Falling upwards, p.7
Falling Upwards, p.7Richard Holmes
But the English balloonists were shaken. Uncharacteristically distracted, Green mistakenly let their expensive coffee-brewing device fall overboard. Mason recorded this unusual error dispassionately. Having opened it over the side of the basket to shake out the expended materials, ‘Mr Green unfortunately let it slip from his hand’.16 Even less in character, Green then started to play a curious trick on the unsuspecting foundry workers below.
He lit a blazing white Bengal light, and lowered it on a rope until it was skimming ‘nearly over their heads’. He then urged Mason to shout down through the speaking trumpet ‘alternately in French and German’, as if some supernatural power was visiting them from on high. The ironworkers were being visited by the gods of the air.
Mason complacently imagined how this aeronautical trick must have ‘struck terror’ into even the boldest hearts and wisest heads of the ‘honest artizans’ beneath: ‘Catching alone the rays of the light that preceded from the artificial fire-work that was suspended close beneath us, the balloon, the only part of the machine visible to them, presented the aspect of a huge ball of fire, slowly and steadily traversing the sky, at such a distance as to preclude the possibility of it being mistaken for any of the ordinary productions of Nature …’17
As the Bengal light went out, they completed this supernatural effect by emptying half a bag of ballast sand directly onto the upturned faces a hundred feet below. Then the balloon sailed silently and invisibly away, leaving behind the puzzled tribe of Belgian foundry workers staring uncomprehendingly upwards, as these mysterious superior intelligences disappeared. ‘Lost in astonishment, and drawn together by their mutual fears,’ Mason concluded, ‘they stood no doubt looking up at the object of their terrors.’18 So the gods were also treating the ironworkers as if they were some primitive tribe.
Mason’s account of the voyage, Aeronautica, has several illustrations, views and cloudscapes, among them a very strange, dramatic one entitled ‘Balloon over Liège at Night’, taken from an imaginary point outside the basket looking across at the crew. Their faces are weirdly illuminated by the Davy lamp hung from the balloon hoop. The curving river Meuse, and the blazing foundries, are visible in the darkness below.
After midnight it was the crew’s own turn to be alarmed. Gradually all human lights on the ground disappeared. The moonless night seemed to close in around them, encircling them completely, even from below. It was an increasingly disturbing sensation. ‘The sky seemed almost black with the intensity of night … the stars shone like sparks of the whitest silver scattered upon the jetty dome around us. Occasionally faint flashes of lightning would for an instant illuminate the horizon … Not a single object of terrestrial nature could anywhere be distinguished; an unfathomable abyss of “darkness visible” seemed to encompass us on every side.’19
What was so frightening and disorientating was that the darkness seemed increasingly solid. Gone was the classic balloon feel of airy vistas, glowing luminosity and huge benign openness. The night was thickening into an alien substance. It was menacing and claustrophobic, entrapping and imprisoning them. Mason records no conversation with Green or Hollond at this time, but afterwards tried to describe what were clearly shared sensations: ‘A black, plunging chasm was around us on all sides, and as we tried to penetrate this mysterious gulf, we could not prevent the idea coming into our heads that we were cutting a path through an immense block of black marble by which we were enveloped, and which, a solid mass a few inches away from us seemed to melt as we drew near, so that it might allow us to penetrate even further into its cold and dark embrace.’20
The idea of the men being thrust into or entombed in ‘an immense block of black marble’, and held there forever in its ‘cold and dark embrace’, is strangely unsettling. Is it a shivering anticipation of the Victorian horror of being buried alive; or even of some nightmare of sexual entrapment? The passage is curiously reminiscent of some of the later horror stories of Edgar Allan Poe, such as ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. In fact it is highly likely that Poe read this very description as soon as it was published, for it turns out that he was following the accounts of Green’s balloon adventures very closely from the other side of the Atlantic.
