In the chapter “A Forgotten Air”, Penrose includes an account of a flight by early aviators Graham Gilmour and Eric Gordon England, in a Bristol Boxkite over Wiltshire on 12th April 1911. Penrose revels in this account of the flight from the pilot’s perspectivse, and then crosses into personal recollection after the pilots have stopped to “ask for directions”:
“..ninety minutes later a small boy of seven, leaning from the corridor window of a train waiting at Templecombe station, heard the reverberating, accelerating drone of an engine quite different from the few motor-cars and motor-cycles he had seen. Then, miracle of miracles, a great aeroplane, white winged and glittering, lifted with a cavernous din above the tops of trees and sailed slowly and splendidly past. Along the length of the train scores of windows slammed down and rows of faces peered into the sky.
‘An aeroplane - an aeroplane!’ cried everyone. ‘You can see the men in it!’
Standing on tiptoe, leaning far out, the boy stared and stared until the white wings were lost to sight and the purring engine faded to the faintest him and then was gone. In the carriages and on the platform everyone was talking excitedly, glancing occasionally into the skies as though they might find the aeroplane still there..
..In the distance I heard the guard blow his whistle. From far away I felt the train jerk into motion and accelerate to its rhythmic thumepty thump. The telegraph poles flicked past in a blur. Blindly the sun-enchanted countryside spun round. But the interest of the journey to reach the sea, for which I had so long looked forward, was diminished. I was a small boy, curled in a corner seat, wrapped in a dream of wings.”
Ghosts of the Air Age
Harald Penrose was born at the dawn of the aviation age, his very first flight as a boy being with the pioneer aviator Alan Cobham. His career spanned the Second World War and the advent of the jet and helicopter age.
One of my favourite bits of his writing is from the chapter “A Forgotten Air”, Cloud Cuckooland, which describes a visit to an air display at the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon, presumably in the early 1950s :
“..I was standing by the 1915 Farman biplane, thinking how readily we communicate with the past by occupying the very place where great events have occurred and famous men have lived, when a quiet voice broke into my thoughts:
“Do you remember how the wind used to hum in those wires?” said a tall man standing beside me. Nobody else was near. He was elderly but very erect, clasping an umbrella like a sword, and behind his gold-rimmed glasses the eyes were quick and bright. He was holding his bowler hat.
“Yes,” I answered, though I was only a small boy when I had seen Graham Gilmour and Gordon England flying a much cruder version, and had later watched similar pre-Great War training biplanes make a wobbly circuit before nosing steeply down to land.
“It was wonderful,” he added quietly, “We used to get up at dawn and fly our Boxkites all around Salisbury Plain while the morning air was calm…There was a kind of music in the wires when we switched the engine off.”
In silence we continued standing there, the tall old man with a stranger of a later generation, both gazing at the ancient, dilapidated Farman while, further away, a great crowd watched a display of jet fighters flashing past in a din like the breath of vengeance. But we had no eyes for modern aeroplanes.
“Upavon it was…They made me one of the instructors. Delightful days…Do you remember the smell of the burnt castor oil?”
I remembered as though it had been the nectar of the gods: the puff of blue smoke as the rotary engine fired, the glitter of spinning propeller, the slow drift of exhaust across the meadow, and its intoxicating, pungent perfume. Oh, did I remember!
The tall man pointed with his umbrella. “That one has got a nacelle. We used to sit in the open on seats bolted to the lower wing. There was a marvellous view.” He glanced down quickly to see if I understood.
“Yes,” I said.
We reverted to silence, looking at the slender struts and the thin steel piano wires boxing the long and shallow wings whose scalloped trailing edge was like a bird’s. How aerial, how delicately fragile, and though not particularly controllable, how responsive to every nuance of the air were those early aircraft - not projectiles hurtling through space, but aspiring to the skies like butterflies in the sunlight.
Presently my companion stirred from his reverie: “Well, I’d better say good day and not stay talking of the past.”
He strode away - a distinguished, tall, spare figure - but perhaps, after all, a little bowed about the shoulders despite the upright military impress. I watched him heading towards the distant crowd, a lonely old man who had shaped the past: a great man almost forgotten, but known to his generation as “Boom”, and in history as Marshal and Father of the Royal Air Force, Baron Trenchard of Wolfeton in the County of Dorset.”
By nice co-incidence, two of my favourite books of all time begin the same way - with an Englishman sitting on the top of a hill at sunset, contemplating life, the universe, and everything.
