A Very British Eclipse

Eclipse 11 Aug 99 Llangollen Canal

As parts of South America witness a total solar eclipse, I’m reminded of the day in August 1999 when I fulfilled a boyhood ambition of witnessing one.

As I travelled down to Devon from South Wales (the eclipse was only going to be total in parts of Cornwall and Devon) I really started to capture the excitement when I stopped at a Service Area on the M5, as there was something of a party atmosphere.

I eventually parked on the waterfront at Kingsbridge, near some good public conveniences that were open 24 hours, and attempted to get some sleep in the car. Waking soon after 4.00 am I decided to make my way the coast, heading for Slapton Sands. I arrived at about 5.00 am and was totally unprepared for the level of traffic and activity going on.

There were some quite large car parks, and I managed to get one of the last spaces. It was right next to the beach, people were sleeping in cars and vans, in tents, and in sleeping bags on the beach itself. As it started to get light, there was no way I was going to get any more sleep, so I decided to get the bike out and go for an early morning cycle ride. There was a great buzz in the air; it was one of those occasions when people were drawn together by a shared experience, strangers found it easy to talk to each other. Telescopes, cameras and the like were being set up on the vantage points, and the smell of cooking was hanging in the air. By this time the authorities had closed off the car park entrances, and the refreshment vans were doing brisk business.

By about 8.00 am the traffic had become even busier, but there was nowhere to go, no sooner had people parked half on the road, half on the grass verges, they were moved on. Fields were opened up for the cars, but these eventually filled up, and still the cars were coming, causing chaos in the narrow country lanes.

I managed to see the eclipse at various stages, up to about 70% covered, but then the threatening darker clouds came and obscured the view, but nothing can prepare you for the experience of totality, and it’s impossible to adequately describe in words.

the approach of darkness
the drop in temperature
the quietness that descended on the crowds
the expectation
the moment of totality
the darkness during the day
the birds flying off
the applause of the crowd

Because of the cloud cover, I saw nothing more of the eclipse as the Moon finished travelling across the Sun, although the Sun did break through later on.

And that’s my experience of the eclipse, something I will never forget. I was slightly disappointed that I didn’t actually see the full eclipse, but I experienced something equally unique; it was moody, eerie, and atmospheric, to be under cloudy skies when the shadow of the Moon travelled overhead at nearly 2000 mph, a very British eclipse.

Baby Driver (Movie)

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Naomi and I watched Baby Driver recently and thoroughly enjoyed it, although it’s somewhat violent and sweary at times (not for the faint-hearted or easily offended). Overall it’s very stylish, stands out from the crowd and keeps your attention, although the script was ordinary and some of the characters could have been better defined.

A talented, young getaway driver relies on the beat of his personal soundtrack to be the best in the game. When he meets the girl of his dreams, Baby sees a chance to ditch his criminal life and make a clean getaway. (Bing search).

I particularly appreciated the soundtrack as this was an integral part of the storyline in a way I’ve not come across before, rather than (as is usual) accompaniment to the action and helping to set the mood.

The movie stars Ansel Elgort, Lily James, and Kevin Spacey (are we still allowed to watch his movies in the light of recent events?) amongst others. In fact, the reason Naomi bought the DVD was because it starred Lily James, who plays the young Donna in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.

The whole time I was waiting for the song Baby Driver by Simon and Garfunkel from their album Bridge Over Troubled Water; but I needn’t have worried, it starts before and plays through the end credits.

Note: I’ve created the soundtrack on Spotify, click here.

The Martian (Andy Weir)

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The other day I borrowed (with permission) this book from a cafe, because having started it I was hooked. It’s a 2011 science fiction novel written by Andy Weir, adapted into a 2015 film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon.

It appealed to my inner geek, as well as my interest in science and space exploration, but what completely sold it to me was an endorsement by a real-life astronaut Chris Hadfield: A book I just couldn’t put down! It has the very rare combination of a good, original story, interestingly real characters and fascinating technical accuracy.

