Mag­nif­i­cent men in their fly­ing ma­chines

For­get Ryanair – this joy­ful il­lus­trated his­tory re­stores the ro­mance of flight, says Robert Leigh-Pem­ber­ton

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -

WTAKING TO THE AIR

224pp, Bri­tish Li­brary, £25

hen the Amer­i­can com­put­ing ex­ec­u­tive Eric Sch­midt de­clared in 1999 that the in­ter­net was “the first thing hu­man­ity has built that hu­man­ity doesn’t un­der­stand”, he demon­strated some re­mark­able in­su­lar­ity of mind. In fact, man’s reach has long ex­ceeded his grasp, and in few ar­eas has this been more ob­vi­ous than in the de­vel­op­ment of flight.

The 17th-cen­tury Je­suit Francesco Lana de Terzi be­lieved God would for­ever pre­vent hu­man flight, since it would cre­ate so “many dis­tur­bances in the civil and po­lit­i­cal govern­ment of mankind”. Even af­ter it be­came a prac­ti­cal re­al­ity, few could ap­pre­ci­ate its true im­pact. It must have been a rather mourn­ful Orville Wright who wrote in 1917 that “when my brother and I built and flew the first man-car­ry­ing fly­ing ma­chine, we thought we were in­tro­duc­ing into the world an in­ven­tion which would make fur­ther wars prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble”. In­stead, as the more far-sighted South Wales Echo put it in 1909, the year the Wright broth­ers sold their first fly­ing ma­chine to the US army, flight spawned the means to “lay Paris, Ber­lin or Lon­don in a heap of smok­ing ru­ins be­fore break­fast…”

The film-maker and his­to­rian Lily Ford’s new book, en­livened by en­chant­ing im­ages from the Bri­tish Li­brary’s print ar­chives, sets out to chart our flawed un­der­stand­ing of flight, from tan­ta­lis­ing whis­pers about Alexan­der the Great’s griffin­led char­iot, via the pleas­ingly mat­ter-of-fact chron­i­clers in 17th­cen­tury Is­tan­bul who stated that there were in the city “13 mas­ters, ca­pa­ble of climb­ing to the sky in rope lad­ders and con­vers­ing with Je­sus and the cheru­bim”, up to the jet age.

Once hu­man flight had evolved past the wish­ful think­ing epit­o­mised by James IV’s court crack­pot John Damian, who claimed that his flight from Stir­ling Cas­tle had failed be­cause his home-made ea­gle’s wings had been adul­ter­ated with heav­ier chicken feathers, it drew ec­static crowds. In 1783, half of the pop­u­la­tion of Paris, some 400,000 souls, came to watch Dr Jac­ques Charles’s as­cent by gas bal­loon from the Tui­leries Gar­dens. On a sep­a­rate land­ing in the vil­lage of Gonesse, the bal­loon so hor­ri­fied the lo­cal peas­antry that they at­tacked it heartily with pitch­forks and mus­kets.

The pub­lic’s ap­petite for air­borne spec­ta­cle was stoked by the great air-races of the early 20th cen­tury, be­gun by Lord North­cliffe of the Daily Mail (the in­spi­ra­tion for Lord Rawns­ley in Those Mag­nif­i­cent Men in their Fly­ing Ma­chines) in ex­as­per­a­tion at the govern­ment’s fail­ure to en­cour­age avi­a­tion. Le Cor­bus­ier at­trib­uted the de­vel­op­ment of French pub­lic trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture be­fore the First World War to the need to cater bet­ter to the crowds that gath­ered for the Paris air show.

For many, flight has be­come a mun­dane, even ac­tively un­pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence. As Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss, once pointed out, “Any­one who thinks Ryanair flights are some sort of bas­tion of sanc­tity […] is wrong. Any­one who looks like sleep­ing, we wake them up to sell them things.” The great joy of this book is to be re­minded what a ro­man­tic idea it is.

That much is clear from the po­etry of aerial lit­er­a­ture, which be­gan with Jac­ques Charles’s ac­count of his first flight, a “sort of phys­i­cal rap­ture” (“such ut­ter calm. Such im­men­sity!”), and con­tin­ued with the war­time ec­stasies of John Gille­spie Magee Jr (“I’ve trod/

The high un­tres­passed sanc­tity of space/ Put out my hand, and touched the face of God …”) and An­toine de Saint-Ex­upéry.

But Ford has also un­earthed a re­mark­ably mov­ing col­lec­tion of il­lus­tra­tions. An 1938 Im­pe­rial Air­ways Lon­don-Dur­ban timetable (with stops at the Ce­cil Ho­tel in Alexan­dria and the Grand Ho­tel in Khartoum) is a thrilling doc­u­ment. Even bet­ter are the wood­cuts of the early mod­ern age, peo­pled with fig­ures dar­ing the sky in imag­i­nary Heath Robin­son con­trap­tions of cu­ri­ous beauty – some driven by wind, some by man­power and some, as in the case of a plate from Fran­cis God­win’s 1638 book The Man in the Moone, by ducks.

Trou­bled by the scale of her sub­ject mat­ter and the need to give space to all these pic­tures, Ford is forced to skimp on the de­tail. One hears that “fa­tal­i­ties were high” in the early days of com­mer­cial air travel, but some num­bers might have helped to demon­strate the in­tre­pid­ity of those who took to the skies. Her at­tempts to turn the spot­light on the of­ten-ne­glected

French peas­ants at­tacked a hot air bal­loon with mus­kets and pitch­forks in 1783

REACH FOR THE SKYOpen­ing of the Panama Canal from Puck mag­a­zine, c1906;Homo Volans by the Croa­t­ian in­ven­tor Fausto Ver­anzio, from Machi­nae No­vae, c1615

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