Monthly Archives: March 2017

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Owen Hatherley. The Ministry of Nostalgia. London and New York: Verso, 2017. Hatherley's misapprehension about the origins of Keep Calm and Carry On got me an article in The Conversation, so I figure I owe him a book sale. But I also suspect that he's on to something with his (much) larger argument about the memory of the Blitz (etc) as a form of austerity nostalgia.

Mathew Radcliffe. Kampong Australia: The RAAF at Butterworth. Sydney: NewSouth, 2017. Butterworth was a name I was familiar with growing up, but knew next to little about. For most of the Cold War, it was the RAAF's only permanent air base outside Australia, located in what is now northern Malaysia. The strategic purpose was to defend against communist and Indonesian threats, and RAAF Sabres, Mirages and other aircraft were stationed there from the 1950s through to the 1980s. But this book (based on a PhD) isn't really about that: it's much more a social history, about life in this far-off western enclave of military personnel and their families inside a foreign society at the end of an old empire and the start of a new nation. And I think it will be all the more interesting for it!

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Coppin's balloon medal, 1858

In the rather enjoyable Falling Upwards, Richard Holmes spends most of his time discussing the history of ballooning in Britain, France, and the United States. However, he does briefly talk about the first balloon flights in Australia:

In 1858 the British balloon the Australian made some startling flights over Melbourne and Sydney. There was a late-summer ascent in March from Cremorne Gardens, Melbourne, in which a basketful of local dignitaries sailed over the Botanical Gardens in bright moonlight, with a magical sight of the festival fireworks far below. But, attempting to land at Battam's Swamp, they found themselves in a working-class district, and the balloon basket was seized by a violent crowd. Amid vocal democratic objections to such 'superior' transport, the distinguished guests were forced to escape by jettisoning champagne bottles, picnic hampers, several bags of sand ballast, and finally throwing off a few hardy objectors still clinging to the sides of the basket.1

I'd never heard about this 19th century aerial riot, or near-riot, in my home town. However, Holmes doesn't cite any sources; and while something like this did happen, when compared with contemporary press reports his account appears to be deficient in several respects.
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  1. Richard Holmes, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air (London: William Collins, 2013), 94-5. 

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After reading Bill Fanning's Death Rays and the Popular Media, I looked at a murky 1937 claim of an official British death ray, supposedly on the authority of Sir Thomas 'Caligula's horse' Inskip, Minister for Defence Co-ordination. That turned out to be not quite what happened. But I was also intrigued by something else Bill said, in the context of other press stories of Air Ministry interest in death ray inventions:

The government made such announcements about 'invisible walls' and 'rays' for two reasons. One was to reassure the public that Britain was safe from air attack in the event of another general European war, the other, according to a press release in July 1945, a deception to cover the real work going on with radar.1

The reason why this intrigues me is that I've long wondered why the British government didn't make more of an effort to promote confidence in Britain's air defences in the late 1930s. Firstly, Britain's air defences were stronger. On Inskip's recommendation the RAF's rearmament priorities from 1938 onwards had been rebalanced to favour fighters more, and the extension of the Chain Home radar system around the coast began in 1939. Secondly, regardless of the actual ability of Fighter Command to intercept and repel enemy bombers, even the mere belief that it could do so would be valuable, given that fear of bombing was in itself thought to be one of the greatest dangers. In my book, I suggested that a greater confidence in air defence was responsible for a scepticism about the knock-out blow from the air in 1938-39, though without really being able to prove this directly.2 Perhaps the death ray debate can shed light on this.
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  1. William J. Fanning, Jr., Death Rays and the Popular Media, 1876-1939: A Study of Directed Energy Weapons in Fact, Fiction and Film (Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2015), 108. 

  2. Brett Holman, The Next War in the Air: Britain's Fear of the Bomber, 1908-1941 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), 74.