The End of Wonders

An excerpt from Adam Ouston’s Waypoints

This is an edited excerpt from Adam Ouston’s Waypoints, published by Splice on March 18 and available for pre-order now.

It’s bizarre because now, in our age of information, when any fact, datum or titbit is literally at our fingertips, and the price for being deemed wrong grows mightier by the day; when any idle curiosity or bagatelle can be satisfied in an instant, invariably leading to further idle curiosities and bagatelles, taking you deeper into the goldmine of a seemingly limitless supply; when it’s more or less understandable that, for most of us, there really is no excuse for not knowing anything, it’s all there, all you have to do is look it up; now, in an age when the sweep of history is laid out before us, notwithstanding all the caveats, hesitations and conflicting perspectives, of those who know about the airborne exploits of the Great Harry Houdini — illusionist, self-promoter, dispeller of frauds and inveterate daredevil — more people seem to know that the Master of Mystery didn’t actually get the record for the first controlled flight of a powered aircraft in Australia than know who in fact did. The suggestion that the Handcuff King had been beaten to the punch came as a surprise to me, but the more I looked into the matter, the more I found that the record held by the cunning escapologist had become disputed, qualified and sometimes even dismissed outright, given all the fuss over aviation at the dawn of human flight, records being attempted and broken, new heights being reached, both literally and metaphorically — really, the world at the time was so taken by all things aircraft-related that many newspapers had sections headed ‘Flight’ to discuss of global air events; who went up where and in what, which awards were on offer and with what prize money — indeed, there was so much wonder surrounding aviation, and people were so awestruck at seeing their fellow humans take to the skies, and the hype was so intense, that it is conceivable that official records do not quite match the events as they really transpired; which is why there is some conjecture from certain quarters surrounding Houdini’s attempt to soar over Australian soil, the curious upshot being that while it might be common knowledge that the great mystifier held the record (or holds it still, depending on who you ask) the very fact that it is disputed seems to be the fact worth knowing, maybe because it implies greater familiarity with the subject, which in turn suggests that the more valuable fact regarding Houdini’s flight on 18 March 1910 at Diggers Rest in Victoria, just north of Melbourne, coincidentally near the present-day Tullamarine Airport, isn’t what something is but rather what something isn’t. “That’s the spot,” people say, “that’s the very paddock where Harry Houdini—born Erik Weisz, of course, in Hungary in 1874, one of seven children, the youngest of whom, Carrie, was left almost completely blind following a childhood accident, though both the accident and whatever came of her (some say she lived her life as a ghostwriter) is an even deeper mystery than the aura surrounding her elder brother with the mesmerising eyes — that’s the precise location, look it up, that’s where Harry Houdini, born Erik Weisz in landlocked Hungary in 1874 only to travel to America four years later, with his family, including Carrie, and who, five years after that, at the age of nine, giving his first public performance as a trapeze artist, crowned himself ‘The Prince of the Air’ — how fitting that moniker would become some twenty-seven years down the track when he arrived at Diggers Rest, north of Melbourne, near today’s Tullamarine, where if you go up there now you can pinpoint the selfsame paddock in which Harry Houdini (there’s a memorial; two, actually), who also went by Erik Weisz, Ehrich Weiss and Harry Weiss, not to mention Prince of the Air — why not King of the Air we’ll never know — if you hop on a train or a bus or rent a car, you can zero in on the coordinates where the Great Houdini — all the way from Europe via America via Europe where, incidentally, he picked up the French-made aircraft, a Voisin biplane, which he’d flown in Hamburg before sailing off, plane in cargo, for the Great Southern Land aboard the P&O liner SS Malwa, his wife Bess was by now drinking heavily and out of reach, while at thirty-six the great mystifier and demystifier (he maintained it was all just trickery and sleight of hand, not magic at all) was starting to feel that vaudeville had had its day, and that maybe he himself, the Great H.H., had also had his day, with perpetually sore wrists from escaping handcuffs, aching shoulders from daily dislocations, a ruined lower back that would only get worse as the years went by, and a tender derrière from having an infected boil lanced barely a month prior; which is to say that as he stood on the blustery deck, hands in pockets, gazing out over the endless silver sea — with Bess sleeping it off in their cabin — his mind was turning more and more to thoughts of death: his own, yes, but also the death of vaudeville, the extinction of a craft he’d spent his life honing, the silencing of the crowds, and the end of wonders — which was strange in itself because he would have been the