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Biggles’ Big Adventures: Four Classic Stories Starring the British Empire’s Most Fearless Pilot Adventurer, Captain W.E. Johns (Sevenoaks 2007)

Some of the Biggles short stories, particularly those set during the First World War, are excellent and inventive literature. The Biggles novels, on the other hand, are usually formulaic pot-boilers. Reading them can be like watching the same play over and over again with different scenery. That’s certainly true of the four novels collected here: Biggles in the Baltic (1939), Biggles Sees It Through (1940), Biggles Flies North (1941) and Biggles in the Jungle (1942).

Each has the same plot: Biggles and his comrades Algy and Ginger face a ruthless and cunning enemy, are captured and imprisoned, escape, and ultimately triumph. Sometimes they’re captured and escape more than once. Little else varies but for the landscape, the name of their enemy and the nature of his ruthlessness and cunning. In Biggles in the Baltic and Biggles Sees It Through it’s the Nazi Von Stahlhein; in Biggles Flies North it’s a crook called Brindle McBain and in Biggles in the Jungle it’s a crook called The King of the Forest.

I’ve never managed to finished Biggles in the Baltic, because it’s so dull. There’s little memorable in any of the others apart from a bar scene in Biggles Flies North in which McBain puts a bullet through Biggles’ cup of Bovril and Biggles puts a bullet through McBain’s bottle of whiskey. All the same, reading the middle two novels of this collection has been one of the most interesting literary experiences of my life, because I carried out a simple experiment I’d been meaning to try for some time.

What did I do? I read the the novels upside-down. That is, they were upside-down, not me. I simply turned the book through 180° and read the lines of text right-to-left and from the bottom of the page to the top. It was hard work: from being a fluent, fast and careless adult reader I was transformed into a slow and stumbling learner again. I had to spell some words through letter by letter. I made mistakes and jumped to wrong conclusions about the word I was trying to decipher. It was hard work and the stories were a lot more interesting than they would have been if I’d read in the usual way. They were also more frustrating: when Biggles & Co. were captured or otherwise in difficulty, I couldn’t get to the bits where they escaped or overcame the difficulty as quickly as I wanted to.

And I was much more aware of the acting of reading – its strangeness and its power. Or perhaps you could just say that I was aware of the act of reading. It wasn’t easy and automatic any more. But it might have become so if I’d continued the experiment for long enough. My skill at upside-down reading improved even over the course of two Biggles novels. Something was happening inside my brain: I was re-learning to see words as Gestalts and not as sets of individual letters. Would I ever read upside-down as easily as I normally do? In time, perhaps. I doubt I’ll ever try to find out, but it was certainly an interesting experiment and I may try it again if another suitable book comes my way.

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Les Hommes Volants, Valerie Moolman, trans. Madeleine Astorkia (Time-Life Books 1981)

This is one of the best books I’ve ever owned. And also one of the most enjoyable to read. But if it had been the original edition in English, I’m not sure I would have bothered reading it. It might not have seemed worth the effort, because the effort would have been so slight.

It would have been like walking downhill. Reading French, on the other hand, is like walking uphill on difficult ground. It’s much better mental exercise and much more interesting. The scenery is stranger, the flora and fauna more exotic. And the appeal of reading in a foreign language is summed up in this book:

« Toutes furent unanimes, écrivit Chanute, « à affirmer que voler dans les airs procurait un monde de sensations extraordinaires. » (« L’apprentissage du vol », p. 92)

“Everyone was united,” Chanute wrote, “in agreeing that flying through the air produced a world of extraordinary sensations.”

The extraordinary nature of language isn’t apparent when you’re in your mother-tongue. You have to enter another language, because each language is a world of its own. That quote is by Octave Chanute (1932-1910), one of the pioneers of aviation, but he didn’t make it in French or in France. Although he was born in Paris, he emigrated with his parents to America and grew up to become a civil engineer.

He then got interested in aviation and was one of the inspirations for the Wright Brothers. But this book goes back well before Chanute and the Wrights. Men have been dreaming of flight, and dying in the attempt, for millennia. It looks so easy for birds, but it took a long time to master. Like mountaineering, it was a Faustian quest and white European men proved to have the necessary combination of intelligence and daring. Those who challenged the air, like the German Otto Lilienthal (1848-96), often paid with their lives.

Lilienthal was another inspiration for the Wrights, but they had to correct some of his aerodynamic findings before they could finally achieve powered flight. Their success ends the book, which begins with the experiments of Persian kings and medieval monks, and the story of aviation presumably continues in La Conquête du Ciel, or Conquest of the Sky, which is listed with other Time-Life editions at the beginning.

