Book review: Falling Upwards: How We Took To The Air by Richard Holmes

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AS Richard Holmes shows in this typically erudite and entertaining book (would we expect anything else from the best biographer of Coleridge and the author of The Age of Wonder?) it is not just the preponderance of cheap air flights that has cast a romantic glamour over the idea of hot-air ballooning.

Falling Upwards: How We Took To The Air

By Richard Holmes

William Collins, 404pp, £25

Montgolfier’s hot air balloon is contemporaneous with the Romantic period which Holmes has so expertly described in various books, and it is a quintessentially Romantic phenomenon: liberating and luxurious, poetic and scientific, absurd and rational, dreamy and determined. John Gillespie Magee may have been a Spitfire pilot, but the sentiment of his most famous poem – “Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth” – chimes precisely with the aeronautical aesthetics of the earliest balloonists. This is a “keyhole book”: the hot-air balloon is the keyhole through which we glimpse massive changes in society (the rise of celebrity culture, exploration and colonialism, the emergence of new forms of warfare) and features a cast of writers and artists, from Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo to Jules Verne and Henry Mayhew. It exemplifies what Holmes describes in his afterword: “this book is not a conventional history of ballooning. In a sense, it is not about ballooning at all. It is about what balloons gave rise to”. It is about how perspectives can change.

The impact of ballooning was truly remarkable. Blackwood’s Magazine is a good indicator of how this new phenomenon immediately became a kind of cultural currency: in Wilson’s Noctes Ambrosianae, there is an extended cadenza on the idea of the “Arch-critic” of the Edinburgh Review, Francis Jeffrey, that runs “I should say that Mr Jeffrey, being ambitious of notice, conceived the scheme of going up in a balloon – that the machine was constructed of the proper material, a light silk and not untastily ornamented; but that unfortunately, there was a deficiency of gas, so that the globus aerostaticus was never sufficiently inflated. The cords, however, were cut, and the enterprising voyager began to ascend. By and by, getting entangled somehow or other by the foot, there he hung with his head downwards, while the balloon cleared the roofs of the houses, but could make no approximation to the lowest strata of the clouds”. In a later issue, their version of James Hogg gives a splendid bird’s eye view of the world when he imagines being transmigrated into an eagle: “higher than ever in his balloon Lunardi did soar, would I shoot up into heaven.” Of course, the panoptic view the Ettrick Shepherd describes is based on accounts of balloon-travellers.

What were balloons for? Various pioneers sought commercial applications – it was thought that it could deliver mail, or effect swift transport, both of which were trounced by the rise of the railways. The balloon was vague, and wandering, the rails were inflexible and rigorous: it too carried an artistic dimension. The balloon could be used for scientific purposes (Holmes devotes a wonderful chapter to James Glaisher and meteorology). It could be used for military purposes – the two most intriguing chapters concern the use of balloons in the American Civil War for reconnaissance (and there is a remarkable investigation into the truth behind the Confederacy’s balloon, made from the ball-gowns of Southern belles) and during the Siege of Paris, where it was a means to break the terrestrial encirclement of the city.

But it was also for pleasure, for novelty and for entertainment. Charles Green managed to be both a clever entrepreneur and a technological pioneer. It’s staggering to read what he and his co-pilots thought were necessary vittles for their flight to Europe: “forty pounds of ham, beef and tongue; forty-five pounds of cooked game and preserves; forty pounds of bread, sugar and biscuits; and not least sixteen pints each of sherry, port and brandy, together with several dozen bottles of champagne.”

Holmes has a delightful facility in finding the curious anecdote: take, for example, this oddity: “it consisted of a circular display of twelve glass flasks, each containing a prize leech partially immersed in rainwater. The flasks were cunningly enclosed at the top with a system of whalebone springs, and these in turn were linked to a set of counterweights connected to metal hammers arranged to strike against an impressive brass bell mounted in the centre of the apparatus”. This describes Dr George Merryweather’s Patent Tempest Prognosticator, not an excised chapter of Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory. The book is worth the cover price for that kind of inspired detail alone.

The balloon allowed for new images of the world. Holmes brings in Henry Mayhew, the literary sociologist of London Labour And The London Poor envisioning London anew from one of Green’s balloons. Although he quotes from the novel, Holmes doesn’t include the hilarious dialogue between Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in the disgracefully little-read Tom Sawyer Abroad. Huck, in the hot-air balloon begins “I know by the color. We’re right over Illinois yet. And you can see for yourself that Indiana ain’t in sight” “I wonder what’s the matter with you, Huck. You know by the color” “Yes, of course I do” “What’s the color got to do with it?” “It’s got everything to do with it. Illinois is green, Indiana is pink. You show me any pink down here, if you can. No, sir; it’s green”. “Indiana pink? Why what a lie!” “It ain’t no lie; I’ve seen it on a map, and it’s pink”. That switch between the map and the landscape, the soaring and the mundane, is what the balloon allowed.

It’s a slight disappointment that Holmes ends with the tragic story of Salomon Andrée’s ill-fated attempt to reach the North Pole by balloon, exceptionally written as it is (“my cluster of balloon stories appears to end here, down on the lonely winter ice, in gathering cold and darkness, with only death and failure, and falling hopelessly to earth”). The real end of the balloon, for me, is L Frank Baum’s The Wizard Of Oz. The balloon is the device that takes you not just anywhere, but somewhere else entirely. It turns a charlatan into a monarch. It is always best seen when it is leaving someone behind.