There are times when just a word or a phrase topples a whole edifice of mindsets. After reading my murmurs about mistakes last week, Marigold sent me just such a phrase. It was
‘ballon d’essai’. Now, having bathed in its warmth and daring for a couple of days, and absorbed it to my very marrow, I am ready to take it further. One paw on heart and the other sweeping out to the side, I shall go out into the open and proclaim it to any blackbird that might care to listen.
A ballon d’essai encompasses the idea of trial runs, of putting out feelers, of experimenting. It eliminates the whole concept of a mistake. The ballon d’essai pooh-poohs the doom-laden expectation that something must be perfectly formulated in one’s head before it is set down or allowed to go out into the world. It exudes lightness, playfulness and a sense of adventure.
I love the ballon part of it. Ballerinas are said to have ballon when they give the impression of weightlessness as they glide through the air. In laboratories, a ballon is one of those bulbous experimental flasks that holds the promise of eternal life or damnation, depending on what films your rackety relatives took you to. And a ballon, once you have leapt balletically and experimented to your heart’s content, is what you savour your Napoléon cognac in if you happen to be Great Uncle Mole and it is your birthday.
And a ballon is of course a balloon – and here I must bring Uncle Ratty in. I am not sure if he was actually there for Monsieur Baschwitz’s dashing exploit, but he would always tell a story as if he had played some key part in it. So I will imagine him as a kind of collector – the chap who fossicked for all the odds and ends.
It was 1917. The Axis powers were creeping steadily westwards. Allies were falling like nine-pins. Wouldn’t it be splendid, some bright spark suggested, if we could find out Axis troop movements. Well yes, but the main railway junction was in Luxembourg and Luxembourg had been entirely swallowed up. A balloon! some even brighter, but madder spark suggested.
And so it began. How to test the plan? How long it would take, what the prevailing wind currents might be, where to launch it from, given the rapidly changing borderlines? And so while test balloons were being sewn dozens of seamstresses, I imagine Uncle Ratty on a quest for homing pigeons, wicker baskets from the Hospital for the Blind, birdseed, chickenwire to wrap around the baskets so that when they landed the birds would not be eaten by ferrets. But how to make get the balloons to land in the right place? The birds might home but they would not keep time. Uncle Ratty is sent off again to scour the pawnshops for the once popular Waterbury alarum clocks with their very particular winding mechanisms. There is a demonstration of the experiment in the office of some Secret Service chap in London. For this the birds in their baskets are replaced with boots taken off German POWs. Did Uncle Ratty collect these, too? The clock is stuck to the ceiling. The boots are suspended from string threaded through curtain rings and attached to the clock. The clock is wound. It ticks. The alarm goes off and four boots crash to the floor.
Multiple pigeon flights were sent off to test the plan before Monsieur Baschwitz took to the air in his vellum balloon. He had to wait for a night that was long enough for the journey, moonless enough not to be spotted, promised prevailing winds that would not send him off course and further into enemy territory. He almost overshot Luxembourg, but didn’t. And his spy network – well that’s another story.
But this one – well, it has to be the beacon for me in my quest to banish any thought of mistakes in my little molemind and celebrate my future in a plethora of ballons d’essai.*
* I suspect Uncle Ratty occasionally raided his stories from favourite books – in this case Janet Morgan’s The Secrets of the Rue St Roch