The Time-Life books are well-designed and full of interesting pictures and photographs. Seeing is good for saying: as I point out in my review of a monolingual French dictionary, if you’re learning another language, it’s good to see words and images combined, because each reinforces the other. And translations into the second language are a good place to start too, because you’re often already familiar with the story and translations are usually simpler than texts composed directly in the second language.

The flood of the original has to be channelled and controlled to irrigate the minds of new readers, because French can’t do everything that English can, and vice versa. But Les Hommes Volants seems to be a good, idiomatic translation: it’s rarely obvious what the original English would have been, though I think the book must have been well-written and interesting in English too. And the font goes perfectly with French: it’s an elegant yet precise serif.

The intricacy and complexity of French also go well with the intricacy and complexity of the mechanical task that the pioneers of aviation were confronted with. English is intricate and complex too, of course, but I wouldn’t have noticed if I’d read this book in English. The translation into German would have been too difficult: French is in a kind of linguistic sweet spot for me. Difficult enough to be challenging, not so difficult as to be exhausting or frustrating. I glide effortlessly in English; I have to flap my wings hard to stay up in French; I can barely get off the ground in German or Georgian. The second kind of flight is often the most satisfying.

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restless-creatures-by-matt-wilkinsonRestless Creatures: The Story of Life in Ten Movements, Matt Wilkinson (Icon 2016)

A fascinating book about a fascinating thing: the movement of plants and animals. It’s also a very familiar thing, but it’s far more complex than we often realize. Human beings have been watching horses gallop for thousands of years, but until the nineteenth century no-one was sure what was happening:

The man usually credited for ushering in the modern study of locomotion is the brilliant photographer Eadweard Muybridge. […] His locomotory calling came in 1872, when railroad tycoon and former California governor Leland Stanford invited him to his stock farm in Palo Alto, supposedly to settle a $25,000 bet that a horse periodically becomes airborne when galloping. (ch. 1, “Just Put One Foot in Front of Another”, pg. 16)

To answer the question, Muybridge used a series of still cameras triggered by trip-wires. And yes, galloping horses do become airborne: “not when the legs were at full stretch, as many had supposed, but when the forelimbs and hindlimbs were at their closest approach.” However, Matt Wilkinson calls another man “the true founding father of the science of locomotion”: the French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey, who had been investigating movement using a stylograph. In fact, it was Marey who first proved that galloping horses become airborne (ch. 1, pg. 19). Muybridge’s photographs were dramatic confirmation and the two men began to collaborate.

Marey also pioneered electromyography, or the recording of the electrical impulses generated by moving muscles. Like the rest of modern science, biokinesiology, as the study of animal movement might be called, depends on instruments that supplement or enhance our fallible senses. It also depends on mathematics: there is a lot of physics in this book. You can’t understand walking, flying or swimming without it. Walking is the most mundane, but also in some ways the most interesting, at least in its human form. Bipedalism isn’t an everyday word, but it’s an everyday sight.

What does it involve? How did it evolve? And how important was it in making us human? Wilkinson looks at all these questions and you’ll suddenly start seeing your legs and feet in a different way. What wonders of bioengineering they are! And what a lot of things happen in the simple process of “just putting one foot in front of another”. Scientists still don’t understand these things properly: for example, they can’t say whether or not sport shoes are dangerous, “lulling us into a false sense of security, causing us to pass dreadful shocks up our legs and spine without our being aware of them” (ch. 1, pg. 29).

But there’s much more here than horse and human locomotion: Wilkinson discusses everything from eels, whales, pterodactyls, bats and cheetahs to amoebas, annelid worms, fruit-flies, zombified ants and the “gliding seed of the Javan cucumber Alsomitra macrocarpa”. He also discusses the nervous systems, genes and evolution behind all those different kinds of movement. This book is both fascinating and fun, but I have one criticism: its prose doesn’t always move as lightly and gracefully as some of its subjects do. Wilkinson mentions both Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. I wish he’d written more like the latter and less like the former. If he had, a good book would have become even better.

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No Empty Chairs by Ian MackerseyNo Empty Chairs: The Short and Heroic Lives of the Young Aviators Who Fought and Died in the First World War, Ian Mackersey (Phoenix 2012)

Flight is beautiful, death is ugly. But they’ve always gone together. It was worst in the early days. Aviation at the beginning of the twentieth century was very dangerous: designers, engineers and pilots were still learning and their mistakes were often fatal. It took courage simply to get in a plane and take off. Flying and fighting demanded more courage still. This book describes how aerial combat began in the First World War. At first aircraft were used for observation, not for offence, but soon pilots started taking pistols and rifles aloft and shooting at each other. Next came machine-guns and inventions that allowed pilots to shoot through the propeller. Planes got faster, sturdier and more reliable. As they got less dangerous, they got deadlier.

