A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1908-1918 
by Robert Wohl.
Yale, 320 pp., £25, October 1994, 0 300 05778 4
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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.

The fuss that the French made over Blériot had much to do with their pique at seeing the American Wilbur Wright perform his barnstorming flights in France before fashionable crowds. This taciturn son of a bishop, by occupation a marchand de bicyclettes, made his first flight in North Carolina dressed in a formal suit, with wing-collar and tie, and shoes well polished. The ‘father of flight’ was not really a man to fire the volatile French imagination, largely because of his ‘unmistakable Americanness’. Says Wohl: ‘He lacked tenue, élégance and esprit and seemed more interested in profit than gloire’; moreover, he did not mind keeping a crowd waiting for ten hours. More fun was the Brazilian dandy, Santos-Dumont, all élégance and audace, but the French badly needed a hero of their own; and in 1909 a poll of the lycées revealed that Blériot was more popular than Napoleon.

The Channel had not yet been conquered when H.G. Wells published his lurid The War in the Air, which had German Zeppelin-style dirigibles attacking the American fleet and raining bombs on New York; and, since Wells subscribed to the Yellow Peril, it also had a German airship shot down and washed over Niagara Falls by a Japanese air armada, manned by fiends with ultra-sharp swords for slicing up fallen adversaries like sausages. None of this was altogether new. Even boys’ papers had long been revelling in tales of aerial battles fought by Verne-style ‘aeronefs’ (powered dirigibles) and sensational accounts directly inspired by Lord Northcliffe of an unprepared England ravaged by German invaders. The charm of Robert Wohl’s book is that he introduces us to the aerial fantasies of European writers, keeping a straight face when recycling grotesqueries which often give the impression of being the work of psychopaths. In the novel Berlin-Baghdad (1907) the German Rudolf Martin, ‘a low-ranking official in the Imperial Statistical Office’, glorified air power as the agent for creating and consolidating a German empire extending from the Channel to Mesopotamia, with dependencies in Africa. The Pax Germanica came complete with welfare facilities; tuberculosis was treated in hospitals suspended 15,000 feet in the air. Northcliffe instructed his Berlin correspondent to interview Martin, who assured him Germany had the aerial capacity to transport 350,000 men across the Channel in half an hour. A best-seller, L’Aviateur du Pacifique, by the French novelist Emile Driant, a graduate of Saint-Cyr, described a surprise attack by the Japanese on the American base at Pearl Harbor, thirty years ahead of the actual event. Like Martin, Le Commandant Driant saw the aeroplane as the perfect instrument for subjugating colonial peoples. Along with most of his countrymen, he believed that aviation was an essentially French science; and that the Germans, with their investment in the prudent and the methodical, were at a disadvantage because of their lack of audace.

Stranger stuff was to come, as in Le Monoplan du Pape, ‘A Political Novel in Free Verse’, by Marinetti, the founder of Futurism. A glimpse of Italy’s 1911 campaign in Libya against the Ottomans had introduced Marinetti to the possibilities of aircraft in war. His aviator-poet, flying a mission against Austria, sees a horde of peasant women blocking a troop train. ‘Enraged at the sight of this vast clamour of messy women who are incapable of understanding the grandeur and necessity of war, the poet decides to launch an aerial attack. Skimming the surface of the ground, he decapitates a hundred women with his right wing; then, banking, makes another pass, decapitating another thousand lined up along the vibrating rails.’ Feeling much better, he heads for Rome where, instead of receiving the Papal blessing, he lowers a crane and carries the Pontiff away like a great fish, dropping him in the Adriatic when the Austrians open fire on the aircraft. Wohl insists that Le Monoplan du Pape is ‘intensely and explicitly’ political, directed at the coalition of Italian clericals, socialists, syndicalists and anarchists opposing the Libyan adventure. In his less ferocious moments Marinetti lauds the aeroplane as a means of liberating humanity from the constraints of time and space (‘Wings sleep in the flesh of man’), of achieving godhood, of escaping the debilitating tedium of peace and, not least, the ‘vast clamour’ of importunate women.

And so to Gabriele D’Annunzio, the would-be Nietzschean superman, the aerial raider of Austrian cities, the future clown of Fiume, who thought flying a divine pursuit as well as an erotic pleasure, and who nurtured a cloudy notion of a Republic of the Air. His novel Forse che si, forse che no (‘Perhaps yes, perhaps no’) saw aviators as a knightly cabal who believed that death was the companion of every game worth playing, which was what the more exalted alpinists used to pretend. Up aloft they were free of the earthly stench of decadence, lust, madness, incest and so forth, a vile stew which D’Annunzio never shrank from depicting. When one of his hero-aviators crashes, sightseers surge forward to view a scene of fire and blood which exalts even their humble lives.

