In the end, I had to sacrifice the Ryan Air flight I'd booked from Brive, Vallée de la Dordogne, to Smorgasbord on the Island of Svalbard. It didn't feel right to leave the girls to look after Daphne – or Da Phoney, as our rapping neighbour, MC Sol R Klipz, calls our growing hound – while I went off to gaze at the heavens through rose-tinted glasses. (Daphne's growing apace, thanks for asking. She's out of her Clarks Startrites now and will be wanting a pair of kinky boots soon.)!(upload://421JDRMMy8n6iIrGUJ76o0ooOhw.jpg)
The solar eclipse was a non-event in this neck of the woods. It was one of those overcast days when the cloud cover tinges the land with a sickly pallor. We didn't even notice any appreciable darkening when the moon covered the surface of the sun sometime between 9 and 10 o'clock. We hadn't got our act together, anyway. Last time around, in August 1999, probably because the Daughter was just a nipper and we were still seriously responsible parents, we were equipped with three home-made pinhole cameras and dedicated to the task of ensuring that our little girl didn't try to look directly at the sun.
In those days, when the internet was still comparatively in its infancy, there was little question of watching it retrospectively courtesy of You Tube or whatever. So you had to be there to witness it live. With Health & Safety paranoia so rampant now, rather than make their own Blue Peter cameras from an old box of breakfast cereal, many school children I'm told had to watch Friday's eclipse streamed onto a big screen in the classroom.
Mind you, re-reading my journal of the time, it transpires that our pinhole cameras were about as much use as a tin of sardines. Fortunately, the young baba-cool couple who moved into the house on the other side of the road that bisected our village had some friends from Avignon to stay with them. They had come equipped, and lent us some spare pairs of custom-made cardboard glasses through which we were able to view the sun as a tiny crescent.
Up in the north, the sun was more of a dramatic black orb with a fiery perimeter. So, for we villagers in the Corrèze, it was all a bit of an anti-climax. What I remember most about the day was the sudden stillness and chill and the way our locality was shrouded for a few minutes in an eerie kind of post-apocalyptic grey light. I couldn’t help but think it would be like this after they dropped the Big One on Bordeaux or Clermont-Ferrand.
The best part of it was packaged by the media. We watched the lunchtime French news (because it would be six or more years before we would succumb to a satellite) on our telly and witnessed the excitement of the crowds gathered on the beach at Fécamp to follow the passage of the moon over the sun. Was their experience underscored, as it was for TV viewers, by the portentous music of Richard Strauss or someone like that? By the end of the broadcast, we understood why friends from Sheffield had made the long journey to Cornwall with their tent and special glasses.
After such an event, the rest of the day was bound to be underwhelming. We had spent nearly four years in France and were still finding our expatriate feet. Bringing up a young child in such an unfamiliar and challenging environment created certain strains and we were probably both going through some sort of mid-life crisis. While Debs was still coming to grips with the business of setting herself up as a backstreet aromatherapist, I was still trying to forge a career as a writer. The rejection letters kept arriving by snail-mail (as it wasn't even known yet at that time) and a joint venture with a director friend had just been blown out of the water by the discovery that the Americans had already made a film about the same kind of subject matter. Born To Be Mild, which I thought was a damn fine title – about a group of middle-aged middle-class bikers going through their own variegated mid-life crises – could have been a contender, but now patently wouldn't be. Shame. The American film, I gathered, was about as subtle as a slap on the face with a biker's gauntlet.
Our beautiful ginger cat, Dexter, hadn't yet been poisoned, so I was able to sit on the sofa with him on my lap after lunch, while I took my turn to survey the kid so that her mother could sneak upstairs to get on with some much-needed paperwork. We couldn't make much noise, because it was the first summer in which we rented out the little apartment that we'd created downstairs in the cave – which was more of a cave than a cellar when we first moved into our farmhouse. We had a French couple staying there that week, who were only too ready to suggest improvements.
While keeping a watchful eye on our five-year old as she played on our chestnut parquet, I was probably feeling flat after the departure of old friends from the homeland and maybe mulling over the details of what would we come to know as our stillborn Aromadonkey project. We'd been to Christine and JP's house the previous evening to sketch an outline. JP, a funny little man with a piping voice and a pencil-thin moustache, whose vocal chords must have suffered a mishap somewhere in his past, kept donkeys and had created an internet page to advertise treks with said adorable creatures. Debs had a vague idea of using our new apartment below for short residential courses on reflexology and aromatherapy. What if... What if the trekkers walked their donkeys over to our house on an appointed day for a soothing massage at the end of their hike? And what if her students were to book a walk with a donkey for a bit of R&R half way through the course?
I think the accumulated tiredness from a week of sharing our house with friends while trying to get on with daily life, compounded by the effort of trying to speak and understand French – particularly French as spoken by someone who sounded like he'd just taken in a lungful of helium – meant that we were ready to say yes to anything. It sounded kind of plausible at the time, though, even if hindsight would reveal all the flaws that made it abortive. Just one of many lessons we were to learn in the initial phase of our life in a foreign land.
It's already 15 years since that last total eclipse of the sun. God knows how long before the next one. 1999 seems like such a long time ago now. Friday's eclipse was less exciting than the one that preceded the Millenium Bug: another non-event – like Born To Be Mild and Aromadonkey. In some ways, now that all that ingenuous naivety has been flushed away by experience, life is less exciting. But we're settled and on a more even keel and our child has become an interesting and stimulating young woman and we know who our friends are. And there's much to be said for that. So I'll probably get over the disappointment of not going to Svalbard for this latest celestial phenomenon.