Falling upwards, p.8
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       Falling Upwards, p.8

           Richard Holmes
 

  Mason later added a hundred-page appendix on the general experience of flying in balloons: the euphoric sensations of ascent, the diminution of the people below, views of clouds and sunlight, the spherical appearance of the earth beneath, and the particular panoramic and sharply ‘resolved’ view of cities, rivers, railways. He is surprisingly perceptive about the strangely ‘delineated’ sounds heard from below, and the way they create an entire sound ‘landscape’: the rural world of farm dogs, cattle, sheep-bells; but also sawing, hammering and agricultural flails; sportsmen’s guns or the ‘re-iterated percussion’ of mill wheels.

  Some of this is weakened by Mason’s orotund pseudo-sublime manner, by which he attempts to give ballooning a kind of contemplative gravity, the exact opposite of Hood’s mad ‘levity’. But there are many fine existential passages: on the sense of extreme solitude and silence in ‘the immense vacuity’; on the sublime appearance of cloudscapes and the ‘Prussian blue’ zenith at high altitudes; and on the uneasy feeling of ‘intruding’ on God’s territory, ‘the especial domains of the Almighty’.32 Above all, he attempts to evoke the strange and beautiful other world of the kingdom of the air:

  Above and all around him extends a firmament dyed in purple of the intensest hue, and from the apparent regularity of the horizontal plane on which its rests, bearing the resemblance of a large inverted bowl of dark blue porcelain, standing upon a rich mosaic floor or tessellated pavement. In the zenith of this mighty hemisphere – floating in solitary magnificence – unconnected with the material world by any visible tie – alone – and to all appearances motionless, hangs the buoyant mass by which he is upheld …33

  Throughout such passages there is a curious mixture of scientific terminology – horizontal plane, zenith, buoyant mass – with the rhetoric of Victorian poetry and sublimity; even on occasion of Victorian prayers or hymns. This seems to reflect a philosophical, or even theological, problem later expressed by many Victorian balloonists. To what extent is the upper sky, where Prussian blue deepens into black, ‘the space beyond the limits of our atmosphere’,34 a scientific zone or a celestial one, or both? What unknown powers or energies lurk in the terrific ‘black and fathomless abyss’ – an abyss paradoxically overhead? What monsters or deities does the upper deep contain?fn14

  To give his book further weight, Mason added six other appendices to later additions. Appendix B consisted of a short biography of Charles Green, with accounts of an earlier test flight made with Green from Vauxhall to Chelmsford on 4 October 1836, and of Green’s part in the fatal Cocking parachute experiment of 1838, in which the over-confident inventor Robert Cocking leapt to his untimely death above the Thames Estuary, and almost killed his pilot Green into the bargain. Appendix C was an alphabetical checklist of all known European aeronauts between 1783 and 1836, with longer individual notes on the early pioneering figures like Blanchard, Lunardi, Sadler, Gay-Lussac and Garnerin. Appendix D, ‘On the Mechanical Direction of the Balloon’, investigated the old question of navigating a balloon. Appendix E considered Green’s use of the guide rope and other ‘equilibrium’ devices. Appendix F reflected on the limitations of bird flight (but with special praise for the gliding capacities of the South American condor ‘above the lofty peaks of the Andes’). And Appendix G indulgently reprinted further verses in praise of the Nassau flight.

  Thanks to Green, ballooning had once again caught the imagination of writers, but its significance was interpreted in increasingly various ways. In 1837 Thomas Carlyle used the image of balloons in his introductory chapter, ‘The Paper Age’, in The French Revolution, to express the political risks and hopes of the time: ‘Beautiful invention, mounting heavenward – so beautifully, so unguidably! Emblem of our Age, of Hope itself.’

