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What could be more American than football, cheerleaders, and country music? According to Hank Williams Jr in 1989 [edit: more like 1996 -- thanks, Robert Farley], only football, cheerleaders, country music, and air strikes on US national monuments (which magically transform them into symbols associated with football):

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Michael North and Davy Burnaby. 'Lords Of The Air'. Sydney: D. Davis & Co., 1939. Thanks, Bart!

Frank H. Shaw. Outlaws of the Air. Glasgow: The Children's Press, 1927. Thanks again, Bart! Shaw was a former naval officer who was also a prolific writer of war stories and science fiction aimed primarily at boys. This particular outing is a throwback to Verne, in fact an aerial version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, with an incredibly powerful 'mystery airsip' instead of a submarine (called the Avenger, perhaps an allusion to the wreck of the Vengeur which was visited by the Nautilus).

People are nice. At the AHA today, I bumped into Bart Ziino, who gave me a present: the sheet music for a 1939 ballad called 'Lords Of The Air'. I'd not heard of it before, though I've probably heard it before as it was played in several episodes of Dad's Army. You can listen to that version above; it's a somewhat different arrangement as it's for an orchestra, not the piano. Here are the lyrics:

The British Empire proudly stands
As in the days of old,
Our fathers fought o'er land and sea,
Their history is told
In our new battle-field, the sky,
Prepared to do or dare
Let this be our new battle-cry
'Britannia rules the air.'

England our island home,
Land of the free,
England unconquered yet
O'er land and sea,
Lord of the heav'ns above
Answer our prayer,
God keep Britannia’s sons
Lords of the air.

Source: Michael North and Davy Burnaby, 'Lords Of The Air' (Sydney: D. Davis & Co., 1939).

'Lords Of The Air' was described as one of the 'newest compositions' in early November 1939, so perhaps it was inspired by the Wilhelmshaven raid on the second day of the war, which achieved a propaganda victory if nothing else. 'Lords Of The Air' certainly captures that sense of wishful thinking and empty boasting; it perhaps aspires to be a 'Rule, Britannia!' for the air age. By the end of 1939 it does seem to have become the most successful of several collaborations by Michael North (music) and Davy Burnaby (words), often being sung alongside better-remembered songs as 'There'll Always Be An England' (as recorded by Joe Loss and His Concert Orchestra, featuring Monte Rey) and 'We'll Meet Again'. My copy was printed for the Australasian market, and here too it was a popular choice for patriotic concerts and community singing, particularly during the period of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz (in fact, I suspect you could use its popularity as an index of concern about the progress of the air war in Europe).

So 'Lords Of The Air' turns out to be a nice little marker of patriotic airmindedness from the start of the Second World War. Thanks, Bart!


The May 2015 issue of Fortean Times (a periodical I warmly recommend) has a fascinating article by Daniel Wilson about a type of radio interference known as oscillation, which afflicted radio broadcasting in the 1920s and 1930s, about which, I'm ashamed to say, I previously knew nothing at all.1 What's fascinating about oscillation is not the technical aspects, but rather the social ones, because it was a type of interference that listeners could create as well as experience as they were trying to tune in to a particular radio station, interfering not only with their own wireless set but any others nearby trying to listen to the same frequency. This led to oscillators becoming a social pest: they were told off by the press, by the government, and by other members of the public. They were even hunted down by radio detector vans (the start of a great British tradition). While many oscillations were accidental, a consequence of domesticating a technology which wasn't quite ready to be domesticated yet, it seems that others were intentional -- it was done to annoy other listeners, or at least that was the suspicion. (The trolls are always with us.)
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  1. Reading it I was put in mind of an equally fascinating Fortean Times article about something else from my period I knew nothing about, A Victim's bizarre account of persecution by ventriloquist stalkers, Crook Frightfulness (1935). Turns out Wilson wrote that too. 


Getty Images has just announced an embed function, which makes it possible to very easily use images from their collections in blogs and other social media, while simultaneously maintaining Getty Images' rights and -- this is the really nice bit -- avoiding the use of unsightly watermarks. This is rightly being greeted with enthusiasm (though not so much by photographers), and I'll try to use it myself where possible. Even a quick search turns up many great historical images, some familiar, most not. (Basic tip -- to filter out stock photos, restrict your search to editorial images.)

But there are problems, too. Above is an example of a embed from Getty Images. It's from a lithograph by W. Walton of Day & Haghe, lithographers to the Queen, depicting 'Ariel, the first carriage of the Aerial Transit Company', and printed on 26 March 1843 by Ackermann & Co., Strand, London. But the only part of all that which is given in the Getty Images metadata is the title; the rest came from the Library of Congress's copy, which moreover has no usage restrictions at all (since it's long out of copyright) and shows the uncropped lithograph (admittedly, probably less desirable for a blog post). The only other information offered by Getty Images is that the date it was created was 1 January 1900, which is ludicrously incorrect.

