Sunday, 22 March 2015

A Very British Eclipse

Courtesy of Michael Hobson @guardiannews

There was something peculiarly British about this week’s eclipse, at least viewed from the overcast South East, which is where I saw it, or more accurately, didn’t see it. I hear it was spectacular in the Faroe Islands - and how did they get the big show? Did I miss some kind of bidding process? - Here, it was dull, cloudy and cold for three days beforehand, and on the day itself, it remained cloudy and went a bit duller and colder, before brightening up later when it was too blinking late.

But in a funny way, in Britain, isn’t that how we like things? The French can have their gallic shrug; we are masters of the eye-roll skywards and snort of derision that mean things are nowhere near what they were cracked up to be. This is what we did when the French finished their half of the Channel Tunnel, and despite an enormous build-up, we failed to meet them half-way. This is how we like our celebrities, too – we cheer them on in their success, but then wait for them to fall on their faces. We might even give them a little push, since a star’s downfall is a reassuring return to the status quo in which people do not ultimately overreach themselves. Real life, in the British mindset, is not bright and extraordinary; it is a little bit poxy.

Let’s be honest, the success of the 2012 Olympics completely threw us. As sports commentators, ex-athlete peers and royals assured us this would be our time to shine, Britons were unshakable in the belief that it was all going to be a disaster. I will never forget the almost cringeing expectation with which my family sat round to watch Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. A few minutes in, we looked at each other with expressions that said, ‘Wait – is this actually going to be good?!’ And so it turned out, from Super Saturday onwards. Who knew that we could do a good Olympics? This aberration dented our faith but it didn’t break it: in Britain, big build-ups come before a fall; high expectations are just crashing disappointments waiting to happen.

We are pessimists and we love a moan. We will never achieve the perky self-belief of Americans. But there is something I love in this national determination to expect the least, and I think it’s the quirky, self-deprecating humour of it.

And so, on Friday as 9.30 approached, my colleagues and I trooped outside to view the much heralded planetary phenomenon, telling each other that with the super-moon, the spring equinox and the extraordinary line-up of heavenly bodies, anything could happen. At the very least, we could expect to burn our retinas. It was parky and didn’t look promising, but we allowed ourselves – fools! I blame Brian Cox – to get a bit excited. The day was so impenetrably cloudy that you couldn’t even work out where the sun was in the sky. ‘Is this it?’ asked our youngest staff member, who has not yet learned that cynicism is there to protect us. ‘I mean, I thought it would go dark? Like a light going out?’ We shook our heads sagely, as if to say, ‘No that’s about it. Poxy isn’t it? Get used to it.’ But at that moment, I stepped aside from the grumbling crowd to have a look down the drive, and coming towards me was a bizarre apparition.

Courtesy of

  ‘Do we know anyone with Morris Minor?’ I asked. ‘Only there’s one coming up the drive...’
  ‘It’s a tear in the time-space continuum!’ shouted someone. ‘We’re back in 1953!’
  Two ladies from a charity, come to collect out food bank donation, climbed out of their car to find us falling about, laughing at ourselves and our silly hopes with a strange kind of British joy.

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