Harry Turner's Episodes of Personal History
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The Last Eclipse (August 11th, 1999)

Was it really a week ago that we set out (hopefull) to view the eclipse?

BEEN COMPLETELY DISORIENTATED and disorganised since our return... am not sure if things will ever return to normal. We set off without too many complications: the organisers had provided a first-class train, but it proved to be Beeching vintage... like there was plenty of room, but the upholstery had been crushed by generations of middle-class bums, and was less than comfortable for an overnight journey.

In the original proposals the organisers were providing two trains: one starting from Preston (which we were on) and another starting from London. There must have been an overflow of bookings from London & SE, and to cope, the final last-minute info was that our train would be diverted to Slough to collect these stragglers. This delay meant that on the return journey we'd arrive in Manchester in the small hours (when no local trains ran) instead of Wednesday evening, a quick check with city taxi firms revealed that night the service was inexpensive (relatively) so we made a tentative booking.

We dozed fitfully on the journey down, as there was a cheery group yakking into the small hours further up the compartment. Rolled into Penzance station around 7 am, to be cheered by sight of the sun gleaming under the clouds on the horizon. There were plenty of folk in the vicinity of the station as several other special trains followed us in from London, but when we wandered round the town on an exploratory trip, checking on cafes and suitable vantage points for viewing, there was hardly any traffic and the place was not even as busy as would be expected in the usual holiday period. A goodly number of shops and all the museums and attractions proved to be closed for the day; as we were scheduled to return late afternoon, this didn't worry us unduly, though it seemed an odd attitude with all the potential customers hanging around...

The weather deteriorated steadily, with huge grey clouds drifting in from the sea bringing an occasional flurry of rain, so we finished up having coffee in the Wharfeside Centre, a modest shopping complex on the front with a wide open balcony, open to the sky, at first floor level overlooking the harbour, giving some shelter from any showers.

Every slight lightening of the cloud layer raised hopes that we might get a glimpse of the eclipse, but just minutes before it was due to start there was a build-up of black forbidding clouds that put an end to all such hopes. All we got was a sudden darkness when it was all happening above the clouds; eery but disappointing.

The lights around the harbour automatically came on, and vied with the photo flashes as budding photographers attempted to record the scene (maybe snapping fellow viewers?). Contrary to the usual tale of birds and animals falling quiet during the event, the local seagulls (a vociferous lot) went wild, careering round with much, cacophonous shriekIng. while there was a certain impressiveness about the moment, it felt far short of the glories of our 73 eclipse trip... if it weren't for those memories (over six minutes of totatality) we'd have felt cheated. We wondered how Patrick Moore was getting on across the bay...

We went for another wander round the town and decided to get some grub to take on the train (trip catering being grotty and expensive with finished up with some hefty Cornish pasties from a local bakery, and returned to the station to see whether there was any rush for the train. Penzance station was in a state of seige, the entrance gate guarded by a solitary constabule while harassed staff fended off intending passengers.

Apparently the sudden influx of special trains had thrown established routines into chaos, and passengers were being herded into queues outside to await the call when their particular train was allowed into the station. This was not a popular move; when our rep came round to announce that our train was likely to be delayed by an hour, many folk drifted back into town - thereby missing a further announcement that it would leave on time, after all. This was received with some scepticism in view of the depletion of the queue: we sat down and tucked into our pasties - very tasty they were too (perhaps the best thing that happened to us all day) and I felt assuaged after consuming half of mine, and saved the rest for later.

At the end of the hour, most folk had rejoined the queue and we were eventually allowed into the station (the police guard at the gate had been discreetly doubled), boarded the train, and after a quick check, started back home. We seemed to be sandwiched between a convoy of London-bound trains, speeding along for brief spells, then crawling with the staff boosting morale at frequent intervals with announcements that we were back on schedule despite delays. Then we stopped... dead.

Eventually we were told that some idiot had dangled an iron bar from a bridge and bashed in the windscreen of a train ahead. I returned to my pasty (still warm!) and felt at peace with the world. We dozed, and this time the talkative passengers dozed too.

We must have got started some time: stations came and went as we returned along the same circuitous route, and we arrived back in Piccadilly in the small hours, bum-sore but wakeful. Were amazed to find our taxi on the forecourt and soon were zooming home along empty roads at breakneck speed. It was a relief to be back and able to collapse on a comfortable bed..!

Don't think I've recovered completely yet. And Marion is already talking about the Zimbabwe eclipse of 2001 (guess we don't hold out much hope for the next one in Penzance in 2090).

Found time during the weekend to check the HYPHEN parcel which arrived just before our departure. Was intrigued to find that several issues were addressed to me and must have been passed to you when I started work at the Guardian, and was seduced by jazz activity in the Big City, deserted fandom and liquidated the fanzine collection.

I had completety forgotten that I passed material intended for a Now&Then Homes & Garden issue over to Walt, for use in Hyphen, and that I'd edited several issues of the in-mag reprint sheet TOTO for him. So there'll be a few additions to be made to the fannish database when I get time to sort the details. ■

Letter to Brian Varley, August 1999

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