The year before Green’s epic flight, Edgar Allan Poe had written one of the earliest of his fantasy stories, ‘The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall’, published in the mass-circulation newspaper the New York Sun in June 1835. It is a highly technical and perversely well-imagined account of a successful ascent to the moon – in a home-made balloon of ‘extraordinary dimensions’, containing forty thousand cubic feet of gas.21
Pfaall’s lengthy preparations are given in great detail, his equipment including a specialised telescope, barometer, thermometer, speaking trumpet, ‘etc etc etc’, but also a bell, a stick of sealing wax, tins of pemmican, ‘a pair of pigeons and a cat’. Immediately upon launching, an explosion leaves him hanging upside down from a rope beneath the balloon basket. This proves to be a typically Poe-like state of horrific suspension (‘I wondered … at the horrible blackness of my finger-nails’) which would often be repeated in later stories.
Ingeniously recovering himself by hooking his belt buckle to the rim of the basket, Hans describes how his balloon, ascending ‘with a velocity prodigiously accelerating’, rapidly overtakes the record height achieved by ‘Messieurs Gay-Lussac and Biot’. He soon crosses ‘the definite limit to the atmosphere’. On the way he has another Poe-like vision into the centre of a stormcloud: ‘My hair stood on end, while I gazed afar down within the yawning abysses, letting imagination descend and stalk about in the strange vaulted halls, and ruddy gulfs, and red ghastly chasms of hideous and unfathomable fire.’
Hans succeeds in breaking out of the earth’s gravitational field, and uses a patent ‘air-condenser’ to breathe. But his ears ache and his nose bleeds. During nineteen days and nights, he observes the steadily retreating surface of the planet, gradually reduced to a curving globe of gleaming blue oceans and white polar ice caps: ‘The view of the earth, at this period of my ascension, was beautiful indeed … a boundless sheet of unruffled ocean … the entire Atlantic coasts of France and Spain … of individual edifices not a trace could be discovered, the proudest cities of mankind had utterly faded away from the face of the earth …’
He eventually floats upwards into the moon’s gravitational sphere, and begins to drift into lunar orbit. At this point the balloon turns round and begins a rapid descent towards the lunar surface. After landing, the balloonist is surrounded by an aggressive mob of small, ugly-looking creatures, ‘grinning in a ludicrous manner, and eyeing me and my balloon askance, with their arms set akimbo’.
After desultory greetings and unsatisfactory conversations, Hans turns from them ‘in contempt’, and lifts his eyes longingly above the lunar horizon. The version of ‘earthrise’ which follows is one of the most hauntingly poetic passages in the entire story. ‘Gazing upwards at the earth so lately left, and left perhaps forever, [Hans] beheld it like a huge, dull, copper shield, about two degrees in diameter, fixed immovably in the heavens overhead, and tipped on one of its edges with a crescent border of the most brilliant gold.’
Poe’s final, delicate irony is that the moon creatures do not believe the earth is inhabited. They think Hans Pfaall is a great and inveterate liar. And when, after a five-year lunar sojourn, he somehow contrives to get a message taken back across space by ‘an inhabitant of the Moon’ to the earth, addressed to the ‘States’ College of Astronomers in the city of Rotterdam’, they in turn dismiss Hans as a ‘drunken villain’, and his missive as ‘a hoax’. Poe’s readers are sardonically asked to draw their own conclusions.
