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Bonkers for 'Bleaky Blighty'

Illustration by J.T. SteinyTHE U.K. IS FAMOUSLY BEREFT OF NATURAL WONDERS and strange beasts. Where the U.S. can boast the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls, and as many town-crushing tornados as city-shaking quakes, the U.K. is a land of pleasant hills and streams and light southwesterly breezes which occasionally blow your hat off. In the absence of dangerous animals, the Brits invent make-believe monsters like the Bodmin Moor Tiger (never seen) and the Loch Ness Monster (grainy photo circa 1934). And while Australia can boast the duck-billed platypus, a weird amorphous hybrid, Britain has, well, the duck -- a senseless bird which sits on village ponds and eats sliced bread. All this may go some way (but only some way) toward explaining why the British went apeshit over the recent Total Solar Eclipse, which had the benevolent sense to pass over a tiny Cornish slice of this gentle island, giving the British their first awesome natural phenomenon since the Thames burst its banks and Mrs. Peacock at No. 3 got her shoes wet.

A year prior, the government proudly announced the appointment of an Eclipse Czar who would organize the entire event -- the imperialist bent of the government suggesting that the czar would control everything from traffic-congestion problems to the actual timing of the eclipse, holding the sun back if necessary until all the deck chairs had been put out. The county of Cornwall prepared for a hard-currency bonanza and quadrupled hotel prices, while farmers who normally scraped a living selling a dozen eggs a week turned their chicken runs into prepay campsites. Eclipse Fudge hit the local shops.

The Eclipse Czar predicted a million and a half people would swamp an area about the size of a football field to view the eclipse in the moon's shadow. They would pay anything for a tent pitch and thousands of pounds for a parking space, and they would make themselves sick on clotted-cream fudge with a picture of the moon on the box. The locals would be "quids in," as they say. Unfortunately, the government made a few more predictions. Food (except the fudge) and water would run out. Gridlock would prevail throughout the county, and traffic would back up to Scotland while pet dogs fried in the heat. What's more, they helpfully added, anyone actually looking at the eclipse through anything other than a piece of 3-inch sheet steel would burn their retinas out. Finally, a rather bitter former ministry scientist revealed that he had calculated that the increased weight of Cornwall would cause it to break off from the mainland without warning and join up with Nova Scotia, creating a bird sanctuary.

The inadvertent effect of all this scaremongering was to ensure that nobody turned up at all. Luckily, the British have long ignored the government anyway, and the hysteria and hype mushroomed into nuclear proportion. The BBC went eclipse crazy, with regular weather updates every few minutes interspersed with further live weather reports from outside Mrs. Muggins' Cream Pie shop in deepest Cornwall. The fact that the weather in this part of the U.K. has consisted of low gray clouds and light rain since records began (circa 1872) seemed of little consequence. Then the quaint British eccentrics began crawling from beneath their brightly painted stones on a retainer from the tourist board. Many had enormous telescopes in their pockets (or were they just pleased to see me?) which would extend for up to three or four miles. Others planned to view the phenomenon through Victorian medical implements strapped to broom handles. Tom McIntosh, a self-styled "amateur eclipse chaser," told the BBC he had been waiting six years for the event and was considering canceling his dental appointment to view it. He became a people's spokesman, proffering advice on constructing simple pinhole cameras for safe viewing, using a sheet of cardboard and a simple laser which could be found at any B2 Stealth bomber scrap yard.

AT 11:11 A.M. ON 11 AUGUST, DESPITE NOSTRADAMUS and the Armageddoneers (as they like to be known), the eclipse passed without so much as a, well, eclipse really. It happened all right; in fact, for approximately one second the crowds witnessed a distinct dimming of light accompanied by a slight chill spookily reminiscent of a typical gray day in Cornwall. There was a cheer and a profound sense of joy when Mr. Whippy reopened his ice cream van and took down his hand-written piece of rain-soaked cardboard which read, "Closed for the eclipse . . . Back in 2 minutes."

The eclipse went on its way, passing through France and Germany into Romania, across the Middle East and ending in India. The BBC followed it in a chartered Concorde, and the news that night showed scenes of jubilation along its path. It told a story of clear blue skies in Paris and Bucharest, and along the shores of Lake Balaton, and onward in a dusty track across the Indian subcontinent. Smiling faces, grudges forgotten. A new dawn. And finally, back to Nicholas Twitchell in Falmouth reporting for the BBC under low gray cloud cover: "Has it happened yet . . . are we on?"


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