Best reads of 2014 No 4: The Man with his Head in the Clouds

Here’s a novel idea, perhaps even a bit of blue sky thinking. (Sorry, Richard O Smith’s delight in puns is catching – if only I could do it half as well as he does.) This isn’t just the biography of an undeservedly forgotten figure. The author interweaves a well-researched and detailed account of how this self-educated pastry cook, James Sadler, became the first Englishman to fly (in a balloon – we’re talking the 1780s here) with his own tale of suffering a fear of heights all his life. A marvellous opportunity for irony and comic juxtaposition, which Smith makes full use of, and the light, self-deprecating way in which he depicts his everyday battles with lifts, stairs and other terrors had me crying with laughter.
But it’s more than wisecracks just to entertain; taking James Sadler as his model, Smith determines to use the opportunity to overcome his phobias, getting psychological help from all kinds of people. (I loved his description of counselling sessions, a wonderful blend of humour, scepticism, silliness and ultimately, amazed appreciation.) While Sadler’s 50 balloon trips, nearly always in appalling weather, are testament to the man’s courage, Smith sets himself a target which for an acrophobic (ha, I learnt a new word) requires a pretty large amount of guts: going up in a balloon himself. Does he make it? Well, you’ll just have to read the book and see.

(First published 7 Jan 2015)

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