Falling upwards, p.24
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       Falling Upwards, p.24

           Richard Holmes

  Tissandier’s family were appalled, and spent the rest of the day trying to talk him out of it. ‘This part of the world, they said, is particularly fatal to balloons and aeronauts. Pilâtre de Rozier lost his life not far from here, and Deschamps was nearly killed on the same coast; the wind is always violent and uncertain along the shore, and it is pure folly on the part of anyone to undertake such an adventure.’34 But Tissandier held firm to his resolution, although he secretly purchased ‘lifebelts and floaters’ from the Calais Humane Society, which dealt with drowned holiday-makers and suicides.

  All night Tissandier lay awake, tossing and turning with ‘extraordinary dreams’ of mocking crowds, bursting balloons, and falling into the sea. Pale-faced and exhausted, he staggered out like a condemned man next morning at 5 o’clock to the place d’Armes. Here he found a howling wind, a blinding rainstorm and a roaring sea, with Jules Duruof in high good humour: ‘Don’t worry, I had a disaster launching from this spot last time, but this time intend to take my revenge on the weather – we’ll make our ascent whatever happens.’35

  By midday the Neptune was inflated, but it was almost uncontrollable in the wind blowing across the square: ‘The soldiers who lent a hand at the ropes were continually pulled off their feet and suspended like bunches of grapes in the air.’ An incredulous crowd gathered to watch the proceedings, the best entertainment to be had in Calais on a wet holiday afternoon.36

  Duruof sent up a small trial balloon, ‘its course followed by a thousand eyes’. It fled horizontally across the square, gaining no height, and struck the bell tower of one of the town houses opposite. Then it bounced off the roof, and shot straight across the promenade and out over the North Sea, quickly disappearing into a line of black thunderclouds. Tissandier turned to look at Duruof. He was still ‘calm and resolute’, with a faintly quizzical expression on his face. At 4 p.m. a municipal band in the shelter of the arcades struck up.37

  Still wearing their rain-soaked clothes, the aeronauts – now only two of them – climbed into the basket, Tissandier shivering slightly, and launched. The cobbles of the square dropped away, and the bell tower seemed to tilt over and rush towards them. Some lines from Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds flitted into Tissandier’s scholarly brain as he prepared to die: ‘So let us scale the snow-capped mountains, keeping calm heads, losing no breath!’38 Then suddenly the entire square disappeared and they were out over the sea.

  From that moment, the flight took on a dreamlike quality. Duruof had adopted a typically maverick method of launching. Knowing that the soldiers could hold the Neptune down, he had offloaded a mass of ballast just before he ordered the release. The balloon was then so buoyant that it shot upwards almost vertically, ‘like a cork from a champagne bottle’, easily clearing the fatal bell tower, and rising in a few minutes to 5,900 feet, well clear of the immediate rainclouds and into a calm, peaceful, sunlit zone with a temperature of 59.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Tissandier could glimpse Calais rapidly receding, with ‘a mass of microscopic spectators running along the jetties like a family of ants’, among whom were his anxious parents.

  The balloon was heading in a generally northern direction out over the Channel. In a kind of trance, Tissandier observed the sea ‘like a vast field of emerald’ below, and beautiful ‘violet-coloured’ cirrus clouds infinitely high overhead. Duruof was ‘plunged in thought’ as he watched the turning compass. ‘We are making for the coast of England,’ he first announced. Then a little later he corrected himself with a wry smile. They had turned north-east, and were heading straight out over the North Sea on a bearing which would take them, in ‘undisturbed serenity’, all the way to Scandinavia. Tissandier tried hard not to panic.39

  After some time, Duruof asked Tissandier to take note of the wind direction at different heights. At their comparatively high altitude it was blowing steadily north-east; but several thousand feet below the troop of cumulus clouds were moving in exactly the opposite direction, south-west. Duruof had identified a classic ‘box’ (as so often used by the American balloonists), which offered a guaranteed return ticket to Calais, along what sailors called the reciprocal bearing. ‘We can continue our excursion over the sea as long as we want,’ he said, ‘and return to shore whenever we like.’

