A dose of reality. That’s what it felt like. Even though it obviously wasn’t. Because what it was, was vacation. The kind of blue skies not easily found at home, one always imagines – but especially at the moment. A time of liberals wondering if their grand dreams have gone up in smoke, and everyone desperate for anything at all to lift the spirits.
I am a fan of the road trip. Driving the miles, provided you’re not trying to cover too stupidly many in the same pair of pants, shows you the landscape between your own front door and your hotel’s reception. Blasting along an autoroute at a hundred miles an hour is so much more natural than teleporting into Palma international by Airbus via the luggage carousel, don’t you think? Ah, modern life.
Actually this road trip was a lot more ‘natural’, as it turns out, as our old Audi’s aircon broke some years ago, and we were traveling in Europe’s June 2017 heatwave. Yeah. Breathe in the ‘natural’ after five hours of that. But nature and, well, health seemed to be the motifs of our little escape from the small-seeming shores of the UK, because being back on terra europa proper felt oddly like coming up for air. And even crevice sweat-spiked air tasted sweet compared to the toxic atmosphere of home this summer.
Choking on fumes.
I’m not sure what to say of the UK’s snap general election. Where, in the end, did it get us? Once again I felt I should carefully engage with the conversations about it all, as I’m not sure we’ve ever had so much facing us as a country worth talking through together. The country’s felt under seige since the farcical-seeming referendum result in 2016. At least to many of us. And so the rise of a much more human sounding Jeremy Corbyn and his engagement of young people at last really was hard to not cheer on with gusto for an old lazy progressive like me. But it prompted a bizarre hollowing out of the centre ground of old politics in the UK, with Prime Minister May’s manefesto and entire demeanor lurching to the right in ever more sickening turns. Her sheer ineptness at canvassing and, well, talking to fellow humans, was beyond reality and would have been incredulisingly hilarious if it didn’t represent such national weakness and desparing lack of political and humanitarian vision in the face of what I feel unable to put unpartisanly as a braying, mindless Tory right.
And while the vote in the end shook up the bitter empasse of the UK a little hearteningly, the Dickensian injustice and utter shame of the Grenfell Towers deaths heating the heels of the result so shockingly just underlined how much political and economic culture we have allowed to grow in the UK that is dehumanised. Sickeningly detached from a reflexive sense of shared values. Add two terror-inspired murder rampages and it’s no wonder my country feels weary and a little lost when it thinks about its place in the world today.
To wake up in leafy France, and then Germany and then Luxembourg, and watch their public spaces casually thrum with bicycles and trams and pedestrians, and different languages and different faces, while Macron charmed the G7 and Merkel finally allowed a free vote on gay marriage, and Bettel was… – wait, what was Xavier Bettel doing? Who cares, Luxembourg is charming. He was doing something to help Luxembourg be charming, presumably – was like like a reawakening.
All of which shows what a twitkopf I am when it comes to recognising reality. Because I was on a supposedly more-sustainable-than-flying driving holiday to visit some Green City design in a thirteen year-old diesel with the specific intention of visiting a museum dedicated to the history of flight. And all politicans eventually become saggy old gas bags, whatever their first language.
Lighter than air.
Freiburg is suspiciously healthy. But Freidrichshafen shows it’s scars. Both places had us thinking about the world some more.
Freiburg is well known in sustainability circles for its efforts in designing green ways of living. Its two districts of Vauban and Rieselfeld, nestled in the crook of the hills of the southern Black Forest, were planned at different stages to tackle better ways of running and living in residential quarters. A must on the list of visits for the lovely first lady of Momo, and I tend to need no persuading to swan around interesting modernist architecture and throughful public realmism. But then, I am subjectively a bit of a Europhile, as you know. And Freiburg looks exceptionally European. As does Freidrichshafen, glittering on the Bodensee, Lake Constance.
In both cities, lifestyle seems purposefully and duh-obviously built in. Like no one needed health and wellbeing and art and public good to be explained to them when they developed their buildings and public spaces. People bicycle relentlessly in Freiburg, to the point where I realised I was having to adopt a battle-hardened London-driving mental resilience on two wheels. Pinging my little glocke defiantly. And all along the route of the river bed that bisects the city north and south, young people are gathering in healthy looking groups of outdoor socialising, as many girls as boys playing basketball or football in the various courts and pitches along its length, and teens and lovers and youngsters all enjoying the long summer evenings backdropped by the forested mountains. No one looking overweight. Or impractically dressed. Or like they’d understand the concept of wanting to sit up late at night writing hate bollocks on message boards.
