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“Then Later, His Ghost”: a short story by Sarah Hall

Christmas coming, a man and a woman in a lonely longbarn expecting a child, a post-apocalyptic landscape, a journey out into the tempest. An exclusive short story by Sarah Hall.


Illustration: Matt Saunders / Handsome Frank

The wind was coming from the east when he woke. The windows on that side of the house boxed and clattered in their frames, even behind the stormboards, and the corrugated metal sheet over the coop in the garden was creaking and hawing, as though it might rip out of its rivets and fly off. The wind bellowed. All the structures it hit or ran through sang and moaned. December 23rd. The morning was dark, or it was still night. He lay unmoving beneath the blankets, feet cold in his boots, his chest sore from breathing unheated air. The fire had gone out; the wood had burned too high with the pull up the chimney, or the flames had been extinguished by gusts. It was hard keeping it in overnight. Coal was much better; it burned hotter and longer, but it was hard to find and too heavy to carry.

He pulled the blankets over his face. Get up, he thought. If he didn’t get up it would be the beginning of the end. People who stayed inside got into trouble. No one was going to help them. Part of him understood – who wanted to die outside, tossed about like a piece of litter, stripped of clothing by the hands of the wind, then lodged somewhere, dirt blowing dunes over your corpse? Crawling into a calm little shelter was preferable.

Something hard clattered along the roof, scuttling over the slates, and was borne away. There was a great ooming sound above, almost oceanic, the top of the sky heaving and breaking. Whatever had been kept in check by the old Gulf Stream was now able to push back, unfurl and lash around. A bully of a wind. No wonder people had once created aerial gods, fiends of the air or the mountaintops. Even he took it personally, sometimes – yelling uselessly at the force, his voice tiny and whipped away. Not often though, it didn’t really help. When it came from the east a lot of the remaining house roofs went, and whole walls could topple – another reason not to stay inside too much. You had to be alert to the collapses. He turned on his side and shivered as the cold crept down his neck. The sofa he was lying on felt damp. The cushion he was using as a pillow smelled of wet mortar. He didn’t usually sleep in this room, but Helene was now in his.

Another sizeable object crashed past the house, splintering against the gable and flying off in separate pieces. He’d heard the wind shifting and strengthening during the night, though he was used to sleeping with the sound percussing his dreams. He couldn’t remember the last still day, the trees standing upright and placid, the air itself seeming to vanish, to not exist. Stillness seemed like a childhood myth, like the glory of August hay-timing, or Father Christmas. Last night he’d slept restlessly; his dreams were turbulent – wars, animals stampeding, Helene being swept away. After a night like that it was hard to get up. Other days he almost liked the climate. He liked being one of the only ones left in the town, the impetus; he liked letting go of the ropes strung between buildings and jumping so his coat could sail him several feet forward, flying like a spectre.

Get up, he thought. And then, because it was proving difficult, he thought, Buffalo. He pictured the buffalo. It was enormous and black-brown. It had a giant head and the shoulders of a weightlifter, a tapered back end, small, upturned horns. It looked permanently, structurally braced. He sat up, moved the blankets away, and then stood. He found the torch next to the sofa and switched it on. The cold made him feel older and stiffer. He moved around and lifted his legs gymnastically to get his blood moving. He did some lunges. There was a portable gas stove in the corner of the room and he set the torch next to it, ignited the ring, boiled water and made tea. He drank the tea black. There were no smuts in the grate. Perhaps he’d leave the fire a day to save fuel – the temperature was about four or five degrees, he guessed, manageable. So long as Helene was warm enough.

