Works in the Herald 1933

It may seem an extraordinary thing to say; but I have no desire to visit the stratosphere. In the first place, when one gets there -- supposing one does -- there is nothing to see except a lot more of the same nothing through which one had voyaged to get there. There is nothing to do except to gaze listlessly through nothing at nothing and, of course, make various careful and intricate scientific observations of which I know nothing. And when it is all over there is nowhere else to go but to come back again - carefully, if possible.

The whole proceeding suggests to my limited mind all too vividly that famous but futile king who marched his army up a hill for the sole purpose of marching them down again.

I am well aware that this confession marks me at once as a back number in the glorious march of progress. But I am still unmoved and unimpressed; for my attitude toward this frantic modern effort to go somewhere else very rapidly and spectacularly places me definitely among the carefree company of sailors. I don't care.

But really intelligent people tell me that these men who seem so eager to leave the comfortable earth for the discomforts of the upper ether are really rather heroic pioneers in the van of human progress. Stratospherically speaking, they are the pathfinders who go to prepare the way for triumphant humanity of the future, who will eventually flash in stratoplanes of incredible speed from Timbuctoo to Tippoburra in something like seven seconds. And I answer rather listlessly: "And what of it?"

Forty years ago this earth of ours appeared to me to be a very pleasant and satisfactory place. I think it still would be if the speed kings and the altitude emperors would get work in a coal mine, and settle down, and be sensible.

In those days man had no aeroplanes and no motor cars, and was possessed of no frantic desire to get from here to there for no particular purpose.

We have since acquired these wonderful toys, these marvellous and elaborately devised engines that annihilate distance. But I fail to perceive that we have gained any ground upon the mocking sprite of happiness. Quite the reverse; for I am sometimes seized with the not altogether humorless conviction that we are heading the wrong way. And again I ask, "Why trouble to annihilate distance?"

At this point my really intelligent friends become impatient, and begin to label me with various names suggestive of vegetables; but, accepting the appellations, I am able to remain unmoved.

And I seem to recall that, at another period of history, mankind made an earlier vigorous effort to leave this humdrum earth and climb up into the mystic regions of the upper air. But then, as today, the net result seems to have been confusion, discord, misunderstanding, and utter futility.

And I, who make no apology for confessing that I rather like being a vegetable, view all these frantic stratospheric efforts with an apathy worthy of a place in the heart of a comfortable cabbage. And, viewing, as from a lofty but stable mountain-top, the seemingly hopeless futility of the fevered world of today, again I ask: "What is progress? Whither are we progressing? And what do we propose to do when we get there?"

For, as I watch and wonder, I am more and more forcibly reminded of what befell those earlier disciples of human progress and pioneers of human aspiration who sought to build a great tower to the sky in a place called Babel.

Herald, 20 October 1933, p6

Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2002