Within less than a decade, Poe would return to the subject of balloons and amazing flights. This first pioneering tale, written when he was only twenty-six, is evidently inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac’s Histoire comique. But its technical originality and brilliance, its mixture of scientific realism and metaphysical terr
Perhaps to counter just such metaphysical terrors, somewhere towards 1 a.m. Green allowed the balloon to sink until the long trail rope, though invisible, was again reassuringly in touch with the ground. They minimised the flame of their overhead safety lamp, and gradually ‘the intensity of the darkness yielded’ and they could pick out very faint shapes below – vast, shadowy stretches of forest looming out against snow, and the dull gleaming curve of an enormous river which they calculated must be the Rhine. These shapes were an extraordinary relief, familiar forms which, as Mason wrote, ‘acknowledged the laws of the material world’.23
Yet flying so close to the earth in what was evidently a landscape of steeply wooded valleys was a risk, and they had frequent moments of alarm. On one occasion around 3 a.m. a thin, luminous shape, like a watchtower or a spire, suddenly seemed to be approaching them at terrifying speed and at exactly their height. For several agonising moments all three leaned out of the basket, desperately trying to see what the obstacle was, and how they could possibly avoid it. Finally Green realised that it was a section of their own stay rope, hanging down from the crown of the balloon, not more than twenty-five feet outside the basket. But, caught by the reduced light from their low-burning lamp, it gave the alarming illusion of a distant object hovering directly in their path. Once again the night had deceived them.24
The night had also become increasingly cold, and their thermometer now dropped well below freezing. Even the coffee – deprived of its lime heater – was frozen solid in its canister. They held it just above the lamp to thaw it back into liquid form. The crew were tense, and morale was a little low. They drank brandy and talked of the great polar navigator Captain William Parry, and his heroic attempts to discover the North-West Passage through the frozen wastes of the Arctic Circle, and to reach the North Pole (as it turned out, a prophetic conversation).25
At 3.30 a.m. Green decided to climb back up to a safer height, and look for the first welcome indications of dawn. He discharged a little ballast, but to his surprise the balloon seemed to gather momentum as it climbed, and very shortly their barometer indicated a height of twelve thousand feet, far higher than he had intended, more than two miles up. Once again they were surrounded by total enveloping blackness and complete silence, except now there were a few scattered stars high above. As they were gazing up at these, something really terrifying happened. There was a sharp cracking sound from the balloon canopy overhead, a sudden jerk on the hoop, and then the whole basket began to drop away beneath their feet.26
Mason vividly described his sensations of horror. His narrative suddenly leaps into the present tense:
At this moment, while all around is impenetrable darkness and stillness most profound, an unusual explosion issues from the machine above, followed instantaneously by a violent rustling of the silk, and all the signs which may be supposed to accompany the bursting of a balloon … In an instant the car, as if suddenly detached from its hold, becomes subjected to a violent concussion, and appears at once to be in the act of sinking with all its contents into the dark abyss below. A second and a third explosion follow in quick succession …27
Rigid with terror, clinging to the basket’s edge, Mason knew that nothing could now avert his death. Then, with equal suddenness, everything about the balloon reverted to normal. The basket became steady, the balloon canopy smooth and silent above them; all was just as tranquil and reassuring as before. Mason stood gazing blankly at Hollond, both men still clinging to the edge of the basket, pale with shock.
Green reassured his shaken passengers about what had happened. It was all quite normal, he told them with a smile, and could be explained by simple physics. While they had been flying near the ground and in increasingly cold air, the canopy of the balloon had gradually shrunk and folded in on itself, as its volume of hydrogen contracted. But as it was night, no one (except Green) had observed this. Then during their rapid ascent the balloon entered regions of lower pressure, and the hydrogen rapidly expanded again. This forced the canopy to reinflate more swiftly than usual. The loose folds of silk, concertina-ed or ‘corrugated’ together, and partially stuck by ice, did not immediately open. Only when sufficient hydrogen pressure had built up to snap them forcefully apart did the balloon resume its full shape in a series of sharp, violent unfolding movements.
Moreover, chuckled Green, the terrifying jerks on the hoop were actually the basket being pulled upwards as the balloon expanded. The sensation of falling was strictly speaking an illusion: they were actually ‘springing up’ rather than dropping down. All was well. But perhaps they should all have some more brandy?