If I had the time I would have probably read it in one sitting, but I’m currently half-way through it. It’s fast-paced, in fairly short chapters, with brief sections, and this all makes for an easy read. I’ve known about the book and film since they came out, so I’m a little late to the party, but better late than never! I look forward to finishing the book and catching up with the film sometime.

Update: I finished the book (a really gripping read) and Naomi bought me the DVD, so we snuggled on the sofa to watch it. All in all, a great book and film.

Slaying Imaginary Dragons

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It seems to me there’s an element in the English psyche that needs an enemy to fight, a dragon for St George (a foreigner by the way) to slay; an element that harks back to the Second World War and an imagined golden age. In the absence of a current aggressor, that role has been taken for many years by the European Union, which the United Kingdom voted to leave in 2016 by a narrow majority in a divisive referendum.

The benefits of EU membership have never really been promoted, and often lies about the EU have been perpetuated that have established themselves in our national identity. For decades politicians have also been content to blame their failures on the EU because it’s been politically expedient for them to do so.

We dubiously lift ourselves up by putting others down, insulting the Germans (for example), and hating others rather than working together for the common good, even if we hurt ourselves in the process. The latter is especially so in the possible no-deal Brexit scenario, as this would have catastrophic consequences for the UK.

For some who voted Brexit, the ‘enemy’ is now those who voted to remain in the EU, often referred to as ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the people’. This attitude is unhelpful and dangerous as it opens the way for far-right extremists to gain influence and power, history reminding us this never ends well.

Somehow, our nation needs to unite and find the best way forward, but I’m not sure how this can happen, and I’m concerned about the country I love.

Burns Night 2019

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Even though I’m English I do like to have haggis, neeps and tatties on Burns Night each year. Sadly, I feel I’m letting my Scottish friends down today by not having this traditional meal. I’ll have to make up for it in the coming days; although my wife Naomi doesn’t like haggis, she’ll have to have Scottish mince, pie or something else. Liking haggis as I do, I’m fortunate that my local fish and chip shop does haggis in batter, so I can always get her an alternative.

To make up to my Scottish friends for now, here’s a famous poem by Robert Burns, which I dedicate to Naomi (although I’m not leaving her as the poem suggests).

My love is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June :
My love is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in love am I :
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun :
And I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only love,
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my love,
Thou’ it were ten thousand mile.

Happy Burns Night to all my Scottish friends!

Note: the photo is from a previous year.

Vacant Earth

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Fragile Earth by Mixtaped Monk (also known as Arka Sengupta) is one of my favourite independent albums of 2018; I loved it the minute I first heard it.

I’ll let him describe it: Imagine waking up one day and discovering that there are no human beings present around you. You have all the essential supplies of the world at your disposal. But you are left to fend for yourself. What would you feel? How would you react? What would you do with your time? How would you lead the rest of your life? Will you accept your fate? Or would you ceaselessly search for others like you?

Inspired by a dream a dear friend of mine had once, “Vacant Earth” tries to answer the questions mentioned above. Through sounds (and their associated emotions) the album tries to relate the story I imagined, with me as the protagonist, when my friend had first told me about her dream. Sonically, the album borders around post-rock, neo-classical and ambient music.

Note: You can see all my favourite albums in 2018 here.

I, Daniel Blake

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Although I’d seen it before, I watched I, Daniel Blake with Naomi (watching for the first time) last night. Like the first time, it made me sad and angry in equal measure, as well as bringing tears to my eyes.

Daniel is unable to work because of his health situation, and he has to battle a welfare system that should work for him, but which in reality works against him. There is one lady (within the system) who tries to treat him with dignity and help him, a little like a flower growing through a crack in hard concrete; sadly, the weight of the system comes down on her, like a heavy boot.

He makes profound statements of his humanity in two very powerful scenes; one depicted above, the other in the final scene (which I’ll leave for those who haven’t seen it). This is a must-see movie (directed by Ken Loach) if you have a heart for the vulnerable within our society and our common humanity.