The first book - Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (not to be confused with P. Diddy’s Starmaker) - is a stupendous work of fiction that - with the hill as the starting point - takes the reader on a journey spanning the entire history of a cosmos alive with hope and strife. In many ways it is more monolith than book, as every re-read makes me feel more like Dave Bowman going through the Star Gate. It was published in 1937.
(this book is available, via Project Guttenberg, here)
The second book - Airymouse by Harald Penrose - is a more sedate affair. Test pilot faces retirement, ponders being in the “autumn” of hs years, purchases a “diminutive single seater aeroplane of insignificant horsepower”, flies around the South West of England, savours every minute, and reflects on his life.
There is very little in this book for the pure aviation historian. Penrose is humble in his career achievements, and recounts no technical data or information that cannot be found in other works. The joy is purely in the writing - Penrose’s England from the air is awash with memories and ghosts - of old aerodromes, flowered fields where aviators of old once landed, and fields where he would later crash-land himself as a test pilot. The book tells of the landscape away from the growing urban sprawl of the 1960’s - with place-names such as Bulbarrow, Melbury Bubb, Avalon, Glastonbury Tor, Lichlake, Mere Pool, and the Blackdown Hills, and Penrose sees remnants of man through the ages - from Stone Age through to Saxon times.
His prose at times, when describing a magical England becoming unfamiliar and depressing to him, resembles the great science fiction and fantasy writer Gene Wolfe.
Although there are some chapters that directly recall moments in his career, the main “characters” in the book are England’s birds. Penrose was a keen ornithologist - one chapter in a later book describes how he hunted for migratory geese whilst test flying a license built Spitfire during the Second World War, swooping low over estuary mudflats and sandbanks - carefully counting the numbers in rising flocks and their direction of travel. Every encounter - be it with a single gull or flocks of thousands of birds - was magical to Penrose, at one point describing a receding flock of geese that:
“became only a memory of birds, remaining in imagination for ever flying to the secret places of the earth.”
Airymouse was followed by a very similar book called Cloud Cuckooland - also highly recommended.
(art from the covers of Airymouse, Wrens Park Publishing, 2000 (Lynn Williams), and Starmaker (SF Masterworks), Millenium Paperbacks, 1999 (Les Edwards))
“..Having rumbled in with one engine stopped, it was impossible to taxi, so I switched off the other, clambered out, and began walking to the distant office and hangars.
A small phalanx of RAF personnel came marching towards me armed with rifles and bayonets. Half way we met. They halted with guns pointing aggressively.
‘What is that aeroplane?’ demanded the corporal in charge.
‘Never ‘eard of it. Where are you from?’
I had forgotten that the machine was still on the Secret List. ‘From Yeovil,’ I said. ‘I’m a test pilot.’
‘Then why are you wearing civilian clothes? You could ‘av stole that machine. You’re under arrest. Fall in.’
I tried to explain. It was no good. The scene was ludicrous. ‘Mind those damned guns don’t go off,’ I hopefully said, but he took no notice. Two sharp bayonets were pointing at my tail, and I was forced to march to the Duty Officer for interrogation. Because this had only been a local flight I carried no identity card, so it was not until he had telephoned Westland that my story was believed, and then with charm and apology I was given a cup of tea.”
Grief During Wartime
Up next, a series of posts about Harald Penrose, a remarkable British test pilot and author.
In the meantime: the following story is taken from a chapter in his autobiography, Adventure With Fate. Penrose was chief test pilot at Westland Aircraft during the Second World War - which was a major contributing manufacturer of the Supermarine Seafire, the naval version of the Spitfire:
“Aircraft awaiting collection were parked in a line behind the steel mesh, barb-topped tall fence that surrounded the aerodrome. That made it impossible for saboteurs to gain access. Yet at dawn one day a guard patrolling the factory frontage spotted a Seafire with hood open and the propeller spasmodically jerking.(photo of Seafires - in the pre-test flight shed with Welkin fighters in the background - via)
He unlocked the gate and rushed to the aeroplane. In the cockpit was a lad of fifteen pressing the button of a starter-battery he had linked to the machine. Brusquely interrogated, he said ‘The Germans have killed my brother, so I was going to fly away with this aeroplane to kill a German,’ and brandishing a revolver he broke free and ran away, escaping over a distant part of that unscalable fence…”