Of a cross-channel passage

It's a hundred years today since Louis Blériot became the first person to fly an aeroplane across the English Channel. (He wasn't the first person, period; Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries together crossed it by balloon in 1785.) As x planes has already post-blogged the flight itself, I'll focus on one reaction to the flight, specifically that of H. G. Wells. He was asked to write about the meaning of the flight by the Daily Mail, which gave the £1000 prize won by Blériot.

Wells discerns a number of meanings, most trivially that he himself had 'under-estimated the possible stability of aeroplanes' in The War in the Air, written two years earlier. More important is the fact that 'This thing from first to last was made abroad'.1 According to Wells, Britain has contributed virtually nothing to the epic of flight, its youths more interested in batting and bowling than gliding, for instance, in stark contrast to Europe:

Over there, where the prosperous classes have some regard for education and some freedom of imaginative play, where people discuss all sorts of things fearlessly and have a respect for science, this has been achieved.

He hammers this point home:

I do not see how one can go into the history of this development and arrive at any other conclusion. The French and Americans can laugh at our aeroplanes, the Germans are ten years ahead of our poor navigables [i.e. airships]. We are displayed a soft, rather backward people. Either we are a people essentially and incurably inferior or there is something wrong in our training, something benumbing in our atmosphere and circumstances. That is the first and gravest intimation in M. Blériot's feat.

Wells then turns to the implications for warfare, echoing Lord Northcliffe's statement that 'England is no longer an island'. Aeroplanes are, according to Wells, far more dangerous than Zeppelins ('little good for any purpose but scouting and espionage').

Within a year we shall have -- or rather they will have -- aeroplanes capable of starting from Calais, let us say, circling over London, dropping a hundredweight or so of explosive upon the printing machines of the Daily Mail and returning securely to Calais for another similar parcel.

(I think Wells is suggesting that this would be a bad thing.) Hundreds of aeroplanes could be made for the cost of a Dreadnought, he notes, and they will be hard to shoot down. Certainly, a 'large army of under-educated, under-trained, extremely unwilling conscripts' (then a popular cause for Conservatives) wouldn't be much use against aeroplanes. The problem is (again) education:

The foreigner is ahead of us in education, and this is especially true of the middle and upper classes from which invention and enterprise come -- or, in our own case, do not come. He makes a better class of man than we do. His science is better than ours. His training is better than ours. His imagination is livelier. His mind is more active. His requirements in a novel, for example, are not kindly, sedative pap; his uncensored plays deal with reality. His schools are places for vigorous education instead of genteel athleticism, and his home has books in it, and thought and conversation. Our homes and schools are relatively dull and uninspiring; there is no intellectual guide or stir in them; and to that we owe this new generation of nicely behaved, unenterprising sons, who play golf and dominate the tailoring of the world, while Brazilians, Frenchmen, Americans, and Germans fly.

Perhaps. But in less than a decade Britain built probably the world's most successful aviation industry, while waging a world war -- its children can't have been all that unenterprising, then.

After a discursion on the Navy and whether it is 'bright' enough, Wells wonders, 'Are we an awakening people?'

It is the vital riddle of our time. I look out upon the windy Channel and think of all those millions just over there, who seem to get busier and keener every hour. I could imagine the day of reckoning coming like a swarm of birds.

Now, if it had been my article, I probably would have ended on that nicely forboding image. But Wells being Wells, he returns again to lament the failings of the British education system. For example,

Not one in twenty of the boys of the middle and upper classes learns German or gets more than a misleading smattering of physical science. Heaven knows what they do with their brains.

He estimates that the 'reading and thinking public' in Britain is probably less than fifty thousand in number.

Wells concludes from all of this that 'The days of natural democracy are surely at an end through these machines':

I do not think numbers are going to matter so much in the warfare of the future, and that when organised intelligence differs from the majority, the majority will have no adequate power of retort. The common man with a pike, being only sufficiently indignant and abundant, could chase the eighteenth-century gentleman as he chose, but I fail to see what he can do in the way of mischief to an elusive chevalier with wings. But that opens too wide a discussion for me to enter upon now.

Which would be why he returned to the topic in The World Set Free (1914) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933).

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  1. H. G. Wells, 'Of a cross-channel passage', Daily Mail, 27 July 1909, 6. All quotes from this source. []

10 thoughts on “Of a cross-channel passage

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  2. Nicholas Waller

    "its youths more interested in batting and bowling" - I wonder if this was some kind of dig at his father Joseph Wells, who was a professional cricketer (in a time of Gentlemen and Players, the players being the pros) as well as a shopkeeper, including a spell for Kent.

  3. Post author

    I wondered about that too! In fact, the whole thing could be read as a diatribe against the life Wells escaped. He rants against the lack of science education, but he himself received a first-class science education, despite his father being only a cricket-playing shopkeeper. I suppose he felt he himself was the exception that proved the rule, and wished it were otherwise. After WWI, Wells became much more interested in the education question -- hence The Outline of History and so forth.

  4. He rants against the lack of science education, but he himself received a first-class science education, despite his father being only a cricket-playing shopkeeper.

    Isn't his point that it's not "despite", it's "because"? The middle class get a good technical grounding, but then go off to mediocrity, while the elite get a lot of Greek and games and then have to make decisions on things they kno nuffin about. It's not just the science, it's the class system as well.

  5. Post author

    That's not the sense I get from the whole article, Alex. He doesn't distinguish between upper and middle classes but lumps them in together (while ignoring the working classes completely), along the lines of the fourth and sixth blockquotes in my post.

  6. This made me think of a more immediate Wells reference, actually - his (also) 1909 novel Tono-Bungay, a social satire about a sort of shabby-genteel middle class lad who becomes fabulously wealthy through a partnership with his uncle, who invented a ridiculously popular & addictive cure-all tonic. While there's lots of "look at how ridiculous these people are," there's a lot of railing against the lack of proper education in the middle and upper classes, too. However, unlike this article, it does draw a distinction between George's middle-class willingness and desire to become a member of the reading & thinking public and the contentment of the upper classes.

    Oh, and then he uses his new wealth and free time to build an airplane to fly across the Channel:

    As the four of us sat at tea together under the cedar on the terrace she asked questions about my aeronautics. My aunt helped with a word or so about my broken ribs. Lady Osprey evidently regarded flying as a most indesirable and improper topic—a blasphemous intrusion upon the angels. "It isn't flying," I explained. "We don't fly yet."

    "You never will," she said compactly. "You never will."

    "Well," I said, "we do what we can."

    The little lady lifted a small gloved hand and indicated a height of about four feet from the ground. "Thus far," she said, "thus far—AND NO FARTHER! No!"

    She became emphatically pink. "NO," she said again quite conclusively, and coughed shortly. "Thank you," she said to her ninth or tenth cake. Beatrice burst into cheerful laughter with her eye on me. I was lying on the turf, and this perhaps caused a slight confusion about the primordial curse in Lady Osprey's mind.

    "Upon his belly shall he go," she said with quiet distinctness, "all the days of his life."

    After which we talked no more of aeronautics.

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