  Tissandier was astonished and relieved by this new promise of aeronautical magic. They continued ‘towards Scandinavia’ for about an hour (in fact a modest distance of about twenty miles), then valved and dropped very low, to four hundred feet. By the end of the second hour they were skimming in over the breakers and sailing back directly over Calais. Here Tissandier had the satisfaction of spotting his brother Albert on the jetty, waving admiringly – and perhaps enviously. For him too it was a memorable flight.40

  Despite the cheers of the holiday crowd, and pressing invitations to descend – or rather precisely because of these – Duruof coolly threw out more ballast and sailed on towards Boulogne. At sunset, using a guide rope and a grapnel, they managed to make a perilous but beautifully timed landing on the rocky beach just below the lighthouse at Cap Gris Nez. The lighthouse-keeper ran out to greet them in such a hurry that he forgot to put on his shoes, and cut his feet on the shingle. The next day they solemnly walked up to visit Pilâtre de Rozier’s tomb, and pay their aeronautical respects. ‘I shall never forget the humble stone that marks the spot,’ wrote Tissandier. He telegraphed his brother Albert with news of their safe arrival. He had confirmed his ‘aerial vocation’.41

  Albert Tissandier soon came to share his younger brother’s fascination with ballooning, but was characteristically more circumspect. Trained as an architect, photographer and illustrator, he represented the artistic side of the family. For him ballooning was essentially a source of visual images. He would often accompany Gaston on his future ascents, and they would make great play of their friendly rivalry: science competing with art. For the next two years the Tissandier brothers learned everything they could about balloons. Gaston wrote up scientific notes, while Albert worked on his pictorial technique, combining drawings with photography.

  They met up with the journalist Wilfrid de Fonvielle, who had returned from interviewing Charles Green in London to take up a teaching post at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, and was full of outrageous aeronautical tales. Over dinner they ‘spoke much about the scientific use of balloons, and the numerous experiments which might be made in them’. Fonvielle pointed out what brilliant newspaper stories balloons could provide. Every flight was a potential drama: ‘the launch, the flight, the landing!’ Moreover, they could be given a subtle anti-imperial slant – ‘the freedom of the skies, the irrelevance of borders, the democracy of the air, and so on’. To prove it, he immediately dashed off – ‘whilst over dinner’ – a vivid account of Gaston’s Calais–Cap Gris Nez adventure, and sold it the very next day to the radical paper La Liberté.42 From then on Fonvielle and the Tissandiers became a band of ballooning brothers.


  Between autumn 1868 and summer 1870 this three-man team – often accompanied by one of the Godards, or Jules Duruof, as their instructors – undertook a regular series of ascents from Paris. The more hazards they encountered, the better stories they came back with. They experienced violent snowstorms above Normandy, blinding fog over the North Sea, a freezing night in a captive balloon (with Glaisher) above London, a gale-force flight over Belgium, a long-distance trip into Germany, a burst balloon, and innumerable crash-landings.43 They also made a logistical discovery that would soon turn out to have unsuspected significance: that because of the prevailing winds, the most efficient place from which to launch a balloon in Paris was the gasworks at La Villette, on the north-eastern outskirts of the city.

  They broke several balloon records, including the most sustained ‘platform’ flight, which ironically turned out to be forty-eight hours spent almost stationary in the air between Paris and Compiègne. But in 1869 they also established the fastest average balloon speed: ninety miles per hour, achieved during a thirty-five-
minute trip ‘dragged along by the force of a furious gale’ beyond Meaux into the flatlands of Flanders. They landed ‘covered in bruises and more or less stunned’. But a quick calculation showed that no train had ever matched that ‘astonishing celerity’.44

  In spring 1870 Gaston began publishing a landmark series of monthly articles in the mass-circulation journal Le Magasin pittoresque, entitled ‘Histoire d’un ballon’.45 These soon attracted a broad popular readership, who identified with the spirit of adventure, and the celebration of the French countryside over which Gaston and his companions flew, as much as with the ballooning itself. Though Gaston provides a short history of ballooning, and various miscellaneous scientific observations in passing (on snowflakes, high-flying spiders, cloud structures and light diffraction), the central interest remains the aerial adventure and the unfolding vision of France, la Patrie.