How far this account reassured his passengers is not clear; nor even how far Green himself had been taken by surprise. It must have occurred to him that the unexpected rapidity of their ascent was in fact extremely perilous, as one of the frozen folds of silk could easily have ruptured before it was forced apart by the pressure of the hydrogen. He later emphasised to Mason that he had ‘frequently experienced the like effects from a rapid ascent’.28
Altogether it was a huge relief when the November dawn slowly began to lighten the sky. The ground below seemed strangely smooth and luminous, and they gradually realised that they were again passing over ‘large tracts of snow’. The bitter cold had increased: they could see the plumes of their own breath, and the glistening ice that had formed on the lower canopy of the balloon. The question of their exact location now became pressing. According to their compass they had been travelling steadily due east for most of the night. Green made a quick dead-reckoning calculation, and concluded that, based on the speed with which they had reached Liège, it was possible they had travelled up to two thousand miles from England. This would put them somewhere over ‘the boundless planes of Poland, or the barren and inhospitable Steppes of Russia’, an alarming prospect. In fact, as Mason later admitted, this was an unduly ‘extravagant’ estimate, over 110mph, largely inspired by the long period of darkness, disorientation and terror they had experienced.29 When they eventually landed at 7.30 a.m., descending inelegantly into a stand of snow-covered fir trees (their sand ballast had frozen solid and could not be properly released), they found that they were still in north Germany. Local foresters, tactfully recruited by means of the balloon’s copious stores of brandy, led them in triumph to the little country town of Weilburg. They were thirty miles north-west of Frankfurt, in the Duchy of Nassau.
Yet their achievement was spectacular. They had travelled 480 miles in eighteen hours.30 This was a long-distance record for a balloon flight, at an average speed of just over twenty-six miles per hour, roughly the same rate as when they set out. But they had covered an astonishing eastwards trajectory, on a line that ran roughly through Calais and Brussels, to Liège, Coblenz, and almost as far as Frankfurt. The Vauxhall had survived in good order, and was immediately rechristened the Royal Nassau, after their landing site. News of the flight caused an international sensation. On the way back Green spent some time in France, and flew his famous balloon from several sites around Paris and at Montpellier Spa. His international reputation was made.
The flight inspired something like a renewed balloon craze. Crowds of tourists and foreign visitors flocked to the Vauxhall Gardens. Numerous articles, editorials and poems were published in the press. The fashionable painter John Hollins produced a striking composite portrait entitled A Consultation Prior to the Aerial Voyage to Weilburgh, which is now in the National Portrait Gallery. The balloonists and their financial backers (including Hollins himself) are shown gallantly grouped around a large planning table, with maps and sheets of calculations, like generals working out a military campaign. Green, seated at the right, gazes purposefully across the table at Robert Hollond MP, seated on the left, while Monck Mason, their historian, stands between them apparently lost in thought. The Royal Vauxhall – now the Royal Nassau – can be seen outside through a window, tet
If the flight was heroic, it also had – like all balloon flights – its comic aspects. It had flown over several countries; but mostly at night, when nothing could really be seen. It had achieved a distance record, certainly; but without the balloon ever being capable of steering towards any destination. It had revolutionised long-distance travel, but without making it any more practical. Thomas Hood, famous for his Chartist ballad of the working man, ‘The Song of the Shirt’, wrote several humorous poems in praise of ballooning, including ‘The Flying Visit’. But he outdid himself with a bubbling, mock-heroic party piece, ‘Ode to Messrs Green, Hollond and Monck on their late Balloon Adventure’. It opens with a high, jocular, punning invocation in a ‘champagne style’ that he had invented especially for the occasion:
O lofty-minded men!
Almost beyond the pitch of my goose pen
And most inflated words!
Delicate Ariels! Etherials! Birds
Of passage! Fliers! Angels without wings!
Fortunate rivals of Icarian darings!
Kites without strings! …31
Hood, with his gaseous puns and mocking emphasis on the amount of food and drink consumed by the aeronauts under the stars, tended to treat the whole expedition as an enormous prank. But Monck Mason was serious. After publishing several articles, his carefully completed account of the voyage appeared two years later in book form as Aeronautica (1838). He made the story especially memorable by his haunting description of night flying.
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