Lord knows what of this was any kind of real. But it was intoxicating to watch. Like we had awoken from a bad dream of bad air and bad language and dark expediency and explosively bad chemistry of so many political public figures clamouring to seize the fleeting title of Most Noxious Barrage Balloon of Britain. Like a gaggle of bulbous-headed Gerald Scarfe grotesques barking at the search lights as they loom above us in the night. Being away from the UK buoyed us above the Murdocks and Dacres and puppet Mays and Johnsons of little England’s current spell of terrible social weather.
Traveling from our few nights in the black forest, bicycling and hiking and watching sparrows fledge in the trees around our tent and attempting not to weep and hug every sensible German we saw as the week went on, our subsequent couple of nights in Friedrichshafen would provide more gentle lift to the spirits. Like Freiburg, it too was bombed heavily in the second world war but Freidrichshafen makes a point of it in the museum that was the point of our, well my, pilgrimage to the place. The Zeppelin museum.
Oh you know. Been an airship tit for many years. Said it before. There’s just something so otherworldly about those giant silver fish. And if ever you doubted that, you should step aboard a recreation of a section of the Hindenberg to appreciate just what a vast other world it was. A vision of grandeur and positivity that is, apparently, gone. Like a beautiful dream. Not a bad one.
For, yes, in the end the story of Baron Von Zeppelin’s determination to develop a large lifting lighter than air platform for mass transport does look like a thing out of time. An unrealism. A confidence too far. A hope blown to ashes. From testing his giant floating sausages to scare the Willhelmian children of the Bodensee, the eccentric Baron and his champion Hugo Eckener eventually lost their fight for a more dignified type of flight. Airships just couldn’t compete with fixed wing aeroplanes by the second world war and new economies took over.
Ahead of the times.
But. Finally visiting the lovely Bauerhaus museum on the waterfront there, after years of reading about the Graf Zeppelin and all the LZs and the vaguely ridiculous attempts at building airship fleets by the British and Americans during the 20s and 30s, I did wonder. Is it not so much that these enormous vehicles have had their day and are relics of another, more daring but more naiive time, but more that they are seeds of promise? Ideas whose time has not, in fact, yet come.
For these epic machines really did sow seeds in people’s imaginations. How often does the familiar alien shape of the large rigid airship hove like a truly hoveable object – perhaps the ultimate hoving thing – into the stories of alternate reality science fiction and fantasy? All the ruddy time these days, is the answer. What is it about them that makes us look up in a way that out-inspires the airplane or the rotary wing contraption? Is it simply that there is just something in the only thing that could put a grand piano in the sky with an entire cocktail lounge around it?
The Zeppelin was essentially a failure at war. I mean, no kidding. What a ridiculous thing. Although it’s true that it took a lot more tenacity and weapons R&D on the part of the Royal Flying Corps to shoot a baby killer out of the British skies during the first world war than you might imagine, bobbing along hugely and slowly and full-of-hydrogenly as they did, it’s also true that their potency for fear was never strategically quite enough to justify the risks to their German crews at the time. And while the legendary Hindenburg herself was only lifted from the drawing board into unearthily big cross section cradles because the National Socialist boss himself felt that potency for awe she could have with swastikas on her rudder fins, in the end, the Zeppelins never proved their worth even as supply platforms. The German-built bohemoths of the American 30s, the Macon and the Acron, were kind of ridiculous as aerial aircraft carriers – watching the flyboys trying to get on and off their dangling davits at 10,000ft is as frightening as it is funny. But the idea of them sounded cool to the American navy, that was the point. Cool enough to get actually commissioned and built. Both airships fell to bits in storms, I seem to remember.
What the Zeppelins did with aplomb was wow people. Just like those navy commissioners. And Hitler. And Hugo Eckener himself, turning up at Von Zeppelin’s house one summer day in his twentieth year to find out ‘what the hell the old man is up to up there’ for the local paper. They wowed people enough to build them, work on them in weird, hard and downright terrifying conditions in various measure, and pay a fortune to travel on them. The Graf Zeppelin clocked thousands of perfect service operation miles before she was, kind of unbelievably now, simply scrapped in 1940. After the newsreeled humanity of 1937, the market for airships lost all buoyancy and they vanished. From everywhere except our imaginations.