He took the torch and moved through the building, to the room where she slept. It was warm. She slept with the little tilly lamp on. She didn’t like the dark. Her fire was still glowing orange. She was sound asleep. She was lying on her side and her belly mound was vast under her jumper. He picked up the cast-off blanket from the floor and draped it back over her. She didn’t move. She seemed peaceful, though her eyes were moving rapidly behind her eyelids. The wind was quieter this side of the house, the leeside. It whistled and whined as it slipstreamed away. Little skitters of soot came down the chimney and sparks rose from the cradle. He looked at Helene sleeping. Her hair was cut quite short, like his, but hers curled and was black. When they were open her eyes were extremely pretty, gold-coloured, gold to green. He imagined climbing on to the bed next to her and putting his arm over her shoulder. Sometimes when he was checking on her she woke up and looked at him. Mostly she knew he was just checking, bringing her tea, or some food, or more wood for the fire. But sometimes she looked afraid. He knew she worried about the baby coming; that frightened him too. He was practical, and he’d found a medical book, but still. Helene was very quiet mostly. She’d done well, he thought, lasting it out, but she didn’t seem to think so. He thought probably she hadn’t developed any methods to help, like picturing the buffalo, and he worried about her. She was probably thirty, or thirty-five. She’d been an English teacher, though not his; she liked sardines in tomato sauce, which was good because he had lots of tins. She was very polite and always thanked him for the food. That’s all right, he’d say, and sometimes he’d almost add, Miss. She never said anything about what had happened to her, or the baby, but he could guess. No one would choose that now. He had found her in the Catholic cathedral, what was left of it. There were two dead bodies nearby, both men; they looked freshly dead when he uncovered their faces. She was looking up at the circular hole where the rose window had been. She wasn’t praying or crying.

He left some tea for her in a metal cup with a lid, and some sardines, and went back to his room. He did a stock check. He did this every day, unnecessarily, but it made him feel calmer. Calor gas bottles, food, clothes, batteries, duct tape, painkillers, knives, rope. The cans were piled in such a way that he could count them by tens. This house still had water, a slow trickling stream that was often tinted and tasted earthy. He still hadn’t worked out if it had its own well. But it made life easier – he didn’t have to rig up a rain­water funnel. He’d been collecting packets of baby formula too, but when he’d showed Helene she’d just looked sad.

There was a box with more delicate things inside, frivolous things, he sometimes thought, other times, precious. Photographs – of his mother, and his little brother in school football strip – his passport, though it was useless now, and the pages he’d been collecting for Helene. She loved reading, and he didn’t have much to read in the house. He’d been hunting for the play for a month or two and it was a very difficult task. So many books had been destroyed. Once the buildings were breeched nothing paper lasted; it warped and rotted, the ink smudged. Sometimes just a paragraph, or a line, was all he could hope for. So dear the love my people bore me, nor set a mark so bloody on the business: but with fairer colours painted their foul ends. In few, they hurried us aboard a bark, bore us some leagues to sea, where they’d prepared a rotten carcass of a boat, not rigg’d . . .

****

The town’s library had been demolished in the first big storms. No wonder: it had been built in the Sixties, part of the civic centre. The older the building, the longer it lasted, generally: people had gotten very bad at construction, he thought, or lazy. He was good at salvaging. He was good at it because he was good at moving around outside. He wasn’t timid, but he never took anything for granted. He wore the rucksack strapped tight to his body, like a packed parachute, taped up his arms and legs, tested the ropes, and always looked in every direction for airborne debris. He never assumed it was safe.

He took a tin of sockeye salmon out of the stack, opened it and ate it cold. Ulcers starred his tongue. He probably needed some fruit, but he’d rather give the fruit to Helene. He was hungry and he ate too fast. In winter having two meals was important – breakfast and dinner – even if they were small. This was the fourth winter. Last Christmas he hadn’t really celebrated because he was by himself, but having Helene made things nicer. He scraped the last flakes out of the tin with his nail and ate them. He drank the oil, which made him gag. He saved the tin – while they were still greasy they were good for making flour and water dumplings over the fire, though the dumplings tasted fishy. As well as the surprise gift, he’d been planning their Christmas meal. He’d had a tin of smoked pheasant pâté for two years, too much of a boon to eat by himself. There was a jar of redcurrant. A jar of boiled potatoes. And a tin of actual Christmas pudding. They would have it all warmed. Two courses. He even had a miniature whisky with which to set fire to the pudding.

