Six Books about Ballooning

While I was writing and researching The Aerial Queen I read quite a few books about ballooning because I reasoned that if I read enough books, then there was no need to take an actual balloon flight was there?

Here are some of my favourites:

Enduring Love (Ian McEwen):

Enduring LoveWho can forget the horror of that opening scene? We were running towards a catastrophe, which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes. At the base of the balloon was a basket in which there was a boy, and by the basket, clinging to a rope, was a man in need of help.

The situation quickly spirals into an unimaginable terror and moral dilemma (except we can imagine it because McEwen describes it in ghastly detail and cinematic slow-motion) but then what could have been ‘mere tragedy’ descends into madness. Enduring Love has also been made into a movie with Daniel Craig as the main character and Rhys Ifans playing the delusional Jed Parry.

Levels of Life (Julian Barnes):

Levels of LifeA beautifully written essay/memoir about the author’s grief following the death of his wife, Pat Kavanagh, framed around the metaphor of ballooning. As if you have dropped from a height of several hundred feet, conscious all the time, have landed feet first in a rose bed with an impact that has driven you in up to the knees, and whose shock has caused your internal organs to rupture and burst forth from your body.

The three-part narrative riffs on the experiences of three 19th-century ballooning enthusiasts (Nadar, the French pioneer of aerial photography; Colonel Fred Burnaby of the Royal Horse Guards; and the actress Sarah Bernhardt) to profoundly explore his bereavement. Grief is vertical — and vertiginous — while mourning is horizontal. Grief makes your stomach turn, snatches the breath from you, cuts off the blood supply to the brain; mourning blows you in a new direction.

Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air (Richard Holmes):

Falling UpwardsBest known as a Romantic Biographer (Shelley and Coleridge) Holmes turns his gaze to the history of ballooning and balloonatics, and its effect on the imagination — a portrait of human endeavour, recklessness, and vision.

All balloon flights are naturally three-act dramas. The First Act is the launch: the human drama of plans, hopes, expectations. The Second Act is the flight itself: the realities, the visions, the possible discoveries. The Final Act is the landing, the least predictable, most perilous part of any ascent, which may bring triumph or disaster or (quite often) farce.

Although Holmes says the book is not a conventional history, (it’s about what balloons give rise to…the spirit of discovery itself, the extraordinary human drama it produces), he covers the dramatic death of Sophie Blanchard, early long-distance and high-altitude flights, the use of balloons in the American Civil War and the Siege of Paris, as well as Nadar and Andrée.

The Ice Balloon (Alec Wilkinson):

The Ice BalloonThis is about the ill-fated attempt by Swedish explorer Andrée to reach the North Pole in 1897 — using a balloon. Like another flawed hero, Sir John Franklin and his doomed search for the Northwest Passage in 1845, the three men disappeared without trace until their grisly fate was finally discovered in 1930.

Astonishingly, their diaries and some ghostly photographs of their two-month ordeal on the ice survived.

 When the Chute Went Up (Dolly Shepherd):

Dolly ShepherdA remarkably breezy autobiography subtitled The Adventures of an Edwardian Lady Parachutist. Nothing seemed to faze this intrepid woman! It gives a good insight into the thrills and spills of being a real-life female daredevil.

I looked up. The canopy was stretched over me like a beautiful silken dome, billowing softly as though it were breathing – as though, like me, it was glad to be alive…glad to be free.

This photograph of Dolly Shepherd Q 98454 is from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

Record of an Aeronaut (Gertrude Bacon):

J.M. Bacon and daughter, Gertrude.
The Rev. John Bacon and his daughter, Gertrude c1900. Source: Flying and Ballooning from Old Photographs by John Fabb.

I had to include this as it’s written by my great-grandfather’s cousin — a biography of her father, John Mackenzie Bacon. Gerty’s writing style now seems stuffy and dated but she shared her father’s enthusiasm for ballooning.

On 20 Aug 1888, Bacon took his first balloon flight with Captain Dale of the Crystal Palace Company cheered on by 20,000 people at a temperance demonstration (the most noteworthy feature of which seemed to be the very large number of intoxicated people taking part). He described the flight over London where every detail of the capital lay mapped out below.

Ballooning became Bacon’s passion and he financed it with lecture tours, writing, and conducting scientific experiments on acoustical phenomena. It was a dangerous pastime; they descended on telegraph wires, were nearly blown over a cliff into the sea at Hastings and in an 1899 flight to observe the Leonid meteor shower, the balloon was unable to descend until crash-landing at dawn, just 1½ miles short of the Atlantic Ocean.

Bacon devised balloon versus cycle races with the aim of publicising how balloons could be used in warfare as a means of escape (the siege of Mafeking had just occurred in South Africa). One of these races ended in a tragic death after a man was lifted by an untethered balloon and fell 40 feet from the trail rope – perhaps the inspiration for Ian McEwen’s novel?

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