Could a blatantly peacetime role one day recur for them?
The question has long been, why would anyone bother? In a post-Concorde world, however, I wonder. Because it’s also a Space-X, Virgin Galactic world now. And a world with unrelenting cruiseship holiday ads, giving Rob Brydon apparently endless opportunities to enact new fake family lives. And, dare I suggest it, a world looking for new senses of wonder, and different ways of viewing the world.
While Google founder Sergey Brin is reportedly building an eccentric vanity project in the shape of a large airship in the Macon’s old hangers, the British Airlander project is putting some serious sounding effort into developing a new heavy lifting lighter than air platform. The hybrid airship design manages to harness a little old-fashioned lift into it’s fuselage shape, to aid the buoyancy system, an idea explored by Lockheed Martin to test stage already also. So there are people taking the idea seriously again today. Though, if I’m honest, it’s hard from a distance not to still wonder how excited a truly mass audience could get about a ponderous squidgy aircraft called ‘the flying bum’ by bystanders. They look like wallowing blobby turds sooner than sleek silver fish. Perhaps, sadly, a grand new vision of new human dominance just isn’t ready. We’re not ready. For that kind of positive symbolism.
Still, I will admit that the Airlander’s presence in the sky with that low hrum of fans triggers the ol’ awe reflex as ever anything of its kind did. And that may still be the idea’s promise – something about it feels like it should be just the sort of thing we’d all be doing. If only we had the real vision to get it off the ground properly.
Over the rainbow.
Perhaps the airship represents where we are right now. Something that has both had its time and not yet reached its potential. Like the green movement of the 1970s. It held such promise, yet faultered in the face of boom money and easy finance taking over government. The airship foundered on politics and war. Too fragile, in the end, to survive either at the time. Freiburg and Friedrichshafen both grew into their modern lifestyles partly out of the destruction of war. As did all of Germany, really. Destruction at the hands of my countrymen, I might have thought, standing in front of the large images of bomb damage in the Zeppelin museum. Destruction brought on its own head, you might say, looking at the pictures alongside of Hitler’s slave labour in the same town.
Destruction wrought by competing storms of power, in fact, internal and external. Not unlike the squall of Brexit.
The unexpected thing we walked away with from the Zeppelin museum was a sense of humanity. Not simply of all the individuals it tried to pay respect to in the long story of a bonkers vision, but of redemption from suffering. For the Zeppelin Company’s post-war, post-reparations role in the second half of the twentieth century emerged to be as boringly disappointing sounding as it was actually brilliant for a battered, scarred town – an asset management company, bequeathed to the town by the late, crazy Baron. A man who found his true vocation only when forceably retired from the military in later life. The profits from the company’s management over the years have been ploughed into the arts and education and social care.
You never know what might fall into the ground as a seed when even your dreams appear to die.
But, seeds of a bonkers new way of doing things might yet be sprouting through the dry earth again. And if the airship is anything, as all it’s fans and investors always felt, it is a symbol. Perhaps even a floating weathervane pointing towards a better future, head to wind. I will often vote for an inspiring symbol; I voted Green in my general election in the end, not because I thought they could stop the war between corporate and social needs today, but because they were the only party on my ballot paper pointing towards a true vision of the future. A vision that has helped to plant a seed in me of a world beyond the bullshit of now in a fundamental way. Not high above it on a silver cloud, but fingers in the soil. A vision that might yet have me myself work out how to come down from my fanciful highs and one day kneel in the vegetable bed.
Because it is, I have never been surer, the truly human-shaped ways of doing things that will change the world for the sustainably doable better. And one of the symbols of that may just happen to appear in the sky one day, kind of sausage shaped.
Not every encouraging thing may be primarily practical, y’know. Or profoundly green. Or significantly more profitable. The things humans most prize tend to be symbolic – perhaps of higher ways of doing things. Because such things infect our imaginations and lodge in our outlooks. Our motivations. They make us feel better. Healthier. More naturally us.
You can call it unrealistic. I call it real hope. Something we can’t afford a vacation from.