first to admit that death had been, from the very beginning, his constant companion, one he’d actively courted and flirted with, for it was the threat of his imminent demise that kept derrières on seats — but now aboard the Malwa, the wind making his receding hair seem possessed, he was contemplating the end of all that, the death of death, the threat of choking, drowning, suffocating suddenly humdrum, faced with the dark maws of a yawning audience, he might have even considered flinging himself seaward if it were not for these fantastic new flying machines that promised to give a lift to his stalling career, his stalling life. Germany had been a practice run, and while he skimmed beneath those monochrome Teutonic skies, he imagined himself soaring over the sun-soaked paddock and disinterested livestock half-an-hour north of Melbourne, picturing the khaki scrub blurred by speed and the black dots of skyward-gazing spectators, the throng of enthusiasts cheering him on — he could hear them cheering, just like they’d done in theatres from Boston to Belfast — the men waving their bowler hats up at him or else at God, who could tell the difference? — why not God of the Air we’ll never know — because that’s what it would have felt like being up there, a god, a pioneer!, when the rest of the world had been discovered, when every continent, country and capital city had been canvassed and coined, when there was practically not a blade of grass that had not bent under an explorer’s boot, here he was, the Great Harry Houdini, Prince of the Air, up among clouds, the final frontier, another death-defying feat (you always had to stay one ahead of your rivals), a new and untapped way to die, a sudden shot in the arm for the listless Handcuff King and his expectant audience; surely he must have felt like a god among children with the power of lightning in his veins, he could imagine it up above Hamburg, could see it on the insides of his eyelids, and you can too, if you go there to the veritable, the verifiable, dot on the map, north of Melbourne, that waypoint of waypoints, and look up and exclaim that right there, that’s the very spot where Houdini — though he often went by other names; I prefer Erik Weisz with that particular and peculiar and very Hungarian ‘z,’ as did his beloved mother Cecília — where, at last, Houdini did not become the first man to conduct a controlled flight over Australian soil.” It’s bizarre because, in this day and age, in which everything is available to us, every fact, datum and tidbit, and there’s no excuse for not knowing anything, it’s all there for you, you don’t even have to spell it correctly, in fact you don’t have to spell it at all, you can just mutter a question into the æther and the æther itself will answer, which is perhaps the greatest trick in the history of magic, speak to the air and the air speaks back — ask not now who are the Gods of the Air! — shout into the darkness and the darkness shouts back, because that’s all we really want, isn’t it, to be able to commune with the unseen, the intangible, the incorporeal and seemingly not there, to have those to whom you’re calling out call back, for them to be ready with answers to all of your questions; in this day and age all the facts just hang there ripe for the plucking, you barely even have to reach out, and yet it’s positively bizarre that the fact that Houdini was not the pioneer of the Aussie skies takes precedence over the other and related fact, the fact implied by the insertion of that devilish word “not,” that he was beaten to the punch by someone else — and yet, strangely, it is this first fact that holds more weight than the second, than the one vis à vis, regarding, pertaining to who exactly did achieve this feat. Apparently it’s more crucial to hang on to that miniscule but very weighty “not,” that spanner in the works, that devil’s trident of three letters, one, two, three, N O T: apparently it’s better to know an enigmatic negation of a thing that never was, or that maybe was, or that was depending upon who you believed, or who paid the most money — ah, money — because you might also know that Erik Weisz, Ehrich Weiss, Harry Weiss, Harry Houdini was brought out to Australia at enormous expense by another Harry, one Harry Rickards, born Henry Benjamin Leete in England in 1843 before he left for Australia in 1871 to become a famous comedian, baritone and maestro of the stage who at one point owned and managed nearly every significant theatre, playhouse and opera hall in Australia, and was known as perhaps the most significant promoter, manager and proprietor in the world, the likes of which had never been seen, and who lured a host of distinguished performers from all over the globe to stages all over the Great Southern Land, not the least of whom was Houdini, Weiss, Weisz, who commanded a princely “Of the Skies” sum so exorbitant that Harry Rickards, Henry Benjamin, even noted it on the theatrical posters he printed to announce the series of flights Houdini would make in Sydney five weeks after his record-setting (depending who you asked) feat at Diggers Rest, north of Melbourne, curiously close to today’s Tullamarine Airport — must be something in the air out there — which is to say that it’s more important, ie. carries more caché and is therefore