Adventures in a Silver Cloud

Library of Congress
‘Death of Harris’; a card from a popular French series of balloon collecting cards, 1895, showing, as Richard Holmes writes in Falling Upwards, ‘a glamorous young naval officer’ named Thomas Harris, whose flight over London in May 1824 with ‘a dazzlingly pretty eighteen-year-old cockney girl’ ended in a sudden descent that killed Harris but not his passenger

Readers of Richard Holmes’s biographies and essays will occasionally have caught glimpses of him in autobiographical vignettes, motorcycling along narrow country lanes or yachting on the North Sea. They will not be surprised to learn, from his history of ballooning, that he himself has made several ascents in a basket attached to a “silken cloud.” Once, he landed in a field of “distinctly inhospitable” pigs in his home county of Norfolk in eastern England; on another occasion, he was a passenger in a balloon whose pilot attempted to land “on the trim lawns of the National Parliament building” in Canberra, “until waved away by a genial security officer who threatened to give us a parking ticket.” Holmes shares the sense of wonder of the balloonists whose “dreamlike stories and romantic adventures” he recounts. He also shares their mischievousness. Falling Upwards opens with a premonitory tableau of the four-year-old Holmes at a village fête. His uncle, an RAF pilot, had tied a helium-filled party balloon to the top button of his aertex shirt: “It tugged me impatiently towards the sky, and I began to feel unsteady on my feet. I felt that I was falling—upwards.”

Far from being a straightforward history of the balloon, this is an uplifting celebration of its aesthetic appeal and its “social and imaginative impact,” of the writing it inspired and of the “strangely mesmerising” “dash and eccentricity” of the balloonists themselves. The Montgolfier brothers’ invention of the “Cloud in a paper bag” in 1782 is barely mentioned, since the topic was covered in Holmes’s previous book, The Age of Wonder, and the first hydrogen-filled balloon flits past in a footnote. Instead, while appearing to tell occasionally incredible tales of courage and catastrophe for the sheer pleasure of it, he has written a social history that, flighty but never flippant, touches down as though by accident in some remote and rarely visited corners of the mind.

At 5:45 on the evening of August 27, 1783, the inhabitants of the village of Gonesse, ten miles northeast of Paris, noticed what some of them took to be the moon descending from the sky. It fell vertically at first, then slanted toward the ground. For most eighteenth-century peasants, even those who lived within striking distance of the metropolis, supernatural interventions were everyday events, but this was something without precedent in fairy tale or legend. As the mysterious object blundered earthward, it assumed the appearance of a gigantic, shapeless bag of red and white silk. Though the bag had lost most of the “inflammable air” that had been…

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