He went to the back of the house, peered through a gap in the stormboards and watched the dawn struggling to arrive. Daylight usually meant the wind eased slightly, but not today. The light was pulsing, murky yellow aurorae. There were the usual items speeding past on the current – rags, bits of tree, transmuted unknowable things. Sometimes he was amazed there were enough objects left to loosen and scatter about. Sometimes he wondered whether these were just the same million shoes and bottles and cartons in flight, circling the globe endlessly, like tides of scrap. The clouds passed fat and fast overhead, and were sucked into a vortex on the horizon, disappearing into nothing. There was sleetish rain, travelling horizontally, almost too quickly to see. It was a bad idea to go out today – too big a wind. His rule was nothing more than a ninety, or what he gauged to be a ninety. But he wanted to find the last few pages.

He went back to his room and got ready. He put on hefty waterproof trousers and jacket. He cleaned and put on the goggles. He pulled the hood of the jacket up, yanked the toggles and tied them tightly. He taped the neck. He taped his cuffs and his ankles, his knees and his elbows. He put on gloves but left them untaped so he could take them off if he found any more books; he would need his fingers to be nimble, to flick through and tear out. It might mean he would lose one glove, or both, but he’d risk it. When he was done he felt almost airtight, like some kind of diver, a storm-diver, he thought. But it was better not to get too heroic. For a while he’d worn a helmet, but it had made him feel too bulky, too heavy, not adapted. He weighted the rucksack down with the red stone – he didn’t like to think of it as his lucky stone, because he wasn’t superstitious, but secretly he did think it was lucky. It was egg-shaped, banded with pink and white – some kind of polished gneiss. It had been in the geology lab at school and he’d later found it, looking through the wreckage. It sat in the bottom of the rucksack like a ballast, leaving enough room for anything that he discovered on his excursions and wanted to bring back. He had plastic wrapping for anything delicate. He was good at discerning what was useful and what was not; he hadn’t brought back many useless things, though the temptation was to save beautiful items, or money. His mother had always joked his birthdays were easy – as a kid he didn’t need many toys, field comforts, or gadgets. His mother had died in the flu pandemic. So had his little brother.

****

There were two doors to the house – one on the north side and one on the west. He stood by the west door and thought, Buffalo. He opened the door and felt the draw of air, then opened it wider and moved into the alcove behind the storm door. The storm door opened inwards and could be locked either side. He moved the bolt, forced himself out into the buffeting air, planted his feet and fastened it behind him. Either side of the house, the wind tore past, conveying junk, going about its demolition. Behind him, the house felt solid. It’d been a good choice – a squat, single-storey longbarn on the low-lying outskirts of town, with shutters and big outer doors. He’d modified it a bit, nailing, building break-walls. The coop in the garden was more hopeful than practical. This was his fifth house. The first – his mother’s, a white Thirties semi – had gone down as easily as straw, along with the rest of the row. The brick terraces had proved more durable, he’d lived in two, but they were high-ceilinged; once the big windows and roofs gave out they were easy for the wind to dismantle. Before the barn he’d been sharing with a man called Craig in a rank bunker near the market, a sort of utility storage. It was a horrible, rat-like existence – dark, desperate, scavenging. Craig was much older than him, but wasn’t clever or good at planning. Things had turned bad. He got out as soon as he could and wasn’t sorry. A lighthouse would have been best, round, aerodynamic, deep-sunk into rock, made to withstand batterings. But the coast was impossible – the surges were terrifying. Before everything had gone down he’d seen news footage; he couldn’t quite believe the towering swells. He had nightmares about those waves reaching inland.

