48. Eclipse cocktail

4 Jan

We look up, apprehending disaster, and see, suddenly, a blunt snout sniffing at the sun. Black with all the blackness of absolute negation of colour, it thrusts forward, eating away the gold.

— Richard Church, “The Heavens are Telling”, Spectator, vol. 138, no. 5165 (25 June 1927), pp. 1116-7 (p. 1116).

[W]e had been allowed our vision.

— “The Eclipse”, Times, 30 June 1927, p. 17.

It was the most exciting eclipse I have ever slept through.

— Gerald Gould, “The Late Eclipse”, Saturday Review, vol. 144, no. 3740 (2 July 1927), pp. 9-10 (p. 9).

On 29 June 1927 the first total solar eclipse in 203 years was seen over the British mainland. Starting at 6:23 am, just after the break of day, an area extending from North Wales to the North Sea, from Criccieth to Hartlepool, was plunged back into darkness for between 22 and 24 seconds.

The event caused nationwide excitement. For weeks beforehand the press had been ginning up interest, running articles, scientific and pseudo-scientific, on astronomy, sharing tips on how safely to observe the phenomenon, publishing train timetables and road maps, and giving directions for travel to the zone of totality.  It worked. An unprecedented number of people went on the move, pouring into a strip of land 39 miles wide, straining the transport infrastructure to the limit, and stood shivering on hillsides to watch the eclipse. According to advance estimates 260,000 made the journey by rail, 175,000 by bus and 160,000 in cars. The New York Times was not exaggerating when it declared that “eclipse fever had gripped England” (26 June 1927, p. 2). One of the most famous pilgrims in late June was Virginia Woolf, who travelled with friends and family to Richmond in Yorkshire on the London and North-East Railway. “Trains like ours were starting all over England at that very moment to see the dawn,” she later wrote. “All noses were pointing North. When for a moment we halted in the depths of the country, there were the pale yellow lights of motor cars also pointing North. There was no sleep, no fixity in England that night. All were travelling North. All were thinking of the dawn.” (“The Sun and the Fish” [1928], Selected Essays [Oxford University Press, 2008], pp. 188-92 [p. 189]). (A typically London-centric remark: some were actually travelling south.)

On the Sunday before the 29th, which was a Wednesday, clergymen gave opportunistic sermons on texts like “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork” (New York Times, 26 June 1927, p. 2), and some small religious sects fervently prayed in anticipation of the Second Coming. But most Britons, then as now, were intent on partying. All along the corridor of darkness arrangements were made by hoteliers, restaurateurs and publicans to entertain the hordes of visitors. Many towns and villages held all-night “eclipse dances”; picture palaces and cafés were open into the small hours; licensing and amusement restrictions were relaxed (“Night Before Eclipse to be Gay in Britain”, New York Times, 19 June 1927, p. E2); at Richmond, near the central line of totality, a week-long list of entertainments included a lecture, competitions, whist drives, fetes, a cricket match and culminated in an all-night dance on the castle green (“Corrected Path of Eclipse”, Times, 21 May 1927, p. 9). In Southport, which in a souvenir programme billed itself as the “Eclipse Town” and managed to attract crowds of 250,000, the elaborate festivities were capped with an open-air jazz concert before dawn (“From the Sands at Southport”, Times, 30 June 1927, p. 18). All this carousing seemed rather heathen, the writer Sylva Norman thought, as she walked through Wharfedale in the early morning: “In the Town Hall the local Eclipse Dance was in full swing, nearing its culmination. The credulous savage beats drums to scare off the devourer of the sun; here we use drums and saxophones to herald its approach and celebrate its swallowing” (“Eclipse Madness”, Nation and Athenaeum, vol. 41, 9 July 1927, pp. 477-8 [p. 477]). That impression was shared by Woolf. As she and hundreds of others stood with teeth chattering in the morning gloom on Bardon Fell, it struck her that “[w]e were very, very old; we were men and women of the primeval world come to salute the dawn. So the worshippers at Stonehenge must have looked among tussocks of grass and boulders of rock” (pp. 189-90).

From: Punch, vol. 172 (29 June, 1929), p. 687.

While Sir Frank Dyson, the Astronomer Royal, professed not to be too worried about poor weather ruining the spectacle, since the British Astronomical Association had taken the precaution of dividing its forces among eight different stations spread across the region, a party of bookmakers arrived at Giggleswick, where Dyson was based, and offered odds of 7 to 2 that clouds would obscure the eclipse. Those in the tourist industry, certainly, were concerned that the British summer, which was even wetter than usual, might conspire against them, and many took out insurance to protect them against potential losses if the night of the 28th proved to be a wash-out. In the event Sir Frank had chosen his spot wisely: Hartlepool was overcast and Southport misty, but at Giggleswick the clouds broke at just the right moment. The New York Times was on hand to describe the events:

