Few sports now generate good literature: television has seen to that. Their heroes are too ephemeral, their settings too commonplace, their attractions perhaps too spectacular – the written word cannot compete with the zoom lens. Sporting events are, for the most part, simply too short, so that much of the writing is concerned with what happens ‘off the field’. Even cricket, which used to attract good writing, seems now to evoke so different an atmosphere that I doubt if it is worth reading about: but I may be wrong. There are, of course, the exploration sports, mountaineering, fell-walking, diving, even flying light aeroplanes, where one may yet spin a good yarn based on adventures and achievements in interesting and beautiful places, but it is still difficult for the word-processor to trump the video-recorder.
Perhaps sailing takes the palm: you can photograph an angry sea from the stern of a cross-channel ferry, but I imagine it looks very different from the deck of a yacht. So it is with flying gliders: I can show you an aerial photograph of a cumulus cloud and it will remind you of your last holiday – ten minutes after take-off from Heathrow – but for me it generates thoughts you would never dream of. Will I reach it? (What a strange question!) Is it growing or decaying? Will it be rough inside? Will it have lift underneath it as strong as that marvellous cloud I came across last year between Bedford and St Neots, or is it about to rain from its dark underside, to wet my beautiful wings and destroy the smooth airflow which alone keeps me airborne?
Have you ever seen Cambridge from the air? I first saw that unforgettable sight from the open cockpit of a two-seat training glider 27 years ago. On each occasion since then it has looked different. Last August I was rising gently in a late thermal over the centre of the town, after seven o’clock in the evening, gazing in wonder at the scene below, when I saw – for the first time in all those years – the sun on the north side of King’s College Chapel, throwing long shadows I never imagined could exist.
About five years ago my flying went through a bad patch, and on one particularly miserable flight I determined to give it up. I flew back to Cambridge airport, joined the circuit and, nervous and tense, forced my unwilling machine round the last turn. (When you are flying well, relaxed and happy, you are not conscious of directing your glider at all – she just flies.) As soon as I was in line with the landing area and knew that I should be able to land safely, I relaxed, and there was a brief moment left for me to glance sideways to see, for the last time from my own cockpit, that lovely scene: chapels, trees, libraries, greens, courts, spires – and then and there, in the seconds left before touch-down, I resolved that I must exorcise my demon and fly again.
Peter Scott started gliding the same year as me, and in Cambridge we used to say that the experience was reflected in the change that came over his wild-life paintings, the cardboard clouds of yesterday suddenly growing into beautiful living masses of cumulus. By 1963 he was British Gliding Champion, and in his autobiography The Eye of the Wind he devotes three short chapters to ‘the silent sky’ which, coming from the pen of a writer with his experience of outdoor pursuits (especially sailing), make an interesting benchmark against which to test other descriptions. For gliding ought to lend itself to descriptive writing.