a fact worth knowing, and not only knowing but repeating whenever and wherever one can, to know who, at the end of the day, it was that, at enormous expense to one Harry, Henry, Rickards, Leete, in fact did not conduct the first controlled flight in Australian airspace at Diggers Rest — which, incidentally, was founded along the road to the goldfields of Bendigo as a spot where the gold diggers could, you guessed it, rest — than it is to know who indeed was the first person to achieve this remarkable and hotly contested — though it was barely a contest, for Harry Rickards, who knew how to gee-up a crowd, had made sure that his publicity material spoke loud enough to put all other comers in the shade — feat. It’s bizarre that the attempt, for it can never be labelled anything other than an attempt, because although Houdini did indeed, at 8.00am on that Friday morning in March, after a couple of initial attempts — attempts at the attempt — were thwarted by unfavourable winds, manage at last to achieve lift-off and forward thrust, thus circling round the paddock for something close to a minute and, for the moment, clinching the trophy ahead of rival aviator and competitor Ralph Coningsby Banks, who’d been trying to beat the escapologist to the punch, having camped out at Diggers Rest in the weeks leading up to 18 March and had, in fact, made an attempt on 1 March in his Wright Model A Flyer only to travel around three hundred metres at a height of less than five metres before a sudden gust pitched him into the turf, creating an incredible impact that threw poor Banks clear and also wrecked his Flyer which then took weeks to repair, as did his confidence — his flight was not deemed eligible due to the fact, and it was a fact because the authorities saw it with their own eyes, that at no point in his three hundred metres was Banks ever in control of the Flyer — so that come the morning of 18 March, although his aircraft was almost repaired, his belief that he might beat the great escapologist to the title would never materialise, all he could do was stand and watch (and, incidentally and no doubt painfully — perhaps more so than the crash itself — be one of nine people to sign a witness statement attesting to the fact of Houdini’s successful controlled flight) as the man with the mesmerising eyes, born Erik Weisz, the great entertainer who was there on a £200-a-week retainer — he didn’t need it, but it was important to advertise that he was getting it — swooped in and snaffled the trophy, awarded by the newly formed Aerial League of Australia, recognising that his was the country’s first controlled flight in a powered aircraft, when actually it was only an attempt, and this attempt, belated at that, would see him go down in the record books as not the first to have achieved the feat, but rather the second, and thus begs the question could it even be called an attempt, for a belated attempt to be the first at something could arguably be seen as simply wasting one’s time, not to mention that of the nine witnesses, including the damaged and severely depressed Ralph Coningsby Banks, reporters, photographers (Houdini was ever the publicity hound) and, of course, a wickedly grinning, palm-rubbing Harry Rickards. In fact, it was likely that Rickards, Leete, the comic baritone and great proprietor of theatrical extravaganzas, who was at the pinnacle of his career as the most renowned vaudeville promoter in the world, some eighteen months before his sudden death in October 1911, had squashed all tell of the other first flight — promoters are prone to such deceptions — in order to drum up more publicity for Houdini’s Australian tour, for both Harrys, Houdini and Rickards, knew not only how to work a crowd but also how to work the media, and being able to tell the newspapers that they would be able to tell their readers about the first ever controlled flight in Australian airspace guaranteed both newspaper sales and ticket sales, and indeed Rickards even made sure it was right there on the poster: THE FIRST SUCCESSFUL AVIATOR IN AUSTRALIA. So it’s weird that the bankable fact that has come down through the ages, or rather the decades, over a century later, when getting on a plane costs much less than £200 and the only time aircraft appear in the media is when they are not in the sky — as I now know only too well — is not the same fact that was so bankable in 1910, is not that Harry Houdini was first, but that Harry Houdini was not first, a fact that seems more valuable now than its opposite was over one hundred years ago, and was why I, Arthur Bernard Cripp — though I go by Bernard because my father has already snaffled Arthur — have sought to recreate this particular controlled flight as opposed to the actual first flight, for not only did it capture my imagination arguably as much as it captured the imaginations of all and sundry in 1910, but there was also, as you’ll see, a gravitas to Houdini’s flight, the record, the facts, have all been held aloft by mere hot air, conjecture, hearsay and legend, which is to say that what I sought was to recreate not so much the flight itself, the mechanics of getting that old bird off the deck, but the idea of the flight, the hope of it, the ghostliness of it; and I guess that’s also at heart why I am now writing it