To write a book like this, you'd have to be either a Romantic or a madman. Martin Buckley is both. Not content with dreams of flying, he earned his flying license in a record-breaking six weeks, taking his final test junked up on painkillers to soothe an infected ear. He then circumnavigated the world in a series of hair-raising exploits that brought him into contact with (among others) the flying postmen of Stornoway, a retired engineer who made his own plane from a kit, airborne missionaries in Kenya and the Sudan People's Liberation Army.
"Some tower-jumpers were visionaries," he tells us in the midst of an account of medieval aviation. For Buckley, flying is the ultimate aspirational act, religious in significance. Those who learn to fly "become communicants". His intensity is that of the zealot: a "kamikaze writer". Who but someone lost to the flying bug would strap a motor to his back and jump off a cliff wearing a parachute, as Buckley does in the closing pages?
Whatever you make of his terrifying hobby, read Absolute Altitude for the sensitivity and shrewdness with which Buckley describes people he encounters. He has an unerring instinct for remarkable lives behind ordinary exteriors. From a retired farmer in New Zealand, he draws the story of how, over two decades, he designed and built his own aircraft. When he descends on the Outer Hebrides, one of the first people he meets is a 100-year-old woman who reveals herself to be the world's oldest postwoman.
And the balloonists of the Masai Mara gleefully tell him that they are "Kenya's principal consumers of propane and champagne". In Buckley's hands these encounters become the stuff of modern myth, but not at the expense of the individuals, whose uniqueness he respects and depicts in words vivid and true.
As he does with the aircraft: the choppers, Cessnas, Lear jets, paragliders and other bits of hardware to which he entrusts his life. You might suppose there is only so much to be said about how it feels to fly; but Buckley's testosterone-fuelled writing conveys accurately the physical, emotional and spiritual sensations: "We became wrapped in whipped-white, tendrilled, ectoplasmic mist; aerial acrobats, we danced through the ring and beyond it into a circle of cobalt blue. It was freedom beyond anything I had known."
If you ever wanted to jump into the cockpit of an airplane held together by duct tape and superglue, or speculated on what it must be like to fly straight towards a sandstorm, this is the book for you. Most of all, read it as the journal of a myth-make.
The reviewer is professor of English at Oxford UniversityReuse content