Tsarist Russia fielded the poet Vasily Kamensky, a Futurist who early abandoned literature for the air but returned to it after a bad crash. He led the Futurists in their assault on public taste and on the Symbolists and Decadents, teaming up with the young Mayakovsky to give lectures on ‘Airplanes and Futurist Poetry’. In Odessa, a general in the audience objected to revolting and indecent poetry about aviators, who were a fine body of men. Came war and revolution; Kamensky eventually abandoned the avant garde and became an approved writer under Stalin.

Which leaves Edmond Rostand, of the Académie Française, whose poem Le Cantique de l’aile (1911) was a rebuke to those, if there were any left, who saw aviation as an affront to God and Nature.

Plus haut! toujours plus haut, pilote! et gloire aux hommes
  De grande volonté!
Gloire à ces dérobeurs de flamme que nous sommes!
  Gloire à l’ Humanité!

Gloire also to the ‘mères à l’oeil triste’ who were already mourning their dead aviator sons. The stealers of the flame were not afraid to die. The glory of risk, the disdain for death – it was all there. Rostand is remembered, not for this Hugoesque exercise, but for his play Cyrano de Bergerac. If any American poets turned out windy, tumescent canticles of the air Wohl has not seen fit to cite them. Those who hymned the aviator as half in love with sudden death, the death that honoured only the worthy with its ‘deifying caress’, cannot be blamed for failing to foresee that the aviator would become a celestial work-horse, capable in an off moment of embracing death not only for himself but for three hundred or so others packed in rows behind him.

Along with the novelists and poets, artists of the avant garde were quick to adapt flight to their medium. Gratefully enslaved by Futurism, which took speed, ascent and movement as its dynamic, they set to work on abstract compositions warranted to inflame the bourgeoisie. A number of colour plates, featuring the work of Malevich and Delaunay, show propellers, wings and other portions of aircraft embedded in vibrant ‘alogical’ designs. Whether any of these Dionysian eye-catchers suggest the ascent of man into a higher spiritual realm is for the reader to decide. By no means to be despised are the posters and advertisements which took aircraft for their theme. It would have made a useful footnote to mention that, according to Farid Chenoun’s A History of Men’s Fashion, the bow-tie as introduced by the artist Giacomo Balla was originally a tribute to the aeroplane propeller: one of the more endearing survivals of Futurism.

The aviator began as sportsman-playboy, or engineer-entrepreneur. By 1915 he had achieved the status of ace. To one lucky enough, like myself, to live near an aerodrome where aces were trained, this was a time of high excitement. Young dare-devils, clearly recognisable at their controls, dropped weighted billets-doux to their girlfriends, swooped low to read the names of railway stations, roared under bridges, spun their wheels on hangar roofs and – so it was said – made mock-emergency landings in the paddocks of ‘Jew palaces’ where they could be put up in luxury for the night. But most of the time they endlessly looped the loop and performed that heart-stopping falling-leaf manoeuvre. A great deal has been written about the Western Front ‘dog fights’ in which the new knights of chivalry strove singlemindedly to shoot each other in the back. The bright disc of the propeller was now a screen through which, thanks to an interrupter mechanism, the demi-gods could confer instant death on each other. Wohl’s account of those days is dominated by the feats of the Germans, notably Boelcke, Immelmann and Richthofen (who ordered a silver cup to commemorate each of 70 claimed victims), and the Frenchmen Garros and Guynemer (who liked to pass round photographs of his mangled foes). Of Britain’s renowned serial killers and Zeppelin-slayers we learn nothing.

The book ends, disconcertingly, with Benito Mussolini brought on as embodying the passion for wings, an apostle of the air endorsing Marinetti’s belief that ‘death was the price that men would have to pay in order to live like gods in a world of fast machines.’ Certainly it was the price that would be paid by luckless African tribesmen, tossed out of Italian aircraft to teach them who was master. Perhaps we shall read more of that in the volumes that are to follow. Meanwhile, A Passion for Wings admirably fills an unaccountable gap in many of the socio-cultural histories of those days and opens up many channels for reflection. Surely one of the oddest things about the dawn of aviation, not explored in these pages, was the failure of groundlings to protest at the idea of adventurers presuming to transport themselves at will in increasingly heavy and unreliable contraptions over populated areas. Balloonists had a reputation for damaging crops and dragging trail-ropes through farmyards, but their craft were not conspicuously destructive. Wohl tells us that in 1911, at the start of the Paris-Madrid race, a pilot lost control of his machine, killing the French Minister for War and severely injuring the Prime Minister. The War Minister thus became a fellow-martyr of William Huskisson, run over at the ceremonial opening of the Liverpool-Manchester Railway, also in the presence of a prime minister. In France the authorities tightened up such rules as existed after that mishap, but else-where aviators were allowed extraordinary liberties, as they still are. A future Wohl volume will perhaps tell how, for hundreds of thousands on the Concorde descent path, the pilot is seen not as the embodiment of godhood but as the boor who charges into the living-room and turns off the television for half a minute.

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