Friday, 20 March 2015

Eclipse(ish)

This morning I made Nathan get up at shit o'clock to come with me to Hampstead Heath to witness the 89% solar eclipse. My instinct had been to jump in a car at 6am and see how far North we could drive, but Nathan had a session of physiotherapy at 11am. There's nothing like physio to thwart a gloriously spontaneous act!

Sadly, it very quickly became apparent that there wasn't going to be a sun. My weather app assured me that it would be perfect eclipse-viewing weather, but instead we had heavy, murky clouds and an impending sense of doom!

Fiona, on tour somewhere in the South of England, texted to say she'd got up early especially to see the eclipse, and was sitting in a dusty lorry park wondering why! She plays with a band called Placebo, which one of her Mum's friends wrongly heard as Placenta, and couldn't understand why she couldn't find any tour dates listed on the internet!

So, basically, the eclipse in London was a bit of a damp squib. It was noticeably darker as we walked across the Heath, and at one point there was a tangible sense that something odd was happening. The air felt heavy somehow, as though it were charged with a sort of electricity. At one point all we could hear were barking dogs and birds squawking. I genuinely think they thought it was dusk, and were doing what animals do at dusk before settling down for the night.

As we turned the corner by the men's bathing ponds we could see that people were flocking in large numbers to the top of Parliament Hill. They looked like matchstick figures in a Lowry painting silhouetted against the brooding clouds. Like the people in his famous painting heading to the football match.

We got to the top of Parliament Hill just as the eclipse reached its zenith. There was quite a big crowd up there. 300 people or more. Lots of them were sitting on rugs, looking hopefully into the sky. Lots of Heath People (a distinct breed) had tipped up with their dogs, all of which were going absolutely bananas. We met a charming elderly dog called Poppy, who just wanted to be stroked. It turned out she was the smelliest creature in carnation and we ended up having to wipe our hands on the grass. Everyone seemed in good spirits, however, and there was a lovely community vibe up there. I like the fact the people still want to experience these big events in large crowds. And all of them had obviously decided to do what the Brits do so well: make the most of a disappointing situation. I was proud of us all.

On the way back down the hill, we could feel the skies lightning, and all the birds becoming active again. The green parakeets seemed to be having a particularly pleasant time. Maybe they were being buoyed on by the bagpiper playing in the bandstand. I'd be surprised if they weren't. I've never heard a bagpiper playing with vibrato before. It made for quite an emotional experience!

There's something deeply moving about the concept of an eclipse. I think it perhaps reminds us how vulnerable we are and how transient life is. One moment the sun is there - and then suddenly it's gone.

During the 1999 UK eclipse, I was in Spain, where said eclipse wasn't actually visible. It was an odd day all round as it was also the day I split up with my last long term partner. I sat and watched the television footage of the event in our hotel room, feeling deeply homesick and weeping bitter tears as the veil of darkness engulfed my friends and family. I think the fact that it was brilliantly sunny in Spain at the time made the situation a little more surreal.

I swore at that point that I would one day witness a total eclipse, somewhere the weather wouldn't spoil the fun. There's one in California that I have my eye on in a couple of years' time.

As if the eclipse weren't depressing enough, I got on the tube to be instantly confronted by one of those people who puts the little packets of tissues on the seats with a note which basically says "I'm poor, would you like to buy some tissues for fifty pence?" Ten minutes later, a very jovial chap got on the train with a big portfolio of paintings, which he took out to show to the carriage one by one, charmingly explaining that he was part of an art collective. Of course no one bought anything. To be honest the paintings weren't very good, but I made a pact with myself to buy a painting directly from an artist the moment I have a bit of spare cash.

Anyway, I found both situations extremely troubling. There was something rather "La Boheme" about the painter with his portfolio, and the tissue salesman reminded me of the plight of some of the soldiers returning from the First World War with no jobs other than menial ones which found them walking around tourist spots with trays of ghastly nicknacks which they were forced to sell for a penny a piece.

I went to Old Street to sit in a cafe with Philippa. We sat opposite each other writing, periodically chatting and eating butternut squash soup. Before parting we walked up to Arnold Circus, that rather curious bandstand on a hillock in the centre of a late 19th Century social housing development. It's definitely one of London's most curious locations. Philippa tells me it's situated at the end if the "Strand" ley-line. It certainly has a very curious atmosphere and acoustic, which is enhanced by the tall, red-brick mansion houses which surround it on all sides. If you stand in the middle, and sing, one particular pitch rings out far louder than the rest. Funnily enough, this particular pitch is bang in the middle of my speaking range, so as we were chatting, I kept hearing certain words echoing and reverberating in the most surreal manner. I started humming the note in question and it created an almost singing-bowl-like effect. It would be a perfect place to meditate if it weren't for the gangs of Bengali yoots hanging about with looks of mischief plastered across their faces.

I came home and worked like a crazy horse. In fact, it's 10.15pm and I'm going to work some more. Nothing like an eclipse to make you reappraise your life!

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