  Much space is given to one particularly refractory, but much-loved, balloon, called L’Hirondelle (‘the Swallow’). She becomes a sort of mischievous character in the narrative, and is perhaps the spirit of Liberty herself. She takes them on various hair-raising flights over the remotest countryside, la France profonde, and out to the surrounding coastline. The unheard-of names of the tiny villages where they often land at dusk come to resemble a pastoral or patriotic litany. Once they even touch down in French Algeria. At the same time the high cloudscapes above, the ‘Alhambra palaces’ of the upper air, become a sort of sublime extension of national dreams and longings.fn34

  All this was wonderfully illustrated by Albert Tissandier. Beginning with precise technical drawings (for example, of the exact workings of a balloon barometer or a sprung venting valve), he soon found his true subject in extraordinary panoramic pictures of the balloon in the clouds.

  Albert captured the peaceful, visionary atmosphere of mid-nineteenth-century ballooning better than any other artist. Drawing on the great tradition of French landscape painting – which was just about to metamorphose into Impressionism – he invented something quite new: the extended aerial ‘cloudscape’. These are not views from the balloon, but breathtaking panoramas from some imaginary viewpoint outside it.

  Using a brilliant combination of fine engraving and photography, Albert Tissandier invented a new kind of sublime. Great oceanic stretches of iridescent clouds are dramatised by sunlight or moonlight. They are like enormous stage sets, upon which a single balloon – usually seen at a great distance – appears as the only actor, the only human point of reference and of visual scale. Varied meteorological effects – snow, fog, rain, sunset or sunrise beams – suggest a kind of transformed, celestial upper world. It is secular, even pagan; but shot through with feelings of infinite longing or melancholy or loneliness or hope. It is the dream world of the mariners of the upper atmosphere.

  This lyrical, visionary age of French ballooning was to be transformed by the terrible catastrophe of the coming Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. But just before its outbreak, these young and idealistic aeronauts came together to produce the greatest book of nineteenth-century ballooning ever published: Travels in the Air. It was, symbolically, a collaborative work, involving four authors. What’s more, it was that rare thing, a Franco-British publishing project. Optimistic in tone, progressive in outlook, it was innocent of any reference to the recent conflict in America, and the coming conflict in France. Indeed, it could be said to have its collective head magnificently in the clouds.

  The moving spirit was Camille Flammarion, who contacted James Glaisher in London and got him to agree to a collaboration. There is some suggestion that there was also an attempt to coopt Charles Green, but he was now too ill to write any kind of memoir. The first version, entirely in French and under Flammarion’s editorship, appeared under the title Voyages aériens in 1870. Parts I and II consisted of long autobiographical pieces by Glaisher (translated) and Flammarion, including their nicely contrasted histories of ‘scientific ballooning’ in Europe, as seen respectively from an English and a French perspective. Part III added racier, miscellaneous accounts by Gaston Tissandier and Fonvielle, often co-signing their contributions.47

  The revised and expanded English version, Travels in the Air, was published in London by Richard Bentley in 1871. This historic volume was given a distinctive appearance by a set of 118 magnificent aerial illustrations, largely by Albert Tissandier. It presents its overall editor as James Glaisher FRS, who has evidently exercised some editorial discretion.

  The different styles of the aeronauts become particularly noticeable. Glaisher’s dry ‘English’ description of his high-altitude flights contrasts strikingly with the light-hearted ‘Gallic’ touch of Tissandier’s lively narratives, much emphasised by the nimble translation, while Fonvielle’s witty, irreverent reminiscences (including his rides in the creaking Le Géant and his visit to the equally creaking Green) have an almost music-hall flavour in English. Each is attractive in its own way, yet none achieves quite the solemn poetry of Flammarion’s observations of the upper air, equally effective in either French or English.