  In 1838 John Poole (who had once seen Sophie Blanchard fall to her death in Paris) gave a more satirical but shrewdly perceptive account of a flight with Green at night over the East End of London. It seems to him very different from Paris, with its boulevards, parks and cafés. The sinister, garish lights of gin ‘palaces’, taverns, apothecaries and brothels – alternately twinkling ‘blue, green, purple and crimson’ – are used to explore the notion of the hidden city of poverty, sickness and crime. On landing near Hackney Marshes, the balloon is surrounded by a threatening mob, which has pursued it all the way ‘from Stepney, Limehouse and Poplar’. Prophetically, it was as if the balloon had trespassed into an African jungle, and stirred up an unfriendly horde of howling ‘natives’. Assaulted by ‘their yells, their savage imprecations, curses both loud and deep, their threats to destroy the balloon’, Poole, Green and his burly crew just manage to pack their equipment onto a cart, and beat a strategic retreat to the local Eagle and Child public house. Here they hole up until one in the morning, when it is safe to slip back through the silent streets to the West End and ‘civilization’.36

  In his poem ‘Locksley Hall’ (1842), with its own visions of social disturbance and upheaval, the thirty-three-year-old Alfred Tennyson imagined the aeronauts not merely as romantic adventurers, but also as busy commercial traders. They descend in flocks through the evening skies, to settle upon distant marketplaces around the globe. They are part Homeric travellers in the tradition of Jason and the Argonauts; but also partly hungry commercial travellers, with just a hint of a cloud of locusts descending upon an innocent land at dusk:

  For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,

  Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonders that would be;

  Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,

  Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales …

  The poem was originally drafted in 1835. But Tennyson also foresaw, like Franklin before him and H.G. Wells afterwards, balloons producing the terror of aerial warfare:

  Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rained a ghastly dew

  From the nation’s aerial navies, grappling in the central blue.37

  Charles Green had established himself as much more than a balloon showman, or the publicity agent of the Vauxhall Gardens. He had resurrected the old dream of ballooning, but adapted it to the coming Victorian age. Bronze medals were even cast in his honour.

  In his Preface to the second edition of Aeronautica, Mason suggested that Green’s ambitions were turning towards an Atlantic crossing. Green apparently took a quite nonchalant view of the huge distances and meteorological challenges this would involve: ‘In his view, the Atlantic is no more than a simple canal: three days might suffice to effect a passage. The very circumference of the globe is not beyond the scope of his expectations: in fifteen days and fifteen nights, transported by the trade winds, he does not despair to accomplish in his progress the great circle of the earth itself. Who can now fix a limit to his career?’38

  This was heady talk, and made good journalistic copy. But Mason was not a successful balloon pilot himself, merely a successful balloon passenger, and had perhaps had his head turned by all the excitement and publicity. In the same Preface he cheerfully advocated the use of a trailing guide rope ‘above fifteen thousand feet in length’. He saw no problem in this monster appendage dragging across ‘trees, houses, rivers, mountains, valleys, precipices and plains’ with what he described as ‘equal security and indifference’.39

  7

  Two years after the publication of Aeronautica, in 1840, Green issued his own proposals to fly the Atlantic. He claimed to have identified a prevailing west-to-east wind current in the upper atmosphere, which meant that he would start the crossing from America. ‘Under whatever circumstances I made my ascent, however contrary the direction of the wind below, I uniformly found that at a certain elevation, varying occasionally but always within 10,000 feet of the earth, a current from west to east, or rather from the north of west, invariably prevailed.’

  He also explained that a two-thousand-foot guide rope, fitted with canvas sea drags and copper floats, would be enough to stabilise an eighty-thousand-cubic-foot ba
lloon and keep it airborne, without expending additional ballast, for ‘a period of three months’. He said he was only awaiting a generous sponsor to undertake the trans-Atlantic flight immediately.40 In the end, the astute Green could find no financial backer, refused to depart without one, and the Atlantic attempt was never made.

  But it was made in fiction. Green’s proposals inspired a further brilliant invention by Poe, published in the New York Sun in 1844. This time it was a news story hoax. ‘The Atlantic Balloon’ coolly presents an extraordinarily detailed and convincing account of Green and Monck Mason crossing the Atlantic from England in seventy-three hours. Much of the story is drawn from the well-publicised flight of the Royal Nassau. As the third member of the balloon crew, instead of Robert Hollond MP, Poe mischievously added his rival, the popular British thriller writer Harrison Ainsworth.

