Falling upwards, p.9
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       Falling Upwards, p.9

           Richard Holmes

  One of Mayhew’s most powerful images was of London miniaturised and made safe, like some huge child’s toy. He, the weary and hardbitten observer of the streets, was somehow lifted clear and transformed by his airborne vantage point. The balloon conferred on him a kind of innocence, a kind of grace:

  To hear the hubbub of the restless sea of life and emotion below, and hear it, like the ocean in a shell, whispering of the incessant strugglings and chafings of the distant tide – to swing in the air high above all the petty jealousies and heart-burnings, small ambitions and vain parade of ‘polite’ society [– was to] feel, for once, tranquil as a babe in a cot.

  All this gave him a strange sensation, something close to a religious experience, a celestial transfiguration. It was as if, he wrote,

  you are hardly of the earth, earthy, as Jacob-like, you mount the aerial ladder, and half lose sight of the ‘great commercial world’ beneath, where men are regarded as mere counters to play with, and where to do your neighbour as your neighbour would do you constitutes the first principle in the religion of trade – to feel yourself floating through the endless realms of space, and drinking in the pure thin air of the skies, as you go sailing along almost among the stars, free as ‘the lark at heaven’s gate’, and enjoying, for a brief half hour, at least, a foretaste of that Elysian destiny which is the ultimate hope of all.

  Mayhew was a master of tone and phrase. These last sentences start carefully, with an evangelical earnestness, the language of Charles Kingsley and moral uplift, but slowly elide into something more sentimental and populist. Sailing among the stars, singing ‘at heaven’s gate’, dreaming of the Elysian fields, was really a subtle reversion to the imagery of popular Victorian songs and street ballads.

  Mayhew was so pleased with this piece that he included an edited version of it in his later book The Criminal Prisons of London (1862). His view of London evidently influenced Gustave Doré, as well as Dickens’s novels Bleak House and Hard Times.


  Charles Dickens was strangely intrigued by balloons. He witnessed many launches in Vauxhall Gardens, and wrote about them several times. He knew Charles Green, and observed his aeronautical calm, his skill with a crowd, and his waving of his white top hat, with a professional admiration. Yet his reactions were far more complicated than Mayhew’s.

  It is surprising that the great master of human exotica, and the writer who enshrined the English stagecoach in imaginative literature (notably in The Pickwick Papers), never actually ventured to set foot in a balloon basket himself. There is no record of Dickens ever leaving terra firma, except in his dreams. As a result, unlike Mayhew, all Dickens’s balloon observations are made from the ground. Of course he may simply have had a quite reasonable fear of heights; or there may have been more mysterious influences at work. He may even have regarded balloon flying as immoral – as a sort of suicidal surrender of self-command.

  Dickens gives a surprisingly sarcastic account of one of Green’s early balloon launches in a light-hearted piece of reportage entitled ‘Vauxhall Gardens by Day’, later collected in Sketches by Boz (1836). He seems particularly exercised by the gullibility of the crowd, its surrender to the meaningless novelty overhead.

  The gardens disgorged their multitudes, boys ran up and down screaming ‘bal-loon;’ and in all the crowded thoroughfares people rushed out of their shops into the middle of the road, and having stared up in the air at two little black objects till they almost dislocated their necks, walked slowly in again, perfectly satisfied.

  There is a sense here that ballooning is an art of illusion, almost a conjuring trick played upon a credulous audience. Yet it is also a symbol of novelty and popular excitement, and Dickens’s illustrator Phiz used it to witty effect in his cover drawing for the collected Boz essays. This ambiguous impression is sharpened in Dickens’s comments on the subsequent newspaper coverage, making a series of sly digs at an interview that Green gave to over-enthusiastic reporters.

