‘A winged fish of extraordinary beauty’ is the translation of the sub-title above, which appears on a card from the Museo del Oro in Colombia, showing a stunning gold flying fish, which Tell (Münzing) and Ulrike brought with them when they came to lunch today. He’s just come back from Latin America – and when he saw this flying fish there he thought of Volans. They also brought a dazzling array of cheeses and two wonderful wines, both from Marta’s Vinyard (sic) in Mendoza, Argentina, one a 1999 Malbec, the other a 2003 Chardonnay.
A great way to end a two-week break, largely spent at home, though we did also spend a couple of days earlier this week at Hill House, Little Rissington, with a side trip across to see the Palmers in Icomb. We have also been seeing a number of other people as and when, among them a favourite artist, Paul Slater and his wife Sophie, and, separately, Clare Kerr.
In the meantime, have been reading a fair amount, including Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect (which sums up what I’d like to achieve with Volans, in terms of the hybrid vigour that comes from the intersection of ideas, concepts and cultures), The Reserve by Russell Banks (which reminded me hugely of our long-dead cousin Hollister T. Sprague – first cousin to my grandmother Isabel – and his extraordinary house, Forestledge, overlooking Puget Sound) and The Balloon Factory, by Alexander Frater, the story of the men who built Britain’s first flying machines.
Loved the story of Geoffrey de Havilland pacing out his prospective take-off path to check for larks’ nests before he opened his throttle and wobbled into the skies. And the extraordinary saga of Sam Cody, who I only knew previously via his work with manned kites. Had enormously enjoyed Frater’s Beyond the Blue Horizon some years ago, the story of his quest in search of the last traces of the old flying boats of Imperial Airways.
When I mentioned The Balloon Factory to Pat today, she recalled that her mother and my other full grandmother, Marjorie, had been on the south coast in 1909 and had seen Blériot’s plane. Shortly afterwards, I came across the relevant section in Frater’s book: “On 25 July 1909, shortly after five o’clock in the morning, a tiny aircraft came heavily to earth near Dover Castle. The pilot, weary and oil-smeared, gave his name as Blériot, Louis. Britain’s aloof status had ended forever, at the War Office there was profound shock. The role of the aeroplane in the defence of the realm might, after all, need to be reconsidered.” Given the stout resistance put up by the bureaucrats of Whitehall to anything that smacked of the future, it’s astonishing we ever managed to get things together in time for WWI.
Which cross-linked to something I was reading earlier in the week in one of my father’s mother’s diaries, from 1916. She was working as a draughtswoman at the Admiralty, drawing up various secret things – and downloading her hectic social life into a series of Admiralty notebooks at the same time. Isabel was my favourite grandparent, out of quite a few, thanks to a series of divorces on both sides of the family, and her style of confiding to her diaries gives an odd impression that she is speaking directly to tone, which is quite moving.
In any event, at one point she describes a boyfriend who is in the Navy taking her out into nearby gardens to watch the Zeppelins flying overhead, at which point he makes love to her. “What could you expect?” she asks. “Most unreasonable – time – place – everything. But then when was love reasonable?” Later, less romantically, she notes that one of the airships had been brought down, but also that various bombed buildings had quickly been overrun by looters. Which loops back in my mind to that golden flying fish – and the story it could tell of the looting of the Aztec and Inca cultures by the ancestors of the people who now run museums dedicated to celebrating the best (alongside guttering buckets of bad) that those earlier cultures left to posterity to pick over.