  Poe’s story broke on Saturday, 13 April 1844, when the New York Sun announced that it would be issuing an ‘Extra’ containing a detailed account of a transatlantic crossing by a balloon, the ‘flying machine’ Victoria. There was also a postscript in the morning edition of the Sun, with an appropriate accumulation of exclamation marks: ‘By Express. Astounding intelligence by private express from Charleston via Norfolk! – The Atlantic Ocean crossed in three days!! – Arrival at Sullivan’s Island of a steering balloon invented by Mr Monck Mason!!!’

  The Extra created an immediate sensation. According to Poe’s own account, a large crowd gathered in the square surrounding the New York Sun to wait for it, and when it appeared at two in the afternoon, it sold out immediately. The account consists of an introductory section and a journal kept by Monck Mason, to which Mr Ainsworth added a daily postscript. The introduction details the invention of the balloon by Mason (rather than Green), who adapted an Archimedean screw for the purpose of propelling a dirigible balloon through the air, inflated with more than forty thousand cubic feet of coal gas.

  In contrast to the newspaper announcement, Poe’s own ‘reportage’ remains cool and apparently factual. The plain and straightforward narrative works on several levels. First, it genuinely explores the technical, scientific challenge of crossing the Atlantic, which was already beginning to obsess American aeronauts like John Wise. Next, it quietly touches on a vein of social satire, a mockery of scientific presumption and hubris which would become characteristic of the later science fiction genre. Finally, as with so many of Poe’s stories, it is a psychological study, an exploration of collective delusion, a group ‘suspension of disbelief’. Here Coleridge’s famous term takes on a new, strangely literal meaning.41 The desire to be dazzled by scientific wonders may be associated with a conscious willingness to be bamboozled or hoaxed.

  Needless to say, it is also a brilliant exploitation of the growing newspaper tradition of the ‘scoop’ – and the fake scoop. American editors were shrewdly realising that their readers did not mind occasionally being taken for a ride, especially such an airborne one. This fruitful connection between balloons and newspapers was ready to expand.

  4

  Angel’s Eye

  1

  Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, dramatic ballooning stories gained increasing notice in the popular press, both in Britain and America. With the arrival of new illustrated journals, such as the Illustrated London News, founded in 1847, it was soon clear that they also offered superb opportunities for picture stories. The sheer size and glamour of a balloon, especially when contrasted with human crowds and cityscapes, were natural material for full-page and even double-page balloon ‘spreads’.

  Few pieces of mid-Victorian aeronautical journalism could match Henry Mayhew’s long and rapturous account, ‘A Balloon Flight over London’, which appeared in the Illustrated London News for 18 September 1852.

  Much of Mayhew’s previous writing life had prepared him for this extraordinary essay. He was one of the greatest journalists of the age, whose interests spanned everything from the fine arts to social reform. He also wrote poetry, plays, operas and would go on to produce hugely successful accounts of the early lives of two scientists: Young Humphry Davy (1855) and Young Benjamin Franklin (1861). His most famous work, London Labour and the London Poor, had been published in instalments throughout 1851, deliberately timed to coincide with the Great Exhibition, as a sobering correction to its Victorian triumphalism.

  After spending much of his twenties knocking about Paris, freelancing alongside his friends William Thackeray and Douglas Jerrold, Mayhew returned to London full of ideas for a new kind of streetwise journalism. He was much taken with the irreverent and satirical style of the French magazine Le Charivari, to which the pioneering French aerial photographer Félix Nadar and many others contributed. In 1841 he helped the journalist Mark Lemon launch a quite new kind of humorous British periodical. It became Punch, with its mixture of witty essays and clever but good-natured satirical cartoons. It had an immediate success, but Mayhew and Lemon soon parted company, though remaining on excellent terms. Lemon continued at Punch, becoming a comfortable fixture in London literary clubland, and eventually one of Dickens’s most trusted editors. Meanwhile Mayhew struck out on his own, gradually developing a new kind of investigative journalism. He went far beyond the gentle, sardonic scope of Punch, contributing edgy, groundbreaking pieces to the Morning Chronicle. His special subject was London, and the underside of city life. Mayhew’s London was the city that few middle-class readers ever glimpsed: London from beneath.

