The greatest show off earth

Michael Pettifer argues that the hard working British public deserve a morning off work to experience the solar eclipse on March 20

For a few moments on August 11 1999, I was sure the world was going to end. The sun – which I knew was pretty damn important – disappeared behind the moon and refused to come out the other side.

I’m sure that those stood around me at the time felt the same impending sense of catastrophe – the silence it created was cacophonous. All sorts of people, it seemed, had taken the morning off work to stare skywards through their flimsy cardboard glasses – those £2 glasses that everyone happily relied upon to prevent blindness.

The London Chamber of Commerce later calculated that the 1999 eclipse cost British businesses up to £500 million in lost sales and production (although the cardboard glasses industry experienced a much needed boost).

 

They announced this figure like it was somehow the result of bad planning – as if they were bemoaning the fact that the eclipse was held on a weekday, when people were supposed to be dutifully doing their bit for the economy.

 

On March 20 2015, another of these cosmic coincidences will occur. The moon will be up to its old tricks again, blotting out the sun – 80% to 90% of it, depending on where you are in the UK – at around 09:45.

 

Clearly, this is one of those rare spectacles that nature occasionally stages. It is an event that demands attention and one that should receive it. After all, this will be the last eclipse visible in Europe until 2026.

But, as our sun and moon align, should we spare a thought for the economy?

 

Perhaps the number bods at the Chamber of Commerce will shake with uncontrollable rage as they tally up the cost, but this should not be of concern to the rest of us. This is a chance to prove to ourselves that there is more to life than making a few quid.

 

UK businesses should follow the example set by Safeway in 1999. The company, using a perfect combination of humanistic management and financial abandon, took the decision to close 12 stores for an hour so that employees could go outside and see the eclipse.

 

Witnessing a solar eclipse is an assault on the senses (ask any dog or small child); it’s the eerie, spine-tingling feeling of standing in mid-morning darkness that imprints itself on the memory.

 

Astronomer Patrick Moore, described it as a "strange, weird experience", and he was right. Nothing else can be compared to such an event, which is why it’s so important that people grab their chance to see it this time around.

 

The sun did eventually reappear in 1999, for all those who were wondering how that story ended. Overall, I was quite happy that the world was going to carry on – I had big plans to become a train conductor. I don’t remember being overly fussed about the £500 million.

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