Some happenings make sense, and some don’t. That is the only explanation I can give for why, a few years ago, on a spring day out on the South Downs, a red balloon suddenly bounded in front of me across the vast green hill.
I was far from any place that might be holding a party. The only buildings for miles were flint footings of old barns which nettles had long invaded. Yet here the balloon was, leaping and falling, brushing the thistly ground but recovering, gloriously scarlet against the rolling grass. Finally it approached a barbed-wire fence, juddered and seemed to pause – but steadied itself to sail safely over, out across the estuary and away.
Whenever it got close enough I tried to catch it, but part of me didn’t want to spoil the adventure it was having. For it was also my adventure. Balloons, like kites, offer vicarious flight and weightlessness, the joy of the air. But unlike kites, which are compulsive ground-seekers and tree-tanglers, balloons are nimble, neat and alive. Having given them life in the first place, transforming a flaccid rubber bulb into a sleek, wilful being, the problem for us is how to control their compulsive wish to slip every tether and fly.
One of my favourite films as a child was Albert Lamorisse’s “The Red Balloon”, in which Pascal, a small boy, befriended a balloon; or it befriended him, hovering near like a pet, until a gang of urchins killed it. I wept for it, with Pascal, as though a human creature had died. Watching the film now, I’m more critical of the balloon. It is too obedient, when a balloon’s very purpose is not affection, but evasion. We see that poignancy in Banksy’s image of a little girl letting go of a red-balloon heart, possibly intending to, but possibly not: the same image that famously shredded itself at auction at Sotheby’s in 2018, endowing itself with value, or alternatively losing all the value it had.
My other problem with Pascal’s balloon is that it is made of stout and non-transparent stuff, like an inner tyre. A balloon is joyous in its tense delicacy, a balance between over-stretch and non-existence that makes us fear to touch it and tremble when others make it squeak with their thumbs. Balloons are poised between being there and not, between being the epitome of our delight and empty (though reverberating) air. These fripperies and party favours are surely metaphors for life, the universe and more or less everything.
That is why my encounter on the Downs was so powerful. The red balloon had escaped a servile destiny and was being true to itself, flying free in a world liberally spiked with danger. Outside human grasp, it was also outside human protection. It could feel every whim of fate, yet was exultant, and so intrepid that I longed to follow it. But I lost track of it where the valley side curved down.
A year later, walking on the next ridge over, I came upon shreds of a balloon at the foot of a wire fence. They were pink, not red; but maybe the elements had bleached them. They spoke of clumsiness and death; but my balloon had been skilful, unbeatable. I prefer to believe that it continued – continues? – to sail bravely on.•