A friend who ‘bubbled’ with us arrived to stay this weekend. Being a couple of years older than me, and not one for tact, she reminded me I have ‘a significant birthday’ coming up next month. Had I planned anything special, she wondered? Of course not. Increasing age brings with it, for me at least, an increasing taste for denial.
The inquiry did though put me in mind of one my most spectacular birthday treats. Some years ago, my wife booked me a balloon ride. Hot air and myself had been so inseparable over the preceding forty years of my life perhaps it seemed the perfect match.
In fact, I’ve always been fascinated with what seems the most whimsical form of transport. The elegance of a fleet of balloons gliding up a Derbyshire valley in the glow of a late afternoon sometime in the late 1980s – part of some festival of ballooning I think – remains one of the slowest, most beautiful things I have ever seen unfurl.
My birthday-inspired bout of ballooning proved equally memorable – for an unanticipated reason. I learned something about our world that I should have known already, though it had somehow escaped my attention. More to do with science than magic, it was simply this: not all the air above our heads moves at the same speed, or even in the same direction.
The day of the trip was bright and sunny, and the take-off gentle as a feather. Crammed into one pocket of a huge basket divvied up like a wine box into nine or so human-sized wicker compartments, I barely realised we had taken off at all. When I peered below, I saw well-wishers fast-shrinking into models of themselves, hands raised, waving, like unusually animated figures in a model railway. From then on, it was upwards all the way, occasional blasts from the gas-fired burners nudging balloon and basket ever higher into the clear blue ‘above’. Once we’d ‘climbed the staircase’ to the desired level, we drifted sideways, swept along like a sailing ship running before the wind – thankfully without the chop to remind us of our breakfast.
It was such a peaceful condition to be in, up there, we hardly spoke; no traffic noise, barely birdsong, just the creak of the basket, the wind whistling through cables, and the burner now and then breathing fire to maintain our altitude.
Then came my moment of enlightenment. Looking down upon fields of cattle and spatterings of trees and houses and hay bales, I realised I was staring at a paradox. While we were blowing in one direction, down below trees bent in another. Winds, I understood, do not prevail over everything; blocks of air glide past each other, like distant relatives at a wedding.
As I say, this is probably not news to those of you who were paying attention in geography or physics lessons, or studied meteorology at nightschool, but to me it was a revelation.
For some reason that adventure came back to me this week, and after some thought, I figured out why.
In the UK we have broken the seal on a new phase of the pandemic. With reduced deathcounts and contagion, falling numbers in hospital and the anticipation of normality, wonderful freedoms are being recaptured; we are almost re-embracing the hug. In Liverpool, crowds of concert-goers are masklessly moshing, the possibility of travel hoves quietly into the harbour of restless minds. Even the virtual imprisonment of care home residents behind sheets of Perspex – separating them from visitors – seems about to become a relic of the past. And all this chimes with the season of spring-into-summer, when profusion of life and the draw of the great outdoors – or just a quiet beer with friends – beckon. It is a great time to be alive.
It’s not just here. In China, life has returned to normal according to reports – efficiency in vaccinating, the closing of borders and the severity with which outbreaks of the virus are pounced upon, have opened up space for ‘normality’ to resume.
At other altitudes, things couldn’t be more different. I was in Delhi just a few years ago. The scenes were are now seeing on TV will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time in India. The notion of social distancing is impossible to imagine on the streets we walked along. The restricted but overcrowded living conditions experienced by millions, the immense poverty and general scrabble to survive seem calculated to welcome such a contact-loving virus. The wealthy – of whom there are many – depend on the poor to enter their grand houses to cook their meals, run their homes and tend their gardens. Add to this the hubris of leaders so convinced they’d defeated the virus in the first wave that they failed to prepare and provide for a second wave, and the result? COVID-related death and destruction blasts through this massive population like some howling gale. It seems a world away from our much-anticipated unlocking, but it is the same world, the wind simply blowing in another direction, the funeral pyres beacons, if we are watching.
The notion that this too is part of the truth of our own situation is not just high-minded humanitarianism. The variants that rampage in India, or Brazil, or increasingly in Turkey, will almost certainly travel here. More testing may yet come, in every sense.
The other astonishing thing about my experience of hot air ballooning is the way that travelling so far from anything with which to gauge our progress, it was impossible to appreciate the speed with which the wind was blowing. Only when we came into land, and the cars below began to resume their normal noise and size, was it clear we were going at quite a lick. Skimming a hedge with the bottom of the basket, inches below my feet, we literally crashed to earth – and with a helluva bump. Tipping over, the basket dragged for what seemed like an age of teeth-chattering deceleration till eventually we ground to halt.
For some time I lay still, hands gripping the basket’s rim for dear life. Was it really so peaceful, just a few moments before?
There’s a great sense of this connectedness, in André Mangeot’s poem The Odds – a poem I’ve drawn attention to before in this Blog. You can find the poem via the Archive tab in the main menu, in the selection from André’s collection, Blood Rain.
There’ll be more from the wordcage next week, so take care, and check back in soon.
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