We can't expect Getty Images to thoroughly research every image they hold, and an aeroplane flying over Egypt in the mid-19th century is kind of weird to begin with. But the problem of poor or incorrect Getty Images metadata is actually quite common.
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Press interest in airships, January-April 1913

'Everybody's Doing It' was the name of a popular revue which opened in the West End in February 1912; the music and lyrics (including a near-eponymous song) were co-written by Irving Berlin. It was also the Manchester Guardian's stab at a contemporary pop cultural reference to describe just how widespread the phantom airship scare had become by the start of March 1913. There are more concrete ways to express this than ragtime. Geography is one; chronology is another.

The graph above shows two things. (After relying on Plot for many years, I've switched to DataGraph, which is not free but is more powerful and much easier to use.) The blue bars represent the number of British periodicals (mostly daily newspapers, London and provincial) which mentioned mystery airships on each day in January-April 1913, while the red bars represent the number which mentioned airships, whether mysterious or non-mysterious (for example, the activities of German or British military dirigibles). It doesn't matter whether a newspaper mentioned scareships once as a humorous aside or devoted half a page to a topic, both are counted equally here. Three phases can immediately be distinguished. (I must admit to having fudged the data a little bit: I've assumed that every issue of the Aeroplane would have mentioned airships, as I don't have access to copies to check. Flight certainly did.) The first, from the start of January through the third week of February, is characterised by a relatively low level of press interest in airships, in which references to mystery airships predominate (though not so much towards the end of this period). The second phase is clearly the peak of the phantom airship scare, the last week of February and the first week of March, when more than two or three times the usual number of periodicals talked about airships, overwhelmingly the mysterious kind. The third phase extends from the second week of March until the end of April. There are far fewer mentions of scareships here, even compared to the first phase. But interestingly, the amount of attention paid to airships in general remains very high: several times that of the first period, and not too far short of that in the second, peak period.
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Dr Beachcombing of Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog kindly dropped me a line to alert me to his post about Public Service Broadcasting, a British music duo who draw on old propaganda and information films for inspiration and samples. A number of these are from the Second World War period, including 'Spitfire', 'London Can Take It', 'Dig For Victory', and 'Lit Up'. My favourite is the one above, 'If War Should Come'. Based on the 1939 GPO film of the same name, despite/because of the remixing and the electronica it is nicely evocative of the shadow of the bomber.
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Weddings Parties Anything, "A Tale They Won't Believe":

I have previously explained the relationship of this song to aviation history (well, it's pretty slender, to be honest), here.

Though the Weddoes split up a decade back, they're embarking on a reunion tour around Australia, which is very exciting news -- particularly since I'll be seeing them at the good old Corner Hotel in April! They're also playing, oddly enough, one show in London, on 25 April. They're sensational live, so why not mark Anzac Day in true Aussie style (i.e., rocking your socks off and, optionally, getting simultaneously smashed)? All the details are here.

Chonk on!


Long-time reader, second-time commenter Ian Evans was in the Royal Observer Corps in York at the end of the 1950s. Here he describes how the ROC, in addition to retaining something like its planespotting functions during the Second World War, took on the job of measuring the Third:

When I joined the ROC (1958) it was still pretty much an RAF auxiliary, officers with handlebar moustaches and all. We spotted, reported and plotted aircraft in a very similar manner to our WW2 predecessors, though things had been simplified and speeded up, with special procedures for fast low flying aircraft (Rats). The nuclear reporting role was just being introduced, the observer posts were given “bunkers”, a small underground room with bunks and stores, airlock and reinforced tunnel to the surface, a nuclear burst recorder (a souped-up pinhole camera), a pressure recorder to measure the blast strength, a Geiger counter to measure the fallout, and individual dosimeters (we were rather cynical about these).

The operating theory was that there would be sufficient political warning for the observers to man their posts, they would wait for the noise to stop, surface, extract the recording paper from their recorders, read off the bearing and altitude of the burst and the peak overpressure. This would then be phoned in to Group HQ where we would plot the (hopefully several) bearings, and get the position of the detonation. Then, using the reported overpressures, plus sets of tables and nomograms we woud evaluate the bomb power and report back to…..anyone still alive. After that the posts would report radiation levels at regular intervals until…

Which is quite a terrifying job description (luckily they didn't have to do risk assessments in those days!)

But, of course, there was plenty of terror to go around. Long-time reader and commenter CK pointed out a 1982 BBC documentary called "Nuclear War: A Guide to Armageddon" (written and produced by Mick Jackson, director of Threads) about the effects of a nuclear war and how civilians should prepare for it.

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