He inched along the barn wall, towards the open. He’d planned a route through town. He would keep to the west side of streets wherever he could, for protection, but that meant being in the path of anything collapsing. In the past he’d outrun avalanching walls, he’d been picked up and flung against hard surfaces and rubble heaps, his collarbone and his wrist had been fractured. There were only so many near misses. He would need to judge the soundness of structures, only venture inside a building if the risks seemed low. He would go into the Golden Triangle – some of the big Victorian houses there were still holding and they were more likely to have what he was looking for. At the corner of the house he knelt, tensed his neck and shoulder muscles and put his head out into the rushing wind. The force was immense. He checked for large oncoming objects, then began to crawl along the ground. Staying low reduced the possibility of being knocked over, or decapitated. What had once been the longbarn’s garden was now stripped bald of grass. Clods of earth tumbled past him. The wind shunted his backside and slid him forward. He flattened out and moved like a lizard, towards the farm buildings and the first rope. He had different techniques, depending on the situation. Sometimes he crawled miles. Sometimes he crouched like an ape and lumbered. Other times he made dashes, if there were intermittent blasts, cannonballing the lulls, but he could get caught out doing that. Sometimes it was better to walk into the wind head on, sometimes leaning back against it and digging your heels in was best.

It had been a while since he’d been out in anything as strong. It was terrifying and exhilarating. The fury bent him over when he tried to stand, so he stayed low, a creature of stealth and avoidance. He clung to the cord that ran between the buildings. He’d tested the bindings only a few days ago, but still he gave a good yank to make sure it hadn’t begun to untether. This rope he’d put up himself, and he trusted it. A lot of the ones in town he’d redone too. He traversed it slowly while the wind bore between the buildings. After the farm, there was a dangerous open stretch. The Huff, he called it, because the weather always seemed filthy-tempered there. It had been a famous racecourse. Then the town started properly: its suburbs, its alleys and piles of stone. Once it was a town of magnificent trees. Plane trees, beeches, oaks. The big avenues had been lined by them, their leaves on fire in autumn, raining pollen in spring. Now they were mostly gone – uprooted and dying. There was a lot of firewood to haul away, though. He hardly ever saw anyone else taking it. He could probably count on one hand the number of people he saw in a month. Occasionally, a big armoured vehicle passed through, military – its windows covered in metal grilles. The soldiers never came out. A lot of people had gone west because it was supposed to be milder, there was supposed to be more protection and organisation. He’d never wanted to leave. He didn’t believe it anyway.

When he got to The Huff he almost changed his mind and went back. The air above was thick with dirt, a great sweeping cloud of it. Every few moments something rattled, fluttered or spun past, bounced off the ground and was lobbed upwards. On tamer days he’d sledged across the stretch on a big metal tray, putting his heels down to slow the contraption and flinging himself sideways to get off. Today, no larks, he’d be lucky not to break his neck. Crossing it would mean agreeing with the wind rather than fighting it, becoming one of many hurled items, colliding with others, abraded, like a pellet in a shaker. It was too wide a tract of land to rope; he had to go without moorings.

There was no let-up, so he gave himself a moment or two to prepare and then he let go of the farm walls and began to crawl across. He tried to move his limbs quickly to keep up with the thrust of the current, but it was too strong. Within moments the wind had taken him, lifting his back end and tossing him over. He felt the red stone slam into his spine. He started tobogganing, feet first. He tucked his head in, rolled on his side, brought his knees up and felt himself scraping along. The ground was hard and bumpy and vibrated his bones. He put his hands down and felt debris filling his cuffs. Something sharp caught his anklebone and stung. Shit, he thought, shitshitshit. He went with it, there was nothing he could do, and after a while managed to slow himself and regain some control. But still he was propelled. He hoofed his boots down and tried to brake. He was nearly at the edge of the racecourse, where the old, outer flint wall of the town began. The wind shoved him hard again and he went tumbling forward. His shoulder and knee hit the pointed stones. He lay for a moment, dazed and brunted against the structure, dirt pattering around him. It was hard to breathe. The air tasted of soil.

He spat, turned his head. When he opened his eyes one pane of the goggles was cracked, splitting his view. He was all right, but he had to move. He crawled along the boundary wall, around trolleys and piles of swept rubbish. His knee throbbed. A superbruise. At the first gap he went through. He sat up, leant against the sharp flint and caught his breath. He cleaned his goggles, emptied his gloves. Reckless idiot, he thought. Don’t fuck it up. He did want to live – moments like this reminded him. Moments like this made him feel more real than he ever had before. He became more skilful because of them. He evolved.

