Sun Day was a Weekday

August 15, 1999

This essay on the solar eclipse of 1999 was published in The Sunday Times (15 August 1999).

Of course, it had to be the day before Britain’s first total solar eclipse in 72 years that a spectacle screw broke and my lens fell generously into dog poop. The full event was more complicated than that, but I’d rather not recount its soul-stirring details in a family newspaper.

All you really need to draw out of this (as I did, quite literally) is an innocent metaphor for very cloudy vision.

Europe, as we all know, has always had a love-death relationship with eclipses, particularly this one which cooperated with the Nostradamean Year of 1999. A jog down to any library will reveal just how many doomsayers have looked forward to the grand August 11 skyshow, which was all fine and well for them, considering that it was in my lifetime.

Most of such stories came with awesome body counts and dramatic explosions — in one version, Paris got utterly destroyed — but an indepth analysis of them I leave to George Lucas’s Episode Two or some renowned American academic like Stephen Jay Gould (who has, after all, proven nothing to be beyond him, not a millennium time-table or Adam’s bellybutton).

What I mean is this: why trivialise a perfectly good subject matter that someone else can write an entire thesis on?

So, on Eclipse Day, rather than joining one million people inching to Cornwall to see absolute darkness, I stayed indoors to watch its live television coverage, partly because I’m poor, largely because my glasses smelt of mammal diarrhea.

Now, recall that the media has approximately a few centuries to prepare for this event, but what I got on BBC instead was a couple of dignified old men speaking obliviously in scientific jargon while, in the background, a blown-up sun climbed its way to a full eclipse.

Said one: “Remarkable, I think you’re right! Let’s zoom in and watch closely those extraordinary last streams of light as…”

Kids, you can actually re-create the scenario at home: take mummy’s tea-cup, wet the bottom, put it on a sheet of black paper, then hang the paper up in front of a light source. After that, gather some friends and you’ll have an eclipse talk show too.

Over at another channel, the on-location reportage was even more bizarre. At contact time 11.11am, the camera shifted quickly from the glorious all-important corona to a landscape of screaming darkness and eventually rested on a youth choir belting out “Night Fever”, never mind it was morning and a working day.

There the spotlight lingered while the kiddies — God bless them — continued with the good old Druid worship song, “Here Comes the Sun”.

Not that they sang tearfully well or that I couldn’t be more sympathetic, but where in blooming heavens was my one-hundred-and-six-seconds’ worth of corona? I’m sure there will always be time on national television for talent-spotting and, after all, wasn’t that the great lesson from the sun this day, that there was a time for everything and so, perhaps, an opportunity for silence would actually be good?

You see, my mistake was to have assumed the eclipse to be a purely visual spectacle, but what that failed to account for was the modern spectator himself, or herself, who could never pay attention or focus on one sensation without another bodily organ kicking in for affirmation as well.

Ten minutes after the World’s End, an interviewer was already chatting up pet-owners: “So, did your dog howl?”

“Uh, no.”

“What about the other one?”

“No.”

“And the chickens?”

“They weren’t very impressed.”

“Your owl —“

“Ah, its pupils did grow bigger as if it sensed something…”

Meanwhile, I couldn’t help noticing a dog pooping in the background. (Creepy, isn’t it?)

Back to BBC: “Let’s see that moment again.” “Yes, we can replay it over and over…”

This was like putting instruments of world destruction in the hands of children and then swapping them for butter knives when they weren’t looking. It was like Folk-Dancing Relived.

Only the sun was wise enough, having its appointments to keep even if we hadn’t any, and amidst the hubbub the eclipse was already on route to the rest of Europe and East Asia. For me, this was as good a time as any to take my spectacles to the neighbourhood optician before the Cornwall pilgrims returned with complaints of eye strains and other permanent malfunctions.

And she was on the line when I entered.

“So did you see the eclipse? No, not yet, we’re still waiting for it over here…”

Gwee Li Sui

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