One cold February morning way back in 1971, fairly soon after assembly as I remember, the headmistress at my infant school came bustling breathlessly into our classroom. She asked us all to go outside, to stand in the middle of the playground and to look carefully upwards. The sky was blue apart from one large fluffy cloud, obscuring the sun but just transparent enough to allow sight of a horned black crescent behind, its upper half eaten away by some unseen cosmic force. It was the first eclipse of the sun that I'd ever seen, and it made quite an impression (though thankfully not by burning out my retina). Since then I've always gone out of my way to make a special effort to view any solar eclipse if I possibly can - although the number I've managed to see has only just crept into single figures, that's how rare these things are.
While I was still at primary school I discovered in a reference book that a total eclipse of the sun was due to cross the UK in 1999. That date seemed impossibly far off at the time - I'd be, ooh, absolutely ancient - but it was most definitely a date to look forward to. And I knew I wanted to be in Cornwall on that August morning several decades hence, just to experience this once in a lifetime opportunity. As the end of the century approached I got time off work, I booked a vastly overpriced hotel room and I lumbered myself with a less than enthusiastic (Cornish) travelling companion. We braved the traffic jams and the increasingly pessimistic weather forecast to head southwest, because we had to, just to be in the path of the moon's shadow during that unique two minute slot.
It was sunny in Cornwall at ten past eleven on every other morning that week, but on Wednesday 11th August the cloud rolled in and obscured the sky throughout the entire three hour spectacle. At the crucial climactic moment a huge dark shadow whooshed in from the Atlantic and blackened the land like some eerie premature twilight, but the true spectacle was sweeping across the cloudtops a few hundred feet above our heads. So near, and yet so far. I was crushed. The event I'd dreamed of for so long had proved the most enormous disappointment, and I suffered "Was that it? You brought me all the way down here for that?" for the rest of the week. London friends crowed on our return that they'd seen everything perfectly and unobscured, except they'd only seen 97% and it was totality that I'd felt compelled to experience.
Yesterday's partialeclipse was yet another personal disappointment, although not of quite such great magnitude. There was sunshine at dawn, but skies in central London were fully overcast by the time the eclipse began. At 10 o'clock there was just a faint hint that the sun might be behind one particular bit of thick swirling cloud, but no sense of form or shape. South London managed better, with sunlight streaming down through the odd break in the clouds, but in central London there was nothing to see. Even though more than half the sun was suddently absent, it was impossible to distinguish this extra-special event from any normal grey day in the capital. Mockingly the sun shone back in through my office window with less than ten minutes of the eclipse remaining, just in time for me to observe the tiniest weeniest sliver of the moon's shadow blocking out the lower edge of the solar disc. So I can tell myself that I saw the 2005 partial eclipse, but I saw virtually nothing. Still, that's more than the rest of my colleagues managed as they continued working as if nothing at all was going on - either out of ignorance or disinterest.
Eclipses are mighty unfair phenomena. They're dazzlingly spectacular, but you can't look directly at them. Their finest sights are reserved for a tiny strip of the earth's surface, but probably not anywhere close to you. They occur oh-so infrequently, but one misplaced cloud bank and they might as well not have happened at all. And science can predict when and where the next ten thousand will occur, but you'll be dead for all but a handful of them. Following today's experience I now reckon people divide into two distinct types - those who bother to watch eclipses (very much a minority) and those who don't. I'd like to thank my old infant school headmistress that I'm one of the former, because on that far distant February morning she helped instill in me a sense of awe and occasion that I've never lost. Roll on 2015.