The boundary wall was twelve feet thick. Whoever had built it had meant business. Sections had been restored when he was a kid. It was holding up well. He looked at the town. Something catastrophic had passed over; that’s how it looked now. Razed. Roofs and upper floors were gone; cars were parked on their backs, their windscreens smashed. The big storms had left domino rubble in every direction, scattered fans of bricks and tiles, bouquets of splintered wood. Old maps meant nothing. New streets had been made, buildings rearranged. He had to keep relearning its form as its composition shifted.

He got up, crouched low, surveyed the route and limped off. It was a mile to the Golden Triangle. He saw no one. He kept to the safer routes and used the secure ropes when he had to, hauling himself hand over hand. He squinted through the broken goggles, seeing an odd spider-like creature in front of him, but he didn’t take them off – the last thing he needed was to be blinded. The ruins were depressing, but he occasionally saw miraculous things in them. An animal, though they were rare. There were no birds, not even distressed gulls; nothing could cope in the torrid air. The rats had done OK, anything living below ground level. Cats and dogs were few, and always emaciated and wretched. There was no food, nothing growing, not much to kill. People’s survival instincts were worse, he often thought, but they could at least use can openers. Two years ago he’d seen a stag. It was standing on the football field in front of him, reddish, six points on each antler. It was standing perfectly still, like something from the middle of a forest, and it didn’t panic or run. It was standing as if it had always stood there, as if tree after tree had been stripped away around it, until the forest was gone and there was nothing left to shield it.

He’d seen awful things too. A man sliced in half by a flying glass pane, his entrails worming from his stomach. Craig’s broken skull. The good things had to be held in the mind, and remembered, and celebrated. That was why he had to get the pages for Helene and why they would have a nice Christmas.

****

He made his way slowly through the town, forcing his body against the blast. He kept leeside wherever he could and watched for flying timber and rockslides. He crossed the little park at the edge of the Golden Triangle. There were stumps where the central pavilion had stood. The trees lying on the ground were scoured bare. Sleet had begun to gather along their trunks. He hoped it wouldn’t turn to snow and lie; it was hard enough keeping his footing. When he got to the Victorian district he was surprised to see smoke leaking from one of the heaps. He made his way over, cautiously, but it was just a random fire burning along a beam, some stray electrical spark, perhaps, or friction. Two rows away the houses were in better shape. Some only had holes in the roofs and lopped-off chimneys. The windows were mostly out. He could hop through the bays if the lintels were safe.

He always called out to make sure they were empty first. It wasn’t really etiquette. It wasn’t really robbing. It was retrieval of what had been abandoned. He’d been in some of them before, checking for food, batteries, essentials. They had been lovely places once, owned by doctors and lawyers, he imagined. There were remnants – cast-iron fireplaces, painted tiles; even some crescents of stained glass hanging on above the door frames. Damp and fungus and lichen grew inside the walls. He tried a couple, searching through the downstairs rooms – he never went upstairs if he could help it, it was too dangerous. The wind moaned through the rooms, shifting wet curtains and making the peeling wallpaper flicker. There were pulpy masses on the shelves, rotting covers, the sour smell of macerating paper.

He stepped among the detritus, broken glass and broken furniture, digging through piles, tossing collapsed volumes aside. He’d been dreaming about finding a complete works – that would really be something special – bound in plastic perhaps, unviolated. But, like Bibles, they were the first to go, their pages wafer-thin and frail. He’d studied the play in school, not with any particular enjoyment. He could remember bits of it, the parts he’d had to read out. As wicked dew as e’er my mother brush’d with raven’s feather from unwholesome fen drop on you both! A south-west blow on ye . . . Perhaps Helene had taught it. Reading it again might help her, if she could begin to think differently. She could read it while she nursed the baby. She could think about the good things that remained. All he needed were the last two acts. He’d found sections of the rest, dried the pages, sorted the scenes and put them in order, as best he could. There’d been some extensive gluing – it wasn’t an attractive gift, by any stretch.

