Down to Earth

By Appleyard, Bryan | New Statesman (1996), November 10, 2003 | Go to article overview

Down to Earth


Appleyard, Bryan, New Statesman (1996)


You would have needed a heart of stone not to shed tears of helpless laughter. As Concorde completed its final commercial flight, Tony Benn, preening and condescending as ever, solemnly told the television audience that the occasion marked the end of British manufacturing industry. The man who was always wrong about everything had done it again.

Benn, as Francis Spufford records, had been rather keen on Concorde. In 1974, he had taken 50 shop stewards for a ride in honour of Labour's manifesto pledge to engineer "an irreversible shift of power in favour of working people and their families". Hah, bloody hah. For the next 30 years, Concorde carried none but the very rich and the hyper-privileged. Democratisation of the air had been more effectively served by none other than Boeing in Seattle with its glorious 747.

I'd better get this off my chest: commercially, technically, aesthetically and even ergonomically, Concorde was a rotten plane. Its commercial shortcomings need no further elaboration. Technically, it simply adapted military technology and refused to aspire to any of the breakthroughs that would be necessary for commercial supersonic flight. Aesthetically, it was a horror--a tube with a point at each end and ludicrously oversized wings--and no match for the 747, for me the most beautiful machine of the 20th century. And having flown by Concorde once, I can tell you it was noisy, cramped, bumpy and crude--although I didn't say no to the Talbot '66, which somehow made it all worthwhile.

Sadly, Spufford's chapter on Concorde doesn't engage with any of these issues. Instead it gets bogged down in the tedious negotiations of the early 1980s that led to British Airways buying the planes. Who now cares? Spufford's subtext is that British engineers are heroes and that the dumb tube must be celebrated one way or another.

Never mind. This is a great idea for a book, and in parts Spufford triumphantly pulls it off. He argues that there is still much we should celebrate about British engineering prowess but, in order to do so, we must look beneath the surface. In the postwar period, the British ceased to build mighty ocean-going liners, great factories or even halfway decent planes, but our engineering heritage was not lost. Rather, it went underground.

By driving around in white vans, for example, British radio engineers worked out the technology of cellular phones. By running a space programme on a shoe-string until the early 1970s, British aerospace engineers created a technical and imaginative legacy that, through Beagle 2, now stands the best chance of establishing whether there is or ever has been life on Mars. …

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