemed impossible that this event could be without significance. Here in Holborn the pigeons crouched on the roofs, as if preparing to roost. As the sky grew darker, the air turned colder, and a strange light seemed to filter through the clouds, a sort of silvery-blue. Soon it was as dark as dusk, and the body-clock started to muse about whether it might be time to open a bottle, but one could not drag one's eyes away from that scimitar of fire.

All his nuclear fusion, all his 15,000,000 degrees, could not stop the Moon slowly eating into his dominion. As the clouds occluded the struggle between Sun and Moon we shivered, and, when the star and the satellite briefly emerged again, you could hear the gasps go up from the watchers on the rooftops, and you realised that the traffic had stopped outside. The very flowers seemed to droop their heads, as if under the impression that it was time to furl their petals for night; and then, slowly, one became aware that the Moon was losing. …

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