After ten or eleven houses he was starting to lose hope and worry about the daylight. The wind was not letting up: if anything it was gaining power. There had been a couple of worryingly big bangs nearby, something shattering. He went back out on to the street and made his way further into the Golden Triangle. There was a big house further along, free-standing, walled. It had upper bays as well as lower. A vicarage, maybe. Part of the roof was gone. The gate was padlocked but the frame had come away from the post and he forced his way through the gap. In the garden the plant pots and urns were smashed apart but one of the small fruit trees was still standing, defiantly, petrified black globes hanging from its lower branches. He went through the lower window, down a hallway. He knew, even before he got to the big room at the back of the house, that he was going to find what he was looking for. Fortune favours the brave, he thought. He forced a swollen door into a parlour. The walls had once been red but were now darker, browny, like blood that had dried. There was a fireplace, heaped full of clinker and charred wood, pieces of chimney brick and sleeving. There was a man sitting in a chair, a corpse. His eyelids were shrinking back; some wisps of hair left on his head. The skin was yellow and tight and retreating off the bone. A blanket was wrapped around his shoulders. There was no bad smell. He didn’t look too closely.

He went to the shelves. There were rows and rows of hardbacks. He could even read the titles on some of the spines. There was a collection of Shakespeares, mottled, mould blooming along them, but readable. He found it in the middle. He took off his gloves and opened it carefully; the edges of the paper were moist, stuck, and they tore slightly when moved, but it held together. He flicked gently to the end. I’ll deliver all; and promise you calm seas, auspicious gales and sail so expeditious that shall catch your royal fleet far off.

He smiled. He took off his rucksack, wrapped the book in a plastic bag and a towel and put it inside one of the small compartments. He put the rucksack back on, clicked the straps across his chest, drew them tight, and put on his gloves. It would be a good house to go through for other things, but he didn’t want to get caught out and not be able to get across town and over The Huff to the longbarn. He didn’t want to leave Helene alone longer than he had to. She might be having the baby. He would come back, after Christmas, and search properly.

He closed the door on the dead man. On the way out he saw his reflection in the dusty, cracked hall mirror. The hood was drawn tightly around his head; he was earless and bug-eyed, like an alien. The metallic tape around his neck looked like grey scales. His face was filthy and covered with cuts. He put out his sore tongue. Suppose he wasn’t really human any more, he thought. Suppose he was a kind of demon, made in this place. How would he know? But he felt human; he remembered feeling human. His knee hurt. And he could use a can opener. And he liked Christmas. He turned away from the mirror and climbed back out of the window. Snow was driving past on the wind.

Sarah Hall is a Man Booker-shortlisted author and the winner of this year’s BBC National Short Story Award. Her latest book is the short story collection “The Beautiful Indifference” (Faber & Faber, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue

Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos
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Peter Adey's wonderfully digressive book explores the science and history of levitation

From flying carpets to rocket men, we have always dreamed of defying gravity

In the winding rooms of Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans, among Dürer’s eldritch owls and Man Ray’s one-eyed metronome, is an extraordinary oil painting by the Haarlem artist Frans Post. Dated to 1648, it is notable not just for the fact that it depicts a Brazilian landscape, complete with cacti, armadillos and iguanas, but because, rising from the jungle, over those exotic flora and fauna, is a white-robed angel. The hermaphrodite being hangs there, quite matter-of-factly caught in mid-air, like a three-dimensional wisp of smoke, or a Renaissance scene reimagined by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The image is made even more enigmatic by the way that the gallery caption declines to mention the angel at all.

Who hasn’t dreamt of levitation? When I was a boy, at school Masses I prayed hard that my pious thoughts would lift me into the air in our suburban Catholic church. I would lean forward on the balls of my feet, ready to launch myself upwards, to the astonishment and admiration of my fellow pupils. Perhaps it was something about the vaulted roof and its yawning space that tempted me, or maybe the bursting filtered light of stained-glass windows hypnotised me. Perhaps I just got high on the incense. But I must have also heard of Padre Pio, the Italian mystic who, as Peter Adey observes in his brilliant book, could fly so high that during the Second World War he rose like a barrage balloon to deter Allied bombers from blowing up a munitions depot in his home city of San Giovanni Rotondo.

