Do Not Fool Around

E.S. Turner

  • A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1918 by Robert Wohl
    Yale, 320 pp, £25.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 300 05778 4

The man of the year in 1909 was Louis Blériot, in whom I have a personal interest, since I was a five-month foetus at the time of his cross-Channel flight. Notoriously, this exploit showed that Britain was wide open to aerial attack and I was one of numerous infants born in the Belle Epoque who were called on to spend up to four years of their adult lives trying to shoot aircraft out of Britain’s skies; and a damned difficult task it was.

Only a month before Blériot took off from the Pas de Calais, the Académie Française – as we learn from this excellent and superbly illustrated book – had put up a prize for the best poem on ‘the conquest of the air’, with a cruel proviso that no entry should exceed 300 verses (surely French vers, or lines). It seems the poems still lie in a musty box in the archives. Robert Wohl, who teaches European intellectual and cultural history at the University of Los Angeles, does not say whether he rummaged through that musty box, but he has turned up many a fascinating source for his book. His purpose is to remind us of the tangled emotions stirred by the passion for powered flight, the Nietzschean aspirations, the Icarian follies, the patriotic posturings, the sane and insane prophecies, the challenge to aesthetic sensibilities, the cult of godhood, the purifying love of death and other forgotten fancies.

If you were born to walk the ground,
Remain there; do not fool around.

These words of Belloc tend to surface in the mind whenever a jumbo jet enters a belt of turbulence. But in the early years of this century the rush by humanity to get off the ground, or to see other people get off the ground, had become an astonishing compulsion; nowhere more so than in France, the self-styled nursery of flight.

In the year of Blériot the Count de Lambert flew over Paris and circled the Eiffel Tower at 300 metres. If King Kong had climbed the Tower Parisians could not have been more excited. It is true that Santos-Dumont had done the same thing in a dirigible in 1901, but the Count’s feat was the equivalent of a man performing bicycle stunts in the air. That year an air meeting at Juvisy airfield attracted at least 100,000 people (Le Corbusier, who was among them, estimated 300,000). So angry were the sightseers at the inadequacies of the rail service that they wrecked their carriages, stoned other trains and finally destroyed the Juvisy station and the stationmaster’s house. More often, as Wohl’s book reveals, crowds at air meetings threatened or stoned aviators who were reluctant to take off in bad weather. It was a rough old world; the newspaper files tell how in 1909 a crowd in the Pas de Calais cheered as four apaches were guillotined before breakfast at Béthune.

The idea of flight had yet to be universally accepted. Wohl does not mention what happened near Bilbao in 1910 when Lieutenant Lancelot Gibbs was due to give a flying demonstration. Thirty thousand people turned up, many in an ugly mood, chanting ‘Down with Science!’ and ‘Long live Religion!’ When the machine was wheeled out it was manhandled and a demonstrator with a knife advanced on the impious aviator, who was escorted away under a shower of stones. This story is to be found in The War in the Air by Sir Walter Raleigh, who also tells how a British officer in Argentina was stoned for refusing to fly.

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