Amazing dates

2012 is shaping up to be a year with plenty of notable dates. If you are following the Gregorian Calendar, today is a leap day. This means two things; firstly, that February really doesn’t know when to leave the party gracefully. (“It’s a year that’s divisible by four! Why don’t I just stay over? No, no, I’m fine with no bed and no overnight gear – I can sleep on your sofa. Hey, have you got any pizza? I’m starving.”) And 2) that, according to tradition, this the day of the year when women are allowed to propose to men. I looked into this one and apparently we Irish could be blamed for this particular bit of tradition.

St Brigid was exasperated by the fact that only men were allowed to propose and generally did so with the complete lack of punctuality the Irish are famed for. She struck a deal with St Patrick to allow women to propose to men – and not just the other way around – on this one day every 4 years. (I had never heard this one – my entire familiarity with our most revered female figure was the story of her miraculously expanding cloak which allowed her to finagle a few choice acres out of a stingy king. Would that the same trick worked on real estate agents in Sydney.)

And turning down such a proposal was considered to be very poor form. In some places, a man was expected to pay a penalty, such as a gown or money, if he refused a marriage proposal from a woman on Leap Day. Which sounds like a good way to wangle a new dress or a few books out of  someone if you are very, very confident they will say no.

Anyway, the “once in a few years” event of 2012 that I am most keyed about is not an attempt to extort more books from my poor beleaguered partner. Come November I’m hoping to schlep up to Cairns and catch the total solar eclipse.   I’ve had a yen to see an eclipse since I read an Enid Blyton book where the plucky kids outwitted their tropical captors by knowing when a solar eclipse would occur, and proceeded to pretend to the stunned locals that they had caused it and wouldn’t reverse the spell unless they were given lashings and lashings of ginger beer. I have wanted to see an eclipse for as long as Timmy the dog has wanted to bite prissy Julian firmly on the arse and tell Anne to stop cleaning his bowl and put some damned food in it. Not even Stephenie Meyer’s using the word as a title will put me off.

If you can’t make the solar eclipse, you can always comfort yourself with the transit of Venus in June (and Australian astonomer Nick Lomb‘s excellent book about it). Or you could make the most of the end of this amazing date and go pick yourself up something nice – today is Boomerang Books’ Discount Day!

Whatever you do this year to mark amazing occasions, you are bound to do better than Guillaume Le Gentil, whose suffering in the name of astronomy and science was so hilariously summed up in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Le Gentil set off from France a year ahead of time to observe the transit from India, but various setback left him still at sea on the day of the transit-just about the worst place to be, since steady measurements are impossible on a pitching ship.

Undaunted, Le Gentil continued on to India to await the next transit in 1769. With eight years to prepare, he erected a first-rate viewing station, tested and retested his instruments, and had everything in a state of perfect readiness. On the morning of the second transit, June 4th, 1769, he awoke to a fine day, but just as Venus began its pass, a cloud slid in front of the sun and remained there for almost exactly the duration of the transit: 3 hours, 14 minutes, 7 seconds.

Stoically, Le Gentil packed up his instruments and set off for the nearest port, but en route, he contracted dysentery and was laid up for almost a year. Still weakened, he finally made it onto a ship. It was nearly wrecked in a hurricane off the African coast. When at last he reached home, eleven and a half years after setting off, and having achieved nothing, he discovered that his relatives had had him declared dead in his absence and had enthusiastically plundered his estate.