A Vision of Aeroplanes

In these strange and troubled times, having gloomed myself up last week by rereading Nevil Shute’s doomsday novel On the Beach, I selected another Shute, more or less at random – What Happened to the Corbetts.

Big mistake.  Mind, no spoiler alert required here, as I’m not yet quite sure what did happen to the Corbetts, but I can tell you they suffered under the onslaught of a series of air-raids in Southampton.  Shute wrote the book in 1938, so he clearly manifests a certain prescience.  He well understood that the main threat would not be gas attack, as feared at the time, but the use of high explosives.  

Then last Thursday on BBC Radio 3’s Essential Classics, Tom McKinney played a late choral work (1956) by Vaughan Williams – A Vision of Aeroplanes.  Mr McKinney said the piece had nothing to do with aeroplanes, because it was a setting from the King James Bible, for organ, choir, and soprano solo, of the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel.  But I think Mr McKinney was mistaken (even although I rather imagine RVW, perversely, would have agreed with him); the piece has everything to do with aeroplanes.  Read the chapter for yourself.  It raises the question: how could such a vision have been experienced by somebody living thousands of years ago, or even understood by the translators in 1611, when the King James Version came into being?

And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.

Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures.  And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.

And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings…

They sparkled like the colour of burnished brass…

Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward…

And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went…

And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.

Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels. 

When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when these were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels… 

And under the firmament were their wings straight, the one toward the other: every one had two, which covered on this side, and every one had two, which covered on that side, their bodies. 

And when they went, I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of great waters as the voice of the Almighty, the voice of speech, as the noise of an host: when they stood, they let down their wings… 

Is that a description of a squadron of flying machines with retractable undercarriages?  How could somebody writing in the pre-Christian era know about such a thing?  A listener contacted Tom McKinney to say she had sung A Vision of Aeroplanes in a London choir, but the choir had abandoned it.  The music is austere, even harsh, and uncompromising.  The listener said it had given her nightmares.  The text reminds me of the imaginative world of Nigel Kneale, the creator of Quatarmass, and his similarly nightmarish television drama The Road, broadcast by the BBC in September 1963.  The tape was lost, but the script survived, to be recast as a radio drama.  In 1768, people living in a remote English village have visions of a population hastening along a road – perhaps it is an evacuation corridor – to escape an attack.  They think the vision comes from the ancient world; it is the invasion of the Roman Empire.  But how can that be?  A road never passed through this English woodland.

In fact it is a vision of the future.  This is a nuclear attack.          

On BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions on Friday evening, from Penicuik, the second question was from one Thomas, who sounded very young, who asked the panel a very pertinent and searching question.  If Mr Putin deploys nuclear weapons, how should NATO respond?  Alister Jack, the Secretary of State for Scotland, said he was going to dodge that question.  As a cabinet minister, he clearly doesn’t wish Mr Putin to know the west’s game plan.  Then he added, I thought with infinite condescension, “But don’t worry.  You can sleep peacefully at night, because the nuclear deterrent is protecting you.” 

But on Sunday morning’s A Point of View, with respect to the deterrent, the writer Will Self did not share Mr Jack’s equanimity.  He made reference to Shute’s On the Beach.  He told us to be afraid, very afraid.  I wonder what would have happened if, when the Russians shelled Europe’s biggest nuclear power station at Zaporizhzhia, they had broached the reactors?  Presumably the invading forces would have had no choice but to evacuate the theatre of war.  It would have been a catastrophe for both Europe and Russia, but it is sobering to reflect that such an event might not be the worst case scenario.  At least it could have been spun as an “accident”.  Deployment of a “tactical” nuclear weapon, on the other hand, would be deliberate, and would predicate, according to the deterrent doctrine, a reprisal.  And then we find ourselves on Nevil Shute’s beach.  Not every cloud has a silver lining. 

I wish Mr Jack had said to his young inquisitor, “Well, if Mr Putin explodes a nuclear bomb, he will have demonstrated that the nuclear deterrent doesn’t work.  So what would be the point in exploding another one?”             

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