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Seamus Perry

Up, Up and Away

Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air
By Richard Holmes (William Collins 404pp £25)
Coxwell & Glaisher: seven miles high

Balloonophiles must nurse a particular affection for Wolverhampton, for it was from there that, on 5 September 1862, one of the most celebrated ascents began. The pilots were James Glaisher, secretary to the Royal Meteorological Society, and Henry Coxwell, whose claim to scientific knowledge derived from his former career as a dentist, but who was a seasoned balloonist and, as it transpired, a good man to have in a tight spot. The balloon left the ground at one o'clock in the afternoon, filled with buoyant coal gas from the Wolverhampton gasworks. It was a beautiful day and they climbed quickly: forty minutes later they were past 20,000 feet; just before an hour was done they were at 29,000 feet. Then they hit a snag.

Coxwell realised that the rope working the release valve had got tangled up, so he struggled out of the basket to try to unravel it. Oxygen grows thin at such altitudes and at this point both men began to feel the lack of it. Glaisher, who seems to have gone about the gathering of scientific data with a positively religious zeal, found his ability to read the barometer strangely impaired: his vision was blurred, and his magnifying glass did not help; then his head fell unaccountably onto his left shoulder, and when he corrected that, it promptly flopped to the right. Sensibly he reached for the brandy, but before he could grasp it he collapsed in a corner of the basket and found himself paralysed. 'In an instant intense darkness overcame me,' he would recall, 'so that the optic nerve lost power suddenly, but I was still conscious, with as active a brain as at the moment while writing this.' Meanwhile, Coxwell grappled with the ropes, his fingers by now frozen black, finally managing to free the rope with what must have been a sturdy set of teeth. (Good thing he had been a dentist.) With a last desperate tug the valve was released and gas began to leave the balloon.

Back in the basket, Coxwell suspected the worst for the secretary to the Royal Meteorological Society: 'I began to fear that he would never take any more readings,' he touchingly recollected. However, Coxwell was not one to give up and he knew the way to his fellow aeronaut's heart: 'Do try to take temperature and barometer observations, do try,' he pleaded, and soon Glaisher came round. 'I have been insensible,' said Glaisher. 'You have,' replied Coxwell, 'and I too, very nearly.' Pulling himself together, Glaisher started taking observations again, pausing only to pour brandy humanely over Coxwell's black hands. The balloon finally came to ground near Ludlow. No further transport to be found, they walked seven miles to the nearest pub and drank a pint of beer. They deserved a drink: they had reached an altitude of about seven miles, though Glaisher characteristically confirmed a more modest estimate of six. (Their record would not be broken for the rest of the century.) A leader in The Times claimed for the exploit a place 'among the unpatrolled junctures and critical and striking moments of war, politics or discovery'.

The episode is full of superhuman daring and bravery, of course, but no less moving in its quirky comedy of Victorian manners surviving under extraordinary strain. It forms but one of many turns in the diverting and colourful cast of heroes, fantasists, entrepreneurs and serious oddballs that Richard Holmes has assembled in his hugely enjoyable, richly embellished study of ballooning in the Romantic age and beyond. Holmes refers to the book, with a modesty of his own, as a 'cluster of balloon stories'; but while there is no thesis to labour, there is a consistency of interest, not least in that so many of his aerial adventurers display a similar mixture of great heroism and profound dottiness, something that comes to feel somehow characteristic of the genre.

Holmes enjoys Glaisher dashing between his barometers miles up in the sky, but he is also interesting about the serious implications of those findings for an understanding of the atmosphere. There are absorbing pages, too, about the great Charles Green, who made 526 successful ascents earlier in the century and cheerfully referred to himself as 'an Ancient Mariner of the Upper Atmosphere', as well as a moving chapter about the role of balloons during the American Civil War. But I suspect that Holmes's favourite in all this is the irrepressible Frenchman Félix Nadar. His lumbering monster of a balloon, called Le Géant, had a second flight of quite sensational misfortune, blown out of control over four hundred terrifying miles, losing all its passengers except Nadar and his wife one by one, and at one point only narrowly escaping a crash with an express train. But Nadar was one of those people to whom unmitigated disaster represents but another opportunity; and, nothing deterred, he wrote up the story in a high old style before turning to propagandising for air travel in general. Nadar was every inch a man of his age, and flight was not to be considered something merely desirable: rather it was to be thought of ideologically, as a right. His breathless book Le Droit au vol captured the heart of his chum Victor Hugo, who produced an open letter (addressed 'To the Whole World') enthusing about this breakthrough in human liberty: 'Let us deliver mankind from the ancient, universal tyranny! What ancient, universal tyranny, you cry. Why, the ancient, universal tyranny of gravity!' Hugo is farcical, but the balloon's symbolic association with political liberation would acquire a sombre literalism during the siege of Paris only a few years later. Surrounded by the Prussians, the city was completely cut off. It was Nadar's romanticism, at once visionary and oddly businesslike, that led him to propose balloons as a way of getting messages to the world outside. This was an audacious and dangerous idea but it would prove a remarkable triumph, with almost seventy successful flights made in little more than three months, bearing mail, carrier pigeons and other supplies. One should not exaggerate the republican fraternity of aeronauts, mind you: Coxwell offered to organise a rival balloon corps for the Prussians, though Bismarck did not take up the offer.

Holmes ends with the terrible story of Salomon Andrée's disastrous attempt to fly to the North Pole in 1896, a story of such overwhelming sadness that, as he says in an epilogue, it breaks the heart of even such a 'hardened biographer'. But though the episode is unmitigated tragedy, the possibility of something very like its catastrophe shadows all the stories in the book, even the most larky. A balloon escapes the clutches of earth, an act of Promethean aspiration; but it leaves you open to every vicissitude of the winds that blow. Richard Holmes always writes well, but especially well about figures whom he admires, such as Shelley or Coleridge, who chose to expose themselves to all the dreadful risks that accompany the most soaring human hopes. In Falling Upwards he has discovered a fine metaphor for his abiding interest in that kind of daring - its best image is of the airy French balloonist Flammarion, who, needing a light source by which to view his instruments during night flights, filled a little glass jar with glow-worms. Glaisher took a Davy lamp.

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Seamus Perry is the incoming head of the Oxford English Faculty.

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