990816.2023 scillonia digital workshop , st mary’s
so there was this eclipse thing . i can’t pinpoint when i first heard about it . was it last year or the year before ? at some point it just became part of the landscape . i recall friends in cornwall talking about it last summer but i can’t remember anyone in the islands mentioning it until a few months ago . certainly it didn’t cross my mind when i decided to spend the year here .
it must have been april or may when i twigged that these islands would be the first place in the world over which the moon’s shadow would pass . that was quite a thrill .
everybody here affected long-suffering contempt for the phenomenon , at least until the beginning of last week . the < eclipse shades > went on sale in the co-op soon after easter , or so it seemed . but to be caught looking at them with any hint of interest was an invitation for ridicule or worse . then the booklets appeared : < all about the eclipse > , < how to observe the eclipse > , < 101 things to do during the eclipse > , < patrick moore’s eclipse facts > . then the stunt merchandising : eclipse biscuits , eclipse sweatshirts , eclipse umbrellas .
this , of course , was but a pale reflection of the venal horror infesting cornwall over the water . no business , it seems , was too feebly connected to the cosmic events to justify its renaming . in the course of my transitory passages through the county i catalogued builders , pet-shops , employment agencies , confectioners all gleefully jumping on the band-wagon and appending the < e > word to their previously sensible , mundane names . meanwhile the county’s proud population moved en-masse out of their homes into tents and sheds , advertising every available space in which a bed could be crammed at extravagant prices .
then the council started getting twitchy about several million hippies , druids , astronomers and other weirdos descending on the county all at once , partying wildly for a day or two , desecrating every last standing stone then buggering off . so they hired an old brigadier and got working on a * strategy * . their brainwave was a decree that nobody could come to cornwall for less than a week , which i thought showed a splendid grasp of human nature . then stories started circulating in the press that cornwall would be a disaster zone and the madness really began . the council launched an attack on andrew george , mp for st ives and the isles of scilly , blaming him for scaremongering . an advertising campaign was cobbled together proclaiming that < the rumours saying that cornwall is full for the eclipse are untrue > ( inspiring message that ) . the coastguard was put on comedy alert . extra police and army detachments were called in . eye surgeons were standing by at every clinic in the county . every historic feud between farmers and the planning authorities was reignited as turnips were decisively abandoned in favour of caravans and tents .
my god , it must have been horrible over there . my poor sister anna works in falmouth tourist information centre and she’s seen the worst of it . cornwall so monumentally mismanaged its communications strategy that the majority of enquirers genuinely believed that falmouth was the only place you could see the totality . jeez . i wrote to the old brigadier last september suggesting a web-based information campaign which would also take advantage of the opportunity for cornwall to present a new image to the world and shuck its awful baggage of ice-cream , caravans and piskies . ah , he replied , it’s all in hand . unfortunately the site he was referring to was entirely devoted to hard-selling accommodation and eclipse merchandise . nice one cornwall .
but where was i ? oh yes . out here in the islands nobody really bothered much about it . all available accommodation had already booked by the middle of last year ( part of the reason i’m living in a tent ) and anyone who tried to book tickets on the ferry , plane or helicopter was asked difficult questions about where they would be staying . the islands’ two policemen were given < special powers > , and i am sad to say that one of them got all-too-visible pleasure from reminding anyone he could collar of this fact . but hey , he’s new here …
finally , the weekend before the big day , people started shyly asking one another < so , er , where are you going to be on wednesday morning ? > . replies were generally mumbled and non-committal . i’ve commented before on the general aversion to planning in the islands . the eclipse provided a beautiful illustration . i genuinely think people were disconcerted by the fact that they knew this event would be happening on such-and-such a day at such-and-such a time . the world’s just not like that here , such precision seems almost unnatural . so they kind of ignored it as far as possible .
for myself , i got it into my head a few weeks ago that the place to be was an uninhabited rock out in the western isles called rosevear . there’s not much there . the ruin of a hut where the men who built the bishop rock lighthouse lived during its construction . supposedly there’s a well somewhere too . but rosevear is just about the farthest west piece of land on which it is possible to set foot , and therefore the very very first place to see the eclipse . in my research i’d read of a party which took place there at the end of the last century to celebrate the completion of the lighthouse . accounts speak of a band , coloured lights , everyone dressing up . to stage a second party one hundred years later had a certain romantic appeal .
meanwhile i began to hear other suggestions : a band on samson , a vigil on st helen’s , a sailing trip over to annett , a boat out to bishop rock , dancing round the old man of gugh . but nobody was making any firm commitments of course .
last tuesday , the day before the eclipse , was clear-skied and hot . i cycled down to meet my friend kirmo , arriving from finland on the noon boat . hugh town was swarming with visitors and there was a heady atmosphere . i think kirmo found it a little perplexing at first that i had no idea where we’d be the next day , but he’s been to the islands before and soon got back into the swing . through the afternoon we laid in supplies and discussed plans with everyone we met . finally things began to crystalise . i’d pretty much abandoned rosevear already . ross and keith , both of whom had landed there before , told me it could only be attempted in totally flat sea ( a rare enough occurrance out in the western rocks ) and was a tricky business even then . we bumped into ben and tonya from agnes at the sailing centre on porthmellon , trying on wetsuits . they and joffy were planning to sail over to annett which , short of rosevear , would be the farthest west piece of land . but a group of boaties were planning to cross either to st helens or tean that evening and stay overnight and this seemed an increasingly attractive idea .
so kirmo and i biked back up to watermill , emptied my tent of its futon and various gubbins , packed it up and stowed everything we would need in our backpacks . everything was ready around eight , at which point i phoned james watt , with whom we were hoping to travel , to discover that he and his friends weren’t going after all . oops , a bit of a set-back . but we biked with our luggage down to porthmellon and managed to get ourselves into a boat headed for tean ( which had emerged as the chosen isle ) .
the crossing was quite magical , as were the night’s revelries . and the eclipse itself was one of the strangest things i have ever experienced .
ps – as far as i know ben hicks was the first person in the world to see the eclipse from land . nice work mate !