  The next day there was a grand account of the ascent in the morning papers, and the public were informed how it was the finest day but four in Mr. Green’s remembrance; how they retained sight of the earth till they lost it behind the clouds; and how the reflection of the balloon on the undulating masses of vapour was gorgeously picturesque; together with a little science about the refraction of the sun’s rays, and some mysterious hints respecting atmospheric heat and eddying currents of air.3

  The key note here is one of bathos. Balloon science is all gas, self-inflation, and altogether much ado about nothing. The tone is similar to that of Dickens’s celebrated satire on the newly formed British Association for the Advancement of Science, which he memorably attacked under the mocking title of ‘The Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything’ (1837).

  Later, as editor of the weekly journal Household Words (1850–59), Dickens recognised the drama and popularity of balloons, and commissioned several articles on the subject. These included some short pieces of straight reportage, such as ‘Over the Water’, ‘A Royal Balloon’ and ‘A Royal Pilot-Balloon’.4 But by far the longest was a well-researched but inescapably comic treatment of the entire history of aerostation, dwelling in loving detail on its most satisfactory catastrophes. It was simply entitled ‘Ballooning’.

  The piece seems to have been triggered by the extraordinary gallery of aerostats on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Whether Dickens regarded these as an expression of imperial hubris, or simply as a display of scientific absurdity, he deliberately commissioned a hostile feature. His chosen reporter for the task was Richard Hengist Horne, a literary adventurer and poet who had travelled in Mexico and Canada, and would soon emigrate to Australia. Although he had once been the schoolfellow of John Keats, Horne’s aeronautical credentials were not evident. His previous works included a verse drama, Prometheus the Firebringer, and he had had a long, passionate friendship with Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But his droll essay clearly met with Dickens’s editorial approval, as it ran to sixteen columns and was given the lead in Household Words No. 33 on Saturday, 25 October 1851.

  Horne kicked off with the deadpan observation that travelling through ‘the sublime highways of the air’ was not entirely natural. Man was never intended to be ‘lord of the clouds’. The urge to fly might have existed from ‘time immemorial’, yet among balloonists it seemed to take on a morally questionable form. ‘Eccentric ambition, daring, vanity, and the love of excitement and novelty’ inspired them quite as much as ‘the love of science and of making new discoveries’.

  Horne then embarked on a relentlessly mocking history of man’s disastrous attempts to become airborne: ‘We do not allude to the Icarus of old, or any fabulous or remote aspirants, but to modern times.’ These attempts included ‘a flying monk of Malmesbury’ who became ‘impudent and jocose’ on the subject of tail-feathers; a flapping French marquis who crash-landed in the Seine and broke his leg against ‘one of the floating machines of the Parisian laundresses’; and a citizen of thirteenth-century Bologna who was persecuted by the Inquisition because he failed to drown when his flying machine landed in the river Reno, thus of course inadvertently proving he was a witch.

  After summarising the various adventures of Charles Green, Horne turned to the fantastical collection of balloons on display in the Aeronautical Hall of the Great Exhibition. He enumerates them without comment: ‘One has the appearance of a huge Dutch vegetable marrow … another a silver fish with revolving fins … a huge inflated bonnet … a large firework case … the skeleton of some fabulous bird’. Dickens had clearly given Horne carte blanche, and the article continued in this supercilious vein to the end.5

  Why should Dickens have felt so hostile towards ballooning? He was always ready to poke fun at scientific pretentions, but his mockery seemed to go deeper than this. It is clear that he despised balloons as a form of mass entertainment. He felt that they exploited both the credulity of the public and the courage of the balloon ‘artist’. But he may al
so have feared them at some less conscious level. A clue appears in an extraordinary essay he wrote on the subject of ‘Nightmares’. Here he makes a strange and startling comparison between the expectant crowd at a Vauxhall balloon launch and the similarly expectant spectators at a public hanging outside a London prison.