Like the Second World War, which began with prop-planes and ended with jets and rockets, the First World War accelerated the technology of aviation. The first planes were like giant kites with engines attached. They could fall apart if flown fast or handled roughly. By the end of the war, acrobatics were not just routine, but essential. One thing didn’t change: the brains and bodies of the men who had to fly the fast-evolving planes:

Flying in unheated, open cockpits with inadequate clothing as high as 24,000 feet in winter temperatures approaching minus 50 degrees Centigrade, made worse by propeller-driven wind chill, they suffered such intense cold that the foul-smelling whale oil they smeared on their faces couldn’t prevent icicles forming on their noses or frostbite from peeling skin off their cheeks. […] In the frenzied manoeuvres of dog-fighting they were subjected to extraordinarily high G-forces that caused them to black out and sometimes burst vessels in their eyes. They got ruptured eardrums from the abrupt pressure changes in swooping dives of thousands of feet. They were afflicted by vertigo and airsickness that had them vomiting in their cockpits; by agonising gas-filled bowels that could be relieved only by releasing copious blasts of wind. On the ground most of them lived unhealthy, largely sedentary lives and, unsurprisingly, they drank and smoked heavily. Twenty-four-old pilots often began to look forty. (ch. 26, “The Spent Capital of Courage”, pg. 265)

And often died before they were twenty-five. Although casualties among ground troops were far higher, there were far more more men fighting on the ground, so the odds against survival were worse in the air. During “Bloody April” in 1917, the “average life expectancy of a subaltern [novice pilot] had shrunk to eleven days” (ch. 27, “The Working-Class Heroes”, pg. 272). All fighting men risked bullets and high explosive in the war, but there were horrors unique to the different branches of military service. Soldiers could drown in fetid, freezing mud; pilots could burn alive in a plummeting aircraft. That’s why some of them continued to take pistols aloft: to shoot not the enemy but themselves if their planes began to burn.

The only other way out in that situation was to jump out and fall to one’s death. Parachutes were never issued to British pilots and were used only late in the war by the Germans. The legend is that they were deliberately withheld to discourage cowardice and the “unnecessary abandonment of aircraft”. But Mackersey says that no order to that effect has ever been discovered and convincingly argues that the blame rested with official inertia, ignorance and lack of imagination.

The pilots themselves didn’t lack it. They often dreamed of their own deaths. The “Irish working-class ace” Mick Mannock (1887-1918) had nightmares about dying in a “flamerino”, his apotropaic nickname for a death-fall in a burning aircraft. As Mackersey laconically says: “One eventually claimed him” (ch. 28, “Flamerinoes”, photo section). Perhaps Mannock let himself die, consciously or otherwise: the strain of risking death can begin to seem worse than death itself. Guy de Maupassant explored that idea in his story “A Coward” (1884) and Mackersey provides a real example: a flight commander who was ordered to lead a “low-level bombing raid on an enemy aerodrome”. He had an “excellent chance of surviving” and would win the Military Cross if he succeeded. But he refused the order and, threatened with a court martial, shot himself through the head (“Waning of the Spirit”, pg. 307).

Drink and debauchery were less extreme responses to Himmelangst, “heaven-fear”, as great fear is called in German. This is one of the more unusual footnotes to children’s literature in English:

Lieutenant William Earl Johns of 55 Squadron, later (writing under the name Captain W.E. Johns) to become celebrated as the creator of the immortal pilot adventurer James Bigglesworth, the hero of more than a hundred Biggles books for boys, found himself in a hospital in France suffering from both syphilis and gonorrhoea. (ch. 19, “They Also Served”, pg. 201)

The Biggles books were bowdlerised after their early appearances in an adult aviation magazine, but are an excellent guide to the exhilaration and horror of air-combat. And also to the daily lives of British pilots, who constantly played practical jokes and ran competitions with each other and other squadrons. Mackersey devotes a chapter to “The ‘Bloody Wonderful Drunks’” (pp. 181-9), violent, hard-drinking parties in which furniture and crockery were destroyed, joints strained and limbs broken: “A puzzled American pilot attached to No. 85 Squadron commented: ‘These Englishmen sure have a funny idea of a party. They want to smash everything.’” (ch. 18, pg. 187).

This was an extension of life at public school and university, where many of the pilots had been before being taught to fly by stuttering, shell-shocked instructors and thrown into combat. Did the Germans behave in a similar way? Mackersey doesn’t say, but he describes the careers of the German aces Oswald Boelcke, Erwin Böhme, Max Immelmann and, most famous of all, the Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen. All four died in combat, like the British aces Albert Ball, Arthur Rhys Davies, Eric Lubbock and James McCudden. These men foresaw their own deaths and continued to fly. Their courage and skill won them permanent fame as Knights of the Air, flying far above the mud, filth and mechanized slaughter of the trenches.