These days we are blithely accustomed to being in the air. I have written part of this review 24,000 feet above the English Channel, flying without any effort, holy or otherwise, of my own. We send drones into the sky and astronauts into zero gravity; the air is a crackling conduit of communication and knowledge; the work we do on our blue screens ends up in a cloud. But in the medieval world – where images were rarer and more precious – Christian myth presented levitation as the “unburdening of human flesh and the lightness of divinity”, in Adey’s lovely phrase. Christ’s bodily ascension into heaven, after His resurrection, was depicted in illuminations in which only the Saviour’s feet were seen as his disciples looked up, theatrically, as though they might pull Him back down. Yet that scene is repeated at every Mass, as the priest holds up the Eucharist, Christ’s body incarnate.

Rising from the ground implies rising from the dead, a leaving of both gravity and mortality. The building of Gothic churches and cathedrals, whose flying buttresses allowed light to flood into holy interiors, seemed to set the scene for such miracles. In their architectural context – buildings that are already miraculous, containing the sky – levitation is both an ordinary and an extraordinary act.

There were so many levitating medieval saints that they could have earned air miles. St Teresa of Avila was positively embarrassed by her propensity to levitate without notice; not only did her fellow nuns struggle to keep her body down, but the poor woman also suffered from vertigo. And while angels were powered by God’s grace, witches, their dark opposites, rode heretically on broomsticks, and sometimes went commando. In one aside in Adey’s delightfully digressive book, a decidedly overweight witch is shot out of the sky and lands with a thud, naked and drunk on the earth.

Arguably the modern age began not with Newton – whose visions of celestial beings defied his discovery of gravity – but with the technology that enabled humans to float. During Vincenzo Lunardi’s balloon ascent from London’s Bunhill Fields in 1784, the Italian aeronaut ate cold chicken and drank wine as he surveyed, with the synoptic eye of God, the amazed populace over whom he passed. His flight was commemorated in Oxford Street’s Pantheon, under whose dome Lunardi’s balloon was suspended so that visitors could look at the painted panorama around them as if they, too, had risen to the skies. William Blake, who never shrank from the mystical, wrote his own tribute, “An Island in the Moon”, as if his poem were an in-flight magazine, while Percy Shelley sent imaginary balloons floating over Africa to survey “that unhappy country” and “annihilate slavery for ever”. These Enlightenment rides – literally “a lightening”, a leaving of the old world – “combined scientific measurement and rationality with exclamations of delight, rapture and an imagination overwhelmed by experience”, Adey writes. Their sublimity would not be matched until 200 years later, when Apollo astronauts saw Earthrise
from the Moon.

Colonialism imported another kind of levity – that of the Indian fakir. Sheshal, the “Brahmin of the Air”, was celebrated in the 1830s for touring rich houses in Madras, assuming his position behind a cloth screen that, when pulled back, revealed him sitting cross-legged in mid-air, one arm resting on a perpendicular brass bar fixed into a wooden stool. Investigators believed that Sheshal’s weight was borne by a metal frame concealed by his clothing, but so convincing was his feat that it was replicated by magicians back in London.

Notorious among them was Alfred Sylvester, the self-styled “Fakir of Oolu”, a sometime stereoscopic photographer of the 1850s who, in the exotic Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly (which housed other sensational exhibits such as a supposed mermaid and Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins), floated his female assistant horizontally in the air, as if lying on a couch. Observers thought that such audiences had been tricked using mesmerism into believing they were witnessing miracles, another Victorian parlour fad.

Equally exotic, and popularised by Richard Burton’s 1885 translation of The Arabian Nights, was the notion of the flying carpet – supposedly devised to allow medieval scholars at the library of Alexandria access to manuscripts on upper shelves. Preferring to read while hovering in the air, the scholars sat on rugs powered by a special dye with “anti-magnetic properties”. The notion made its way into Victorian and Edwardian fantasy writing: E Nesbit’s children’s story The Phoenix and the Carpet and Mary Poppins, the levitating nanny who presides over Uncle Albert’s aerial tea party in the Disney adaptation of P L Travers’s book.