  For the next decade Mayhew produced hundreds of vivid, detailed reports of life in the backstreets and the rookeries, and especially on the marginal trades and skills that sustained the poorest men and women – and not least the children – of the capital. Among his celebrated and scandalous subjects were street vendors, costermongers, milkmaids, ratcatchers, mudlarks, crossing sweepers, fire eaters, prostitutes, pickpockets and dustmen. Each of his accounts was written with the clipped shape and high polish of a short story. They were buttressed by statistics, glinting with minute visual details, and brought to life with inimitable passages of dialogue.

  Often these develop into simple but disturbing sequences of question and answer. ‘I make all kinds of eyes,’ the eye-manufacturer says, ‘both dolls’ eyes and human eyes; birds’ eyes are mostly manufactured in Birmingham, and as you say, sir, bulls’ eyes at the confectioner’s … A great many eyes go abroad with the dolls … The annual increase in dolls goes on at an alarming rate. As you say, sir, the yearly rate of mortality must be very high, to be sure, but still that’s nothing to the rate in which they are brought into the world … I also make human eyes. Here are two cases, in the one I have black and hazel, in the other blue and grey. Here you see are the ladies’ eyes … There’s more sparkle and brilliance about them than the gentlemen’s … There is a lady customer of mine who has been married three years to her husband, and I believe he doesn’t know she has a false eye to this day.’1 Such material, with its mixture of the mundane and the gothic, its small revelations of human eccentricity and affection, would clearly influence the later and darker novels of Dickens.

  When he had amassed about half a million words of material, Mayhew began to edit and reorganise the pieces into the form of his grim masterwork London Labour and the London Poor. Once the work was completed, he cast around for a suitable way to celebrate. It struck him that an airy overview of the great city, in whose backstreets and dark corners he had spent so many years almost buried, would be suitable. So he accepted an invitation to take a flight in one of Charles Green’s balloons.

  Officially this was to be one of Green’s frequently-advertised ‘Last Ascents’ from Vauxhall Gardens. For Mayhew, the flight was also to be, in a sense, the culmination and farewell to much of his previous journalism. But it was also a celebration and a release from it. Having seen London from the darkest and most labyrinthine street level, he now wished to sail into the clear air above it. He wanted to see his huge and ‘monstrous’ city at last in the grand perspective, or – as he put it with poignan
t irony – from ‘an angel’s view’. What’s more, he would write about it for the leading current-affairs weekly in Britain, the Illustrated London News.

  In case the ‘angel’ approach seemed rather presumptuous, he began by explaining that he was naturally ‘a coward – constitutionally and habitually timid’. As it did for most of his readers, the idea of flying in a balloon frankly appalled him: ‘I do not hesitate to confess it’. The best he could say was that he was motivated by ‘idle curiosity, as the world calls it’. Having made this apparently modest disclaimer, Mayhew immediately admitted to the most heroic previous adventures:

  I had seen the great metropolis under almost every aspect. I had dived into holes and corners hidden from the honest and well-to-do portion of the Cockney community. I had visited Jacob’s Island (the plague-spot) in the height of the cholera … I had sought out the haunts of beggars and thieves … I had seen the world of London below the surface, as it were, and I had a craving to contemplate it from far above it.

  Even if balloon flight turned out be more terrible than anything he had previously experienced, he was determined to try it. What he hoped to see from Mr Green’s balloon was a new vision of the city. Supposing it would be something both familiar yet apocalyptic, Mayhew prepared himself to behold

  that vast bricken mass of churches and hospitals, banks and prisons, palaces and workhouses, docks and refuges for the destitute, parks and squares, and courts and alleys, which make up London – all blent into one immense black spot – to look down upon the whole as the birds of the air look down upon it, and see it dwindled into a mere rubbish heap, to contemplate from afar that strange conglomeration of vice, avarice, and low cunning, of noble aspirations and humble heroism, and to grasp it in the eye, in all its incongruous integrity, at one single glance – to take, as it were, an angel’s view of that huge town where, perhaps, there is more virtue and more iniquity, more wealth and more want, brought together into one dense focus than in any other part of the earth.2

 
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