by Manchester Area Psychogeographic

As a rule, MAP readers keep their feet firmly on the ground. Now, however, is the time for them to look up into the skies. When the leaden hue that covers us like a giant umbrella lifts from time to time we can see that the air itself is possessed by criss-crossing daemons and their invidious vapour trails. Don't talk to me about crossing the street, how about crossing the airways?! Look up, over Manchester and Cheshire, and see the leylines of modernity carved into the stratosphere. Having seared blistering cars into the very ground we walk on, we are now busy wrenching huge pathways through the medium of elementals and Angels. So mote it be! Less than a hundred years ago the skies were tranquil, uninvaded by the intrepid aviator and hardly brushed by the intrusion of the hot air balloon, or lady parachutist. How things have changed. Now, birds have to give way to lumbering giants of the sky ferrying brigades of British tourists to do battle in some foreign land. But once, the skies were clear.

South Manchester has an intriguing history concerning the population of the air and its environs, most of them concerning cosmic mischances, mishaps and irony on a bewildering scale. Bewildered Frenchmen, bewildered American circus performers, bewildered residents of Didsbury, bewildered German scientists, a bewildered last nazi Fuhrer and a handful of dead know the full story. Let us examine it now.

The first sputtering noises of motorised aircraft heard over Manchester were probably caused by the genocidally inclined Buffalo Bill Cody. The injun-kkilling American entrepreneur had brought his Wild West Circus to the North West in 1907 and they winter-camped at a farm near Ince, Wigan. Cody offered flights in a Wright Brothers biplane to interested parties, preferably military men. He had an idea to become aerial arms supplier to his majesty's government but they weren't too impressed, and Bill's flights took on more of the atmosphere of cheap thrills while he wheeler-dealered his way round the machinations of the War Ministry, as the Department of Defence was less euphemistically known in those days.

Bill departed and the skies were more or less quiet again. Quiet that is until 1912 when a Frenchman, seeking to win a Daily Mail prize of some serious-sounding guineas, felt compelled to enter a cross-channel competition. The goal was to be the first to fly from Paris to London. Louis Paulhan set off from whatever field was serving as Paris's airport in those days, thermos flask firmly clamped between his knees, and compass in hand, and set off towards the English Channel and his eventual destination of Edwardian London. He didn't quite make it.

Paulhan, driven by his obsession to ensure that the gloire of such a groundbreaking (no pun intended) trans-capital flight should fall (no pun intended) to a proper child of La Republique, failed to take into account one of the curses of the age - fog.

The whole of England was enshrouded in an industrial pea-souper of legendary proportions. Undeterred, Paulhan pressed on, completely overshooting London, being forced to rely on guestimates as regards to his whereabouts. Eventually, short of fuel, and no doubt a tad concerned, he brought his biplane down in a farmer's field in Didsbury, a southern suburb of Manchester.

Pictures still exist of the slightly dazed figure of Monsieur Paulhan, sat atop of his cockpit, surrounded by an admiring sea of schoolboys and bemused peasants. The farmer whose fields he landed in faded into obscurity but henceforth the landing place was known as Paulhan's Fields, until, that is, I looked it up on a map and discovered that it has been obliterated in the march of time, rather like the day an eagle fell to the ground at the other end of Didsbury.

Before we take a look at that particular piece of historical oddness, we need to jump forward a few years to the end of the First World War and a particularly significant but little known fact regarding Germany's final fuhrer, Admiral Karl Doenitz, and Didsbury. It may come as a surprise to MAP readers to know that if you had been taking your morning stroll along Palatine Road in West Didsbury in 1918, the odds on you bumping into Hitler's successor would have been quite good. The young submarine commander had been captured and after a spell helping other German prisoners build the water tower at Withington Hospital, being an officer and all that he was granted one of those bizarre privileges that reek of Victorian classism: parole.

Parole was the issuing of a permit for the officer to reside in his country of captivity as an ordinary citizen, provided he wouldn't escape. Doenitz took an apartment on Palatine Road and, having given his word as an officer and a gentleman, waited out the duration of the war, drinking in the White Lion pub (now the Withington Ale House) and twiddling his thumbs in the Marie Louise Gardens (now off limits to teenagers).

Revenge for his brutal treatment at the hands of the victorious allies was only twenty-five years in coming, because the eagle that fell to earth at the end of Palatine Road, near to the house he had lived in, was one of Hitler's early "Vengeance" weapons, a doodlebug, or V1.

This particular beast, originally aimed at London (just like Monsieur Paulhan), is one of the freak strays that overshot its mark. The furthest off-course ended up somewhere in Scotland, but managing to get within a few hundred yards of a former residence of the last nazi dictator is no mean feat, and suggests a sense of humour hitherto undetected in the mad scientists who inhabited the Peenemunde rocket base.

The final part of a very basic psychogeographic triangulation concerning aerial flight over Manchester takes us slightly over towards the west, and brings us to Princess Road, a main artery route for motor traffic that carries denizens of the suburbs (Altrincham, Sale, etc.) into Moss Side and Hulme before letting them out in the city centre. Why this should be of psychogeographic importance is that it is the site of Manchester's first airport.

Established during the First World War as a training ground for Royal Flying Corps volunteers (average life expectancy against the Red Baron: three weeks), the plots of fields between Southern Cemetery (how apt, what a sense of humour!) and Hough End (once the sight of a Civil War battle) once buzzed to the hornets' cry of straining aero-engines. It remained an operational aerodrome until the middle of the 1920s when a boom in flying and a boom in urban housing met in a Mexican showdown. The winner was urban housing and the pilots and flight attendants packed their bags and shuffled off to the strangely titled Ringway, where Manchester Airport remains to this day. The odd thing is that having got rid of those magnificent men in their machines the council immediately called a halt to further building in the area, and it is currently a mixture of fields for recreational purposes i.e., soccer and police dog training. What a mixture! What a carry on! And that should bring us back to down to earth with a bump.

First published in Manchester Area Psychogeographic 6, Winter 1996/7.

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