  The tone of the whole collection was uplifting and visionary:

  This book, we sincerely hope, will mark an epoch in the history of aerostatics, for it is the first time that a series of aerial scenes have been published as observed by the aeronauts themselves. It is also the first time that artists have gone up in balloons … reproducing these incomparable panoramas, these magnificent scenes, before which the Alps themselves grow small, earthly sunsets are eclipsed in splendour, and the oceans themselves are drowned in an ocean of light still more vast …48

  The Franco-British entente was not without its tensions. While Glaisher recognised Flammarion’s distinction as a scientist, and regarded Gaston Tissandier as ‘agreeable, active and intelligent’, this was not the case with Wilfrid de Fonvielle. In a marginal note on his editorial copy, Glaisher described Fonvielle as ‘a Red republican’, and ‘over-excitable’. His balloon writing was ‘flippant and in bad taste’, and Glaisher did not approve of him contributing to leftist newspapers like La Liberté. In return, Fonvielle clearly thought Glaisher was a snob and an imperialist (quite unlike the amiable Green), and chastised him for slow editorial work and not replying to his letters.

  But these vague political irritations largely dissolved once they were in print together, and airborne in history. It is clear that they were all immensely proud of the book. In retrospect – after the earthly catastrophe of 1870 – it took on a sort of dreamy, utopian afterglow. The oceans of the upper air would never again seem so free, so boundless, so sublime.49


  Paris Airborne


  When Camille Flammarion had looked over his beloved France in June 1867, from 10,287 feet above the river Loire, he had seen a clear, sunlit horizon, with no remote stormclouds gathering to the east. Yet this was precisely the year in which the fifty-two-year-old Otto von Bismarck was appointed Prussian Chancellor, and became the driving wind of European politics. Far below, political events began moving with sinister inevitability. Beyond the river Moselle, in the borderlands of Strasbourg and Metz – borders invisible to balloonists – the newly founded North German Confederation was flexing its demographic muscles. Arcane diplomatic disputes, like the Hohenzollern candidature for the Spanish throne in 1868, produced a ping-pong of diplomatic insults between France and Prussia. They culminated in the deliberately provocative Ems telegram of July 1870, described by Bismarck as ‘my red rag to the Gallic bull’.

  In August 1870 the Emperor Napoleon III, confident of the strength of his three enormous armies, had marched eastwards across the Moselle and the Meurthe with the intention of claiming disputed territories beyond Alsace-Lorraine. Arrogantly, almost casually, he declared war on the fledgling Prussian state, ignoring the fact that this was precisely what Bismarck desired in order to unite a new German empire. Napoleon was also ill-informed about the small but highly efficient Prussian armies, equipped with superb Krupp weapons, well practised at mobilising by
train, and commanded by the brilliant strategist General Helmuth von Moltke.

  The shock military defeat of the French First Army took place on 2 September 1870 at Sedan, in the Ardennes, where – almost unbelievably – the Emperor was captured. The Second Army retreated to Metz, where it was effectively blockaded. The remaining Third Army gallantly attempted to fight a rearguard action, retreating grimly westwards down the Loire. Some took their stand in Paris, others melted away westwards to fight again another day. These swiftly unfolding events were accompanied by the ignominious abdication of the Emperor Napoleon, whom Bismarck despatched politely to exile in England. On 4 September the Third Republic was declared under the republican politician Jules Favre, who had opposed the war. While some patriotic leaders, notably Léon Gambetta, remained in the capital, the official seat of government fled south-westwards, first settling in Tours on the Loire, and eventually in Bordeaux. Bismarck attempted to negotiate an armistice, but was refused, and proceeded to invade France at high speed, the first example of a true German blitzkrieg.

  Accordingly, the Prussian 2nd and 3rd Armies under von Moltke contemptuously left the remaining French forces besieged in Metz, under the vacillating Marshal McMahon, and advanced steadily westwards towards Paris, along the lines of the Meuse and the Marne. The Prussian invaders split into a classic pincer movement, and by 10 September were pressing on the northern and southern suburbs of the city, halting only at the ring of isolated forts surrounding it. For the Parisians the air was full of the sound of approaching guns and the smell of burning.

  Gaston Tissandier described the desperate rush of people from the surrounding countryside into Paris, with piled handcarts, aged relatives in wheelchairs, and scampering animals led on lengths of rope. He watched them hurrying through the city’s gates and ramparts ‘like a Biblical scene from the Flight into Egypt’.1 With terrifying speed and efficiency, the Prussians had virtually surrounded Paris in less than a fortnight, by 15 September 1870. Bismarck, a master of both strategy and symbolism, ordered the occupation of Versailles, and installed heavy artillery in preparation for shelling the city into submission.

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