The scene during the eclipse at Giggleswick was weird and inspiring. As a voice from the astronomical party called “Two minutes”, thousands on the hillside passed the word along that the vital moment was near. The strange yellowish twilight faded away as if an unseen hand was slowly turning down an ordinary gas light. Then shadow seemed to rush over the gathering. There was intense silence everywhere. Even the birds which had been twittering earlier now were still. Then the watchers saw the sun, a black ball in a sky of gunmetal gray, outlined by a glowing, iridescent, irregular circle of fiery light from which red and yellow flames seemed to shoot. While all eyes in the group about the astronomical party were riveted upon these strange pyrotechnics about the black disc the voice of one of Sir Frank Dyson’s assistants intoned the passing seconds solemnly, as in Druidic ritual. As the voice called “twenty-three”, a dazzling flash of reddish-white light, brilliant as molten metal in some blast furnace, burst from the left upper rim of the darkened sun. It bulged into a blazing oval. Darkness was passing. From somewhere behind the camp came the sounds of cheering. Dawn had arrived. The sun had returned. Birds sang and the crowd began to break up across the ne[a]rby hills.

— “Sun’s Eclipse Awes Crowds in England”, New York Times, 30 June 1927, p. 27.

Pupils at Oundle School view the eclipse.

While reporters flapped their waxen wings and soared ever higher on their poetical flights of fancy, it was, unsurprisingly, Virginia Woolf who best captured the emotional experience of the eclipse and the shattering realisation of the fragility and ephemerality of life it evoked:

The shadow growing darker and darker over the moor was like the heeling over of a boat, which, instead of righting itself at the critical moment, turns a little further and then a little further; and suddenly capsizes. So the light turned and heeled over and went out. This was the end. The flesh and blood of the world was dead and only the skeleton was left. It hung beneath us, frail; brown; dead; withered. Then, with some trifling movement, this profound obeisance of the light, this stooping down and abasement of all splendour was over. Lightly, on the other side of the world up it rose; it sprang up as if the one movement, after a second’s tremendous pause, competed the other and the light which had died here, rose again elsewhere. Never was there such a sense of rejuvenescence and recover. All the convalescences and respite of life seemed rolled into one. Yet at first, so pale and frail and strange the light was sprinkled rainbow-like in a hoop of colour, that it seemed as if the earth could never live decked out in such frail tints. It hung beneath us, like a cage, like a hoop, like a globe of glass. It might be blown out; it might be stove in. But steadily and surely our relief broadened and our confidence established itself as the great paint brush washed in woods, dark on the valley, and massed the hills blue above them. The world became more and more solid; it became populous; it became a place where an infinite number of farm-houses, of villages, of railway lines have lodgment; until the whole fabric of civilisation was modelled and moulded. But still the memory endured that the earth we stand on is made of colour; colour can be blown out; and then we stand on a dead leaf; and we who tread the earth securely now have seen it dead.

— Woolf, p. 191.

And what is the best way of preserving that memory? In a cocktail, of course. Enter Mr Harry Craddock:

This is an age of gastronomy as well as astronomy, and a dish or a cocktail has now become accepted as the best way of perpetuating a name of a memory says a correspondent of the New York Herald Tribune. When the next total eclipse occurs in this country a hundred years hence there will be few things to remind the public of the spectacle which most of their ancestors didn’t see; but unless England goes dry in the meantime—an improbable event if the British climate deteriorates at its present rate, for simply by looking at the number of persons in a bar here one may estimate with close accuracy what the weather is doing outside at any given moment—there will be one survival.

Many cocktails have done honor to a lunch, but the lunch staged at the Savoy Hotel here to honor a cocktail, which in turn was created to honor the eclipse, is something new. It was created, appropriately by Harry Craddock, who claims to have shaken the last legal cocktail in the United States on the eve of prohibition. The cocktail is of a glowing red color, like an angry sky, and is made of lemon juice, grenadine, sloe gin and gin, each ingredient being poured slowly into the glass. It is one of the few cocktails that does not need shaking.

— “Cocktail ‘Eclipse’”, Washington Post, 17 August 1927, p. 6

Interestingly, that description does not quite tally with the recipe included in the Savoy Cocktail Book:

1/3 Dry Gin.

2/3 Sloe Gin.

Put enough Grenadine in a cocktail glass to cover a ripe olive. Mix the spirits together and our gently on to the Grenadine so that it does not mix. Squeeze orange peel on top.

No mention of lemon juice. And that, surely, is a mistake. Adding  ½ oz. of lemon juice to the mixture really does give it some zing. The cocktail looks better, too, if, as the Washington Post article suggests, the drink is not shaken, but poured like a pousse café. The photograph above does not do justice to the results, partly because my homemade grenadine is a little more purplish than the shop-bought stuff. The olive lies suspended between the crimson-coloured layer of grenadine at the bottom of the glass and the darker sloe gin; floating on top is the clear lemon juice, which resembles, or at least could be taken to resemble, the corona of an eclipse.

"For those who dwell outside the area of teetotality, there is no drink to eclipse Barclay's Lager".

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