But Mackersey also discusses the wives, girlfriends and families of the aces. He covers every aspect of aerial combat in the First World War, from fighters and balloons to Zeppelins and bombers, from pilots and observers to mechanics, instructors and aircraft designers like Anthony Fokker (1890-1939), the Dutchman whose expertise was turned down by the British and French before being accepted by the Germans. No Empty Chairs is a detailed history of a fascinating and horrific period, when the heavens turned hellish and a beautiful invention was put to some very ugly ends.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

World Wide Wings – The Big Book of Flight, Rowland White

Mud FeudTrench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front, Stephen Bull

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World Wide WingsThe Big Book of Flight, Rowland White (Bantam Press 2013)

Kite WriteThe Kite-Making Handbook, compiled by Rossella Guerra and Giuseppe Ferlenga (David & Charles 2004)

Gun GuideSmall Arms: 1914-45, Michael E. Haskew (Amber Books 2012)

The Basis of the BeastKillers: The Origins of Iron Maiden, 1975-1983, Neil Daniels (Soundcheck Books 2014)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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The Big Book of Flight by Rowland WhiteThe Big Book of Flight, Rowland White (Bantam Press 2013)

Aircraft are like birds: varied. And, like birds, the most beautiful are often the deadliest. Freight-carriers usually look like it, but even helicopters and flying-boats can look good. This book covers the lot, from the deadly XB-70 Valkyrie, a beautiful jet “designed to carry 25 tons of nuclear bombs at three times the speed of sound” (pg. 234), to the dumpy Ekranoplan, a huge flying-boat whose remains are “rusting away in a dry dock in the Russian Caspian sea-port of Kaspiysk” (pg. 269). Rowland White discusses every aspect of aviation: not just props, jets and gliders, but balloons, parachutes and rockets, plus call-signs, airport codes and Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang. His writing is enthusiastic and intelligent and the book has a solid and fashionably old-fashioned design, like something a flight-obsessed schoolboy might have got for Christmas in the 1950s.

If he had, he would have been pleased: The Big Book of Flight mixes text, photographs, line-drawings and Patrick Mulrey’s beautiful double-page oil-paintings, which capture the speed and steel of aircraft and the vastness and solitude of the sky. I like the “Project Cancelled” sections too, about interesting planes that never made it into service. Web-sites about flight aren’t physical, fingerful fun like this and the heft of the book underlines the paradox of flight: how does something heavier than air get up and stay there?

Take the “swing-wing Grumman F-14 Tomcat” shown surging aloft, jets glaring, from the deck of an aircraft-carrier on page 210. If it hit the water that stretches away to the horizon, it would sink like a stone. It’s metal, after all: solid in a way birds, with their fractal feathers and hollowed bones, have never been. But it stays aloft and plays aloft, all 70,000 lb of it. This isn’t magic: it’s engineering. Metal jet-fighters obey the laws of physics just as birds and balloons do. And jet-fighters obey the laws of genetics too, because aircraft are as much products of genes as bones and feathers are. Evolution has taken many routes to flight, but before Homo sapiens arrived they were all direct ones: genes coded for wings, light bodies and fast metabolisms. That’s how birds, bats and insects got aloft. The human route was indirect: our genes coded for higher intelligence and we invented our own wings to carry bodies that were never designed to fly.

But more than intelligence was required. The early history of flight is littered with crashes and corpses:

German engineer Otto Lilienthal published his seminal Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation in 1889 at the age of 41. He flew his first glider two years later. Over the next five years he made some 2000 flights, accumulating just five flying hours. Still, the “Glider King”, as he was dubbed, had flown longer and further than anyone else in history. But on 9 August 1896, during his second flight of the day, his glider stalled. He crashed to the ground and broke his back. Two days later, like so many previous birdmen, he died from his injuries. (“Dreams of the Birdmen: Icarus and His Successors”, pg. 15)

Before he died, Lilienthal told his brother that “sacrifices have to be made”. His work and sacrifice were an inspiration for Wilbur and Orville Wright across the Atlantic in America. But their genes hadn’t evolved in America: flight was mastered by a peculiarly north-western European combination of high intelligence and daring. This book doesn’t explicitly discuss genetics, but it’s there on every page, from the German Otto Lilienthal at the beginning to the Austrian Felix Baumgartner near the end. Baumgartner claimed “Joe Kittinger’s record for the highest, fastest skyfall with a jump from 128,100 feet (24 miles)” in 2012 (pg. 236).

The American Nick Piantanida had preceded them in the 1960s. First he was a pilot, boxer and rock-climber, then he became a skydiver. His attempt to claim the freefall record killed him: he “suffered an explosive decompression at an altitude greater than any other reached by a human being”. Like Lilienthal, he survived his crash-landing but died in hospital. Success in aviation has been won by the sacrifices of the same group that sacrificed for success in mountaineering. Flight can be seen part of the same Faustian quest.

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