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New England Airways Ltd Avro 618 Ten

Some big news. Today the Australian Research Council (ARC) announced that it is funding Linkage Project LP160101232, 'Heritage of the air: how aviation transformed Australia' to the amount of $440,000 over three years, with financial and/or in-kind contributions from Airservices Australia, the National Museum of Australia, the Civil Aviation Historical Society, and the SFO Museum. The project's official summary reads:

This project aims to generate new understandings of how aviation has transformed Australian society over the last hundred years, and how the technology of global mobility has shaped people, cultures and communities. Whilst aviation has transformed Australian society over the last hundred years, its heritage is under-appreciated and at risk. The project will build a partnership between the aviation industry, community groups, museums and a multidisciplinary academic team to develop fresh insights from under-utilised sources of aviation heritage, communicate their unique stories to the public through innovative exhibitions and publications, and help conserve it for future generations. As a result, the project will make an important contribution to culture and society by enabling community access to neglected and at-risk sources of aviation heritage, and engage the public's fascination with aviation through new interpretations of its extraordinary social and cultural impact.

The reason why this is big news, apart obviously from the scholarly value of this research, is that I am on the project as a Partner Investigator. What that means is that I will still be working as a lecturer, but some of my research time will now be devoted to Heritage of the Air working as part of the project team:

I'll no doubt have more to say in future about the actual plans and progress of the project, and my involvement in it. But for now I'll just say that this is a big deal for me, as it's the first major grant I've been a part of, and it's the kind of thing that humanities academics increasingly need on their CV these days, at least in Australia. So I'm grateful to Tracy for giving me this opportunity, and I look forward to working with her and the rest of the team over the next few years!

Image source: National Library of Australia.

David T. Courtwright. Sky as Frontier: Adventure, Aviation, and Empire. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005. Looking at the history of aviation as the expansion into a frontier is an interesting approach, especially in terms of the American experience, as examined here. But it's also a useful entry point to the key transition from the 'age of the pioneers' to the 'age of mass experience' (actually the main section of the book). As a bonus Courtwright also takes his argument up to the Space Age.

Apparently aviation has historically had some slight connection with the United States...

Dominick A. Pisano (ed.) The Airplane in American Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. I've actually used this collection before, for Jill D. Snider's excellent chapter on the aerial bombardment of Tulsa in 1921, but there is much else here of value for me. In particular, Pisano's own chapter on 'The confrontation between utility and entertainment in aviation' highlights a key tension in aerial theatre.

Jenifer van Vleck. Empire of the Air: Aviation and the American Ascendancy. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2013. A history of the American century through the lens of the spectacular growth through to the 1960s of Pan Am under Juan Trippe. Starts out with a chapter intriguingly called 'The Americanization of the airplane', which by implication might explain why I've been able to get away without paying too much attention to American aviation culture: for my period it wasn't so dominant as it became from the 1940s.

Walter Nessler, Premonition

Walter Nessler called this painting Premonition. A premonition of what? It's clearly London, judging from St Paul's, the double deckers, and so on, but it's an unsettling version. Everything is jumbled together and smothered by blood-red clouds. But apart perhaps from the ominous sky, the only direct evidence of what's wrong with this picture is the surreal image of the giant gas mask on top of the building being constructed (or deconstructed). Nessler was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and painted Premonition in 1937, the same year that his former countrymen bombed Guernica, a known inspiration for artistic protests against aerial bombardment. Clearly we may take this as his certainty -- a premonition suggests a supernatural inevitability -- that his new home was going to suffer a similar fate to the cities of Spain. (Although back in 2005 there was some journalistic silliness over the fact that two of the buses display the numbers 77 -- 7/7 -- and 30 -- the route of the bus blown up in Tavistock Square.)
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Prudence Black. Smile, Particularly in Bad Weather: The Era of the Australian Airline Hostess. Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2017. I've been fortunate to hear some presentations relating to Pru's ARC project on the history of Australian air hostesses, and it's fascinating stuff. Drawing partly on oral history interviews, she charts the changing roles and gender expectations of air hostesses from the rough days of the 1930s, through to the glamorous jetset era, up to the increasing professionalisation by the early 1980s.

Sue Rosen (ed). Scorched Earth: Australia's Secret Plan for Total War under Japanese Invasion in World War II. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2017. Largely a reproduction of a fascinating document from the NSW State Archives outlining civil preparations for a Japanese invasion, with some editorial contextualisation and some evocative illustrations. It's a fascinating plan for last-ditch resistance and resource denial, but you have to wonder how much would have been carried out in reality. (Luckily, that was never likely to be tested.) Review copy (not for Airminded).

David Stephens and Alison Broinowski (eds). The Honest History Book. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2017. The book of the website! A collection of essays arguing for the proposition that 'Australia is more than Anzac -- and always has been', half on putting Anzac in its place, the other half on what Anzac has hidden.

Richard Toye (ed.) Winston Churchill: Politics, Strategy and Statecraft. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. 'Not another Chuchill book!' I groaned on seeing this. But then I bought it, because it's got an essay by Richard Overy on 'Churchill and airpower' (plus a few other interesting things).

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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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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.