Magnificent Pratfalls

Mike Jay

  • Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air by Richard Holmes
    William Collins, 404 pp, £25.00, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 00 738692 5

The history of ballooning is inescapably a procession of failures. This is partly in the nature of balloon flight which, like politics and indeed life, must always end with a falling to earth, at best skilfully managed but never entirely safe from indignity or tragedy. It is also a function of the hyperbole with which it was from the beginning obliged to justify itself: it would transform science, revolutionise warfare, redraw our map of the world. With notable but rare exceptions, each of these dreams failed, either defeated by nature or outperformed by rival technologies. In its early years it seemed plausible that the balloon might achieve speeds, cover distances or offer luxuries that would make it the premier transport system of the new industrial era, but over the course of the 19th century the railways and the telegraph accelerated past it and by the early 20th powered flight had effectively replaced it. With hindsight the classic era of the balloon appears as a parade of more or less magnificent pratfalls, marketed at the time as a glimpse of the future but hard to distinguish today from the other Victorian sensations with which it competed.

Yet ballooning was and remains triumphantly successful in one respect: as a source of metaphors. Like the Titanic’s maiden voyage in the celebrated Onion headline, ‘World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg’, the balloon is still an object of inexhaustible rhetorical possibility. As Richard Holmes observes early in Falling Upwards, ‘all balloon flights are naturally three-act dramas’: the launch, the flight and the landing replicate the stages of every journey or human relationship – a set of parallels most recently and memorably explored in Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life. Equally, a balloon voyage can be a peak experience, like a drug: the passenger is getting high, taking a trip, stealing a momentary vision of the unknown. Early balloonists claimed that it was literally intoxicating: Dr Alexander Charles described the first flight by hydrogen balloon in 1783 as ‘a sort of physical rapture’, and the American pioneer John Wise insisted that the experience ‘never fails to produce exhilaration … the mind is illuminated.’ Yet what goes up must come down: ballooning’s Achilles’ heel, the impossibility of setting one’s direction of travel, means that even the most sublime high is shadowed by unpredictability and danger. One is adrift, in suspense, at the mercy of the elements, on the verge of high drama. There is an inbuilt trajectory of hubris and nemesis: the passenger’s magisterial view de haut en bas will sooner or later be brought down to earth. In this event, the metaphorical balloon is also punctured: the balloonist’s inflated claims, puffed-up pretensions or lofty ideals are reduced to so much hot air, at best gently deflated and at worst brought down in flames. By the end of his supremely enjoyable book, Holmes has decided that his subject is more metaphor than reality: all this is ‘not really about balloons at all’, but ‘the spirit of discovery itself’.

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