Steve Cohen begins an occasional series of appreciations of forgotten political novels, beginning with The Aerodrome by Rex Warner, published in 1942.
The unholy trinity of fascism, futurism and flight was a central cultural and technological motif of the first half of the twentieth century – the years that spanned from the Wright Brothers to the Spitfire. The glorification of speed, flight and destruction was a pivotal theme of futurist art — as typified by Tullio Cravi’s 1939 Nose Dive On The City. The political and human consequences of this unholy trinity is most famously seen in Pablo Picasso’s own extraordinary painting Guernica — depicting the destruction in April 1937 of that town by Nazi bombers during the Spanish civil war.
Goering, the notorious head of the Luftwaffe, had himself been a “flying ace”, a heroic metaphor of machine and masculinity during World War One. He ended the war as commander of the airsquadron Jagdgeschwader Freiherr von Richthofen — which had previously been led by Baron Von Richthofen, the legendary Red Baron. For both these men the plane was the future and the future was “joy through war”.
In the early 1920s Goering became a stunt pilot, literally “barnstorming” around Europe. In the USA there was an equivalent in Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh was also a barnstormer before gaining international fame when he became the first person to fly across the Atlantic in 1927. Lindbergh combined aviation with pro-Nazism, eugenicism, Nordicism and anti-semitism. He was a leading member of the American First Committee, which campaigned to keep the USA out of the war. (Some socialists, such as Norman Thomas, also supported the Committee).
The UK, perhaps more than any other country, reflected the unholy trinity of fascism, futurism and flight. Oswald Mosley was himself one of those aristocratic gentlemen who had flown in the Royal Flying Corps during World War One and were of the same class as their German flying counterparts. He subsequently saw the plane and its technology as central to the “modern movement” he was trying to create.
His British Union of Fascists did something the Communist Party never even contemplated — it formed flying clubs. The BUF attracted a disproportionate number of aviators.
The archetypal English right-wing plane-obsessive was the pre-Mosleyite, anti-semitic, anti-communist, anti-gay, anti-woman (his article on The Cult of the Clitoris resulted in a sensational libel action), crazy, dangerous, eccentric Pemberton Billing. It was Billing who in 1914 designed and built the then famous Supermarine plane — the very name having futuristic and modernistic overtones. In 1916 Billing became an MP for East Hertfordshire. Prior to that he had contested Mile End where he paraded the Supermarine round the streets and delivered speeches from its cockpit.
He spent his time in Parliament attacking Jews, communists and Germans (to him they were as one) and accusing them of controlling the Air Ministry. He subsequently became a playwright. His absurd High Treason was turned into a (commercially) successful movie. Made in 1929, it was set in 1950 with London being portrayed as a futuristic city of skyscrapers, video-phones and helicopters. It can be seen as a right-wing version of Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis.
Rex Warner’s anti-fascist novel The Aerodrome was written in 1942. As a vision of the future it predates George Orwell’s far better known 1984. It is a wonderful indictment of all the above futuristic nonsense and is well worth ordering from a local library.
It tells the story of how an English village, then all English villages, are taken over by a mysterious group of airmen who it transpires are a fascistic front. Stylistically it is very interesting. The narrator and chief protagonist is himself a villager and the whole story is told in a form that can best be described as primitive or naïve — which contrasts starkly with the sharp, amoral modernism of the airmen. Unlike 1984 it does end on an optimistic (anti-futurist) note — with the plane of the leading airmen crashing and killing him after being sabotaged by a mechanic who has broken from the organisation.
Futurism was destroyed by the future. In the second half of the century technology was no longer a dream, but had become part of a mundane reality. So today no-one writes poems dedicated to the computer.
But why was the UK the political centre of the unholy trinity of fascism, futurism and flight? The answer to this can be found in what is now a very obscure but politically important book England And The Aeroplane by David Edgerton. Edgerton argues that England in the twentieth century was not so much a welfare state as a warfare state (I’d argue it was both) — with a remarkably high priority given to technological development. This contradicts received wisdom which portrays the country as being technologically perpetually backward and in decline. Central to the emphasis on modern engineering was the aviation industry.
It is worth pointing out that with the collapse of futurism and the rise of (relative) affluence, along with social democracy, space travel never seems to have assumed the cultural baggage of fascism. Indeed just the opposite is the case.
A classic example is what is probably the most successful science fiction TV series of all time — Star Trek, which represented a kind of Kennedy liberalism with The United Federation of Planets being essentially altruistic in its search for “the final frontier”. However, since September 11th and the truer than life bombing of the Twin Towers of the modern metropolis, I suspect that art will now try to claim space for the fascists. We need a socialist art to contradict this.