  This intimate essay, which Dickens nevertheless published in Household Words, opens with the author lying awake in the dark, insomniac, unable to settle his thoughts, and besieged by obsessive and even perverse images. He tries to distract himself:

  The balloon ascents of this last season. They will do to think about, while I lie awake, as well as anything else. I must hold them tight though, for I feel them sliding away, and in their stead are the Mannings, husband and wife, hanging on the top of Horse-monger Lane Jail. In connexion with which dismal spectacle, I recall this curious fantasy of the mind. That, having beheld that execution, and having left those two forms dangling on the top of the entrance gateway – the man’s, a limp, loose suit of clothes as if the man had gone out of them; the woman’s, a fine shape, so elaborately corseted and artfully dressed, that it was quite unchanged in its trim appearance as it slowly swung from side to side – I never could, by my uttermost efforts, for some weeks, present the outside of that prison to myself (which the terrible impression I had received continually obliged me to do) without presenting it with the two figures still hanging in the morning air …

  Here the essay breaks off in horror. Then Dickens tries again with balloons:

  The balloon ascents of last season. Let me reckon them up. There were the horse, the bull, the parachute, – and the tumbler hanging on – chiefly by his toes, I believe – below the car. Very wrong, indeed, and decidedly to be stopped. But, in connexion with these and similar dangerous exhibitions, it strikes me that that portion of the public whom they entertain, is unjustly reproached. Their pleasure is in the difficulty overcome. They are a public of great faith, and are quite confident that the gentleman will not fall off the horse, or the lady off the bull or out of the parachute, and that the tumbler has a firm hold with his toes. They do not go to see the adventurer vanquished, but triumphant.6

  For Dickens, the balloon basket and the public scaffold seemed intimately, even vertiginously, linked. They both hold out the idea of humiliation, exposure and death: the horrific promise of a fatal fall. The novelty ascents arranged by Green and others – the man on a horse, the woman on a bull (surely a Dickens invention?) – make this even worse by trivialising the terror. Worst of all is the lone ‘tumbler’, hanging over the abyss ‘chiefly by his toes’.

  And here perhaps lies a possible explanation. It is with this solitary acrobat, totally exposed above the crowd, that Dickens the solitary writer surely identifies. Both ballooning and writing are ‘dangerous exhibitions’. The writer, like the balloonist, hopes to be ‘triumphant’ in front of his audience, the ‘public of great faith’. But he – or she – may fail, ‘vanquished’ despite all their skill, and drop to their long death as from a scaffold. Ballooning haunted Dickens because it reminded him of the permanent, secret terror of successful writing, the ultimate exposure of the popular entertainer, and the public fall from grace.

  It is no coincidence that Dickens also slipped a balloon, almost unnoticed, into the famous, grim opening of Bleak House (1853). He wrote: ‘Fog in the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights … Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners … Chance people on the bridges peering over the parapets, into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in misty clouds.’ Here the balloon has become again an image of helplessness and doom. The very word ‘hanging’ has an uneasy echo of Dickens’ scaffold nightmare.


  But usually the Victorian balloon had far more progressive associations. Scientific ascents also took place from Vauxhall Gardens, manned by serious gentlemen in top hats, prepared to observe and measure and speculate.

  The use of the aerial panorama was even encouraged as a tool of sociological investigation. By studying the city from above, with the objective ‘angel’s eye’, it was possible to reveal much about its social structure, its balance of commercial and private dwellings, and especially (as both Poole and Mayhew had remarked) its savage contrasts of rich and poor. One indirect result of this was the famous ‘poverty maps’ compiled by the philanthropist Charles Booth in the 1880s.

  These, with their colour codings and careful urban annotations, adapted the balloon overview as a technical device for compiling and storing new kinds of information. Here the ‘angel’s eye’ has become both analytical and philanthropic. The balloon perspective has become an expression of the Victorian social conscience. The ‘panoptic’ view leads potentially to both planning and improvement. It is ‘godlike’ in a new, secular way. It is an instrument of social justice, even moral redemption.