For the Pre-Raphaelites, levitation transcended the darkness of the Industrial Revolution. In his eerie 1870 painting Night, Edward Burne-Jones depicts a wreathed figure hovering over a nocturnal landscape, level with the clouds, her hands held parallel as if in a seance. It was no coincidence that this was the age of mediums with their flying furniture.

Most notorious of all these was Daniel Dunglas Home, who convinced Ruskin, Conan Doyle, Napoleon III and Carl Jung – among others – with his ability to levitate flowerpots, three-legged tables and himself. At one seance in imperial St Petersburg, “Mr Home presently declared that he felt himself being raised. He took, as he was lifted, a horizontal position, with his arms crossed on his breast; and in this reclining attitude was transported by invisible means into the middle of the apartment.” At another gathering in Westminster in 1868, Home was seen to fly out of one window and back in through another, like Scrooge in the hands of the spirit of Christmas Past – or like Santa Claus, another serial ascender.

It was tempting, among those dark Dickensian streets, to place faith in such transformations – although new urban myths invented the demonic, leaping Spring-heeled Jack, a kind of anti-Ariel who inhabited them. The looming industrialised wars of the 20th century would deal death from above – hence the vision of the Angels of Mons over the trenches of the Western Front, an antidote to aerial ordnance and clouds of poison gas. In his field notes, Carl Jung recorded one soldier “seeming to rise in the air in the same position he was in at the moment he was wounded… All feeling of weight is lost.” Sometimes, Jung noted: “The wounded think they are making swimming movements with their arms.”

Art echoed these shell-shocked reverberations to magical-realist effect. Marc Chagall’s paintings of the 1910s and 1920s feature the mythical Jewish figure of the luftmensch – “the man of flight… messenger of the gods” – flying over European rooftops as an airy allegory of apartness and rootlessness at a time of pogrom and Holocaust.

In the Second World War, Philippe Halsman – an American photographer with eastern European Jewish origins – would reinvent the luftmensch. Imprisoned by the Nazis before the war, Halsman had written to his girlfriend: “Tell me, do you ever dream of flying?” From 1941, he collaborated with Salvador Dalí on complex images such as Dalí Atomicus (1948), which re-created the artist’s fantasies of flying using illusions not dissimilar to those of Indian fakirs. Dalí’s dreams painted “a Renaissance portrait as familiar as a Christian Assumption,” writes Adey. “I would not at that moment have changed places with a god,” said the surrealist of his visions. In his later portraits of the 1950s, Halsman persuaded celebrities from Edward and Wallis Windsor to Marilyn Monroe and Robert Oppenheimer to leap for his camera. “When you ask a person to jump,” Halsman said, “his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears.”

Once again the ordinary was turned into the extraordinary. Twentieth-century science fiction relied on levitation: men flew in rocket suits, flying saucers hovered over a Cold War world, and Stanley Kubrick’s astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey bounced about to a classical soundtrack in what Adey calls “an allegory-rich set of images and sounds”. From there, the author segues to David Bowie’s Major Tom floating far above the Earth, and on to the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield singing “Space Oddity” on the International Space Station in 2013. Meanwhile, 1960s anti-war protesters had tried to levitate the Pentagon, and exponents of Transcendental Meditation (and their political wing, the Natural Law Party), as followed by the Beatles, Clint Eastwood and David Lynch, were promised that yogic flying could solve all the world’s ills.

Perhaps we need a little such levity today. With only the occasional bit of excess weight – “blurring the Parmenidean dichotomies of heavy and light” – Adey’s prose rises above academic discourse to create a phantasmagorical cultural history. He concludes that although levitation “supplies us with a record of… exploitation, inequality and even violence”, it is also an expression of “freedom, emancipation and empowerment”. As sly and strange as its subject, Adey’s book is an ambiguous, allusive and fascinating manual of unassisted flight, and I only wish I’d had it to hand when I was a ten-year-old would-be levitator.

Levitation: The Science,
Myth and Magic of Suspension
Peter Adey

“RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” by Philip Hoare is published by Fourth Estate

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear