Falling Upwards: How We Took To The Air by Richard Holmes
William Collins, £25
In the same month that Julian Barnes published Levels Of Life, with its melancholy meditations on balloon flight, Richard Holmes presents a full-blown, lyrical history of the same subject, investigating the strangeness, detachment and powerful romance of “falling upwards” into a seemingly alien and uninhabitable element. Holmes lovingly charts a course from the Montgolfier brothers’ first hydrogen-fuelled flights in the 1780s to the use of balloons by fugitive East Germans in the 1970s and the latest forays by polar explorer David Hempleman-Adams, a history full of awe and inefficiency.
The earliest balloons seemed to owe more to magic than science – they stunned the public but no one quite knew what to do with the sudden “conquest of the air”. Holmes describes an early application, “the running footman”, a device for weight-bearing rather than flight (you could get a balloon to drag a wheelbarrow uphill, for instance) but it took later technologies to deliver what balloons could only promise dreamily, the possibilities of flight, rapid communications, mass transit, global and even interplanetary exploration.
“Show me a balloon and I’ll show you a story,” Holmes says, and it’s usually a story of derring-do, performed by a slightly nutty gent, keen to be the fastest or highest aeronaut.
John Wise, a skilled and ambitious balloonist, survived numerous unscheduled descents, including one in the Great Lakes on a projected record-breaking flight in 1854. Plucky Dolly Shepherd saved a fellow artiste during a perilous parachute malfunction in 1908 but others were not so fortunate and ended up eaten by sharks, like the “Balloon Priest” on a fundraiser, or lost in the Arctic, like the tragic crew of the Eagle in 1897.
Balloons incite rashness, it seems: the scientist James Glaisher never intended to board the flight in 1862 that was setting out to gather data for him, but once aloft he showed almost suicidal persistence in stretching himself and his pilot to the limits of physical endurance. But he came back with a coup: the first accurate information about the upper atmosphere.
The earliest balloonists were all struck by the “unexpected visions” that flight opened up. They revolutionised map-making, photography, even, Holmes argues convincingly, our view of the earth’s fragility.
Less visionary spirits may have been more impressed by the fragility of the vehicle itself. There’s a wonderful story about George Custer going up in a balloon during the American Civil War and spending the whole flight sitting well down in the basket. “The gaps in the wickerwork in the sides and the bottom seemed immense,” the general remarked reasonably, but his nerves weren’t helped by the pilot jumping up and down to prove how safe everything was.
Holmes is a truly masterly storyteller and can make the most digressive material cohere, even when he is suddenly telling you about Ruskin and leeches, neither of which ever went on a balloon flight as far as I know.
Some of the most interesting stories are nestled in the footnotes, like the disappearance over the Atlantic of a heroic volunteer during the siege of Paris, Alexandre Prince: “The lone figure in the high balloon headed west into the sunset.”
It serves to illustrate that the history of balloons is ultimately not about how “we” took to the air at all, but about the solitary, isolated, visionary and possibly rapturous loner in all of us, the essential romantic. «