  Another, more commercial, use of the panoramic ‘airborne’ view was to develop a new kind of tourist’s or visitor’s guide to the great cities. These were particularly successful with the main landmarks and thoroughfares of London and Paris. They invited the newcomer to overfly the great metropolis in imagination, to float calmly above its streets and squares, and to link one district with another. Thus journeys could be planned in a new way, and the visitor could achieve a new kind of ‘orientation’. They may even have helped people to think about the layout of big cities in a different way, no longer as a series of fixed localities or distinct villages, but as a flowing, dynamic urban environment actively linked by a moving network of cabs, horse-drawn omnibuses and trams; and later by underground railways and motor cars. Indeed, the first section of the London Underground (part of the Metropolitan and City Line) opened as early as 1863.

  Panoramic, fold-out maps began to be published in the 1850s and 1860s, forerunners of the famous A to Z guides. One of the most successful was published by Appleyard & Hetling in 1854, ‘In a Case for the Pocket’, priced one shilling and sixpence. It was comprehensively entitled A Balloon View of London Taken by Daguerreotype Process, Exhibiting Eight Square Miles, Showing all Railway Stations, Public Buildings, Parks, Palaces, Squares, Streets etc … Forming a Complete Street Guide.7 In fact the ‘daguerreotype’ claim was certainly misleading, as there is no record of a genuine aerial photograph of a city before 1858–59 (Paris and Boston were to be the first). But the combination of balloon and photography evidently had a fashionable, up-to-the-minute appeal.

  The ‘angel’s eye’ might also be used to celebrate or commemorate particular events. One of the most memorable of these was the airborne view of the Great Fire of Newcastle, which broke out at one o’clock in the morning of 6 October 1854. Starting with a horrific explosion in a chemical warehouse in Gateshead containing hundreds of tons of sulphur, naphtha, brimstone, and arsenic, the flames leaped across the river Tyne into Newcastle and burned for two days, causing over a million pounds’ worth of damage, and terrible loss of life.

  An image of this catastrophe was presented by the Illustrated London News on 14 October, like an action photograph taken from a balloon. From an imaginary viewpoint some five hundred feet above Gateshead, it gives a startling panorama of houses, bridges, churches, quaysides, ships and factories, looking across the Tyne towards the great railway viaduct running through the centre of Newcastle. The pale autumnal tone of the print, predominately blue and white, is clearly the wan, aching light of dawn. But the picture is also realistically coloured and animated with leaping flames, wind-torn smoke and tiny fleeing figures, as if it was being observed in real time. (To the modern observer there is an unmistakable resonance with the hurrying, peopled cityscapes of L.S. Lowry.) It achieves a kind of mythic quality, a vision of the industrial city devoured by fire, the icon of a modern secular version of hell. Or perhaps more accurately ‘cleansed’ by fire, and thereby becoming a kind of purgatory.

  The picture was published above a vivid piece of reportage, which itself achieved the extraordinary effect of an all-s
eeing eye.

  The streets in the neighbourhood of the explosion presented a most melancholy spectacle. Men, women, and children in their night dresses might be seen rushing from their abodes in search of shelter, they knew not whither. In Gateshead particularly the scene was most distressing – mothers were vainly trying to return for a child, forgotten in the suddenness of escape – and children were searching for their parents. The quay on the Newcastle side of the river was literally strewed with burning staves and rafters, covered with sulphur, and burning like matches. Adults and children, confused by the awful catastrophe, went staggering to and fro as if intoxicated, uttering lamentable and piercing cries. At one time the whole town seemed to be devoted to the rampant agency of fire … The shop fronts and windows upon the Quayside, the Sandhill, the Side, and all the neighbouring streets, were almost universally blown out, and the gas lights, for a square mile around the spot, were extinguished in a moment, adding a weird and horrible confusion to the scene. The streets rapidly filled with the entire population of the lower parts of Newcastle, hundreds of them in their night clothes, and seriously injured. The blood-begrimed countenances of many, and the shrieks, wailing, and lamentations to be heard on every side, commingling with the voices of others devoutly calling upon the Lord to have mercy upon them, made up a scene which has been seldom paralleled.8

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