It seems that my prep school, where I boarded from aged 8-13 (yes I know, I’m still trying to catalogue the subsequent privileged hangups), is 150 years old next year. They appealed for memories from old boys to be included in the anniversary book. So feeling in a slightly frivolous and provocative mood that day, I wrote this. Thought some at least might enjoy it. Read more
We’re back from a joyous couple of days in Oxford – including a happy return to the Museum of old Ashmole himself, stunningly redesigned and rebuilt. If you’re there before mid-Jan, check out the temporary exhibition of one my all time artistic heroes, Claude Lorrain.
But my purpose in posting today is a rather fun ad campaign around the streets of north Oxford. A pair of footprints… to begin with you’ve no idea what it’s on about. It could lead to a host of things. But like the best teaser campaigns, it works… you want to know more. Read more
Last week, I had the joy of a 24 hour-get-together with some old friends at a place just outside Oxford – at Boar’s Hill in fact. It was a place of many happy memories when I worked after graduating in Oxford – and came out to the hill for the odd picnic. It is the spot from which the dreaming spires are most famously captured. And the autumnal colours were especially lovely – even in the dreary grey of a sunless sky.
Here are a few snaps from our walk.
Believe it or not, these colours are completely real…
And I only slightly doctored this one of the famous view. Well perhaps a bit more than slightly…
Yet more from Holmes’ Age of Wonder. This time the focus is the new-found fascination with flight, as provided by hot air balloons. For the first time human beings could escape the shackles of gravity and deliberately ‘fly’ – albeit in a rather clumsy and highly dangerous way. What struck me was the contrasting reactions from those who gawped from the fields below.
On the one hand, balloons provoked a wild sense of possibility, with all the enlightenment fervour and ambition that entailed. Here’s the poet Shelley again, dreaming of abolition:
Perhaps Shelley put it best, when he was a young undergraduate at Oxford in 1811, and had just witnessed another of Sadler’s balloon ascents one sparkling summer morning from Christchurch Meadows:
The balloon has not yet received the perfection of which it is surely capable; the art of navigating the air is in its first and most helpless infancy; the aerial mariner still swims on bladders, and has not yet mounted the rude raft… It would seem a mere toy, a feather, in comparison with the splendid anticipations of the philosophical chemist. Yet it ought not to be altogether condemned. It promises prodigious faculties for locomotion, and will allow us to traverse vast tracts with ease and rapidity, and to explore unknown countries without difficulty. Why are we so ignorant of the interior of Africa? – Why do we not despatch intrepid aeronauts to cross it in every direction, and to survey the whole peninsula in a few weeks? The shadow of the first balloon, which a vertical sun would project precisely underneath it, as it glided over that hitherto unhappy country, would virtually emancipate every slave, and would annihilate every slave forever. (p162)
And yet, as at every great technological advance, there is the dread of the malicious ends to which it might be used.
Surprisingly, balloons did not appeal to the gothic novelist Horace Walpole, though perhaps at sixty-six he was a little old for such perilous novelties. He thought balloons might be sinister [as he wrote in a letter of 1783]:
Well! I hope these new mechanic meteors will prove only playthings for the learned and idle, and not be converted into new engines of destruction to the human race – as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in Science. The wicked wit of man always studies to apply the results of talents to enslaving, destroying or cheating his fellow creatures. Could we reach the moon, we should think of reducing it to a province of some European kingdom.
It was an ominous prophecy. (p135)
As ever, the rough with the smooth – and our forebears were all too aware of both… It is no surprise therefore that Holmes gave his book the subtitle: How the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science.