down, committing it to the page, once and for all, in no uncertain terms, in an attempt — let’s call this an attempt as well — in an attempt to latch onto the idea, the concept “flight,” to disappear into it, no, to embody it like the trapeze artist, in short to become flight; also to untangle everything, to make sense of it, to shout into the æther and have the æther shout back, to ask the question and receive the answer, the answer being the fate and whereabouts of my wife, Alison, and daughter, Beatrice, who — while I remained at home to run the family business now that Dad, Arthur, is increasingly incapacitated, on oxygen and in the grip of dementia — disappeared in an airplane (like the only son of Madge Adelaide, grandson of Harry Rickards, Harry Frank ‘Jim’ Broadbent), vanished without a trace, along with two hundred and thirty-seven other people, somewhere over Asia — possibly somewhere over Asia, no-one knows for sure — some six-and-a-half years ago, and some six years before I made my own attempt, my attempt at flight, out at Diggers Rest in a reconstructed Voisin biplane, one hundred and ten years after Houdini, according to sources at the time, especially that proprietor extraordinaire, that Peddler of Posters, Prince of Fliers, Harry Rickards, became THE FIRST SUCCESSFUL AVIATOR IN AUSTRALIA. Perhaps, I thought, when the idea for the project suddenly presented itself, as such ideas do — projects and wisdom, if ever they are to come, only ever come suddenly — perhaps I might understand something better, I might solve something, the riddle of the disappearance of my wife and child, the riddle of flight, the riddle of disappearances full stop, because as soon as the project suddenly, like wisdom, presented itself, the idea of parroting the Prince of the Air, the idea of reconstructing and recreating, in the most minute, subtle details, the most fiddly facts, for it is in the details where the truth always, without fail or exception, lies — one hundred and ten years later, it felt just possible that if I could shout into the æther the æther would, despite the fact that it almost never does, shout back; if I could go up in that rickety machine, defying the gravity of a century past — and we all know that gravity was far more insistent back then — even if just for a minute and covering barely three hundred metres, with nine people bearing witness, including a photographer and a journalist — like me, they would only be permitted to use the same equipment as their original pair, ie. a pad and pencil and a Kodak Brownie No. 2 — I might have been able to find them up there, Alison and Beatrice, somewhere among the clouds, might have been able to call forth, conjure up, transport, a history now lost and in so doing perform a kind of time travel; which is to say that although I’d be going up in that antiquated, prehistoric, falling-apart contraption, I might also be going up in a kind of time machine, which in turn would mean that although the Prince of the Air, the Great Harry, Ehrich, Houdini, Weisz, was not the first person to successfully conduct a controlled flight in Australia, he just might have been the first person to conduct a controlled flight by a powered time machine in Australia; or maybe once again, despite his fame and fortune, despite his notoriety and acumen with the press, despite being backed by Harry Rickards — that is, having access to Harry’s exceptionally deep pockets and vast networks — despite everything both Harrys managed to get into the newspapers and onto the wireless, the Hungarian-American with the mesmerising eyes would once again come in second, because it would be only due to my actions, the actions of one Arthur Bernard Cripp, the fact of my recreation of Houdini’s renowned though hardly record-breaking flight, that his French-made Voisin biplane would only now, in the twenty-first century, turn into a time machine, which would, sorry to say, dear Harrys, render me — Bernard to those who know me — the first man to travel back in time and beat the Great Houdini to the punch despite his having taken off from that paddock at Diggers Rest, half-an-hour north of Melbourne, one hundred and ten years prior. And so he would be second again, only by a whisker, but a whisker nonetheless, because while it was obvious that it would be me, Bernard, flying into the foreign land of the past, which was unbelievably closer than you might think, barely thirty metres over our heads, back to when journalists used a pencil and paper and photographers a Kodak Brownie No. 2, back to when witnesses to significant events signed statements of fact to prove that it all went down, if you’ll excuse the pun, before the age of mass communication and instant messaging and shaky private videos of inhuman acts made public, posted for all the world to see, before the time, now, when every moment of every day is recorded, every statement, every slip, every trip to the shops, all logged and saved and cached and timestamped, before our time in which everything is evidence, in which we know and access everything, everywhere around the world, and a time before jumbo jets and their disappearances; while it’s true to say that after building the Voisin and carting it up to Diggers Rest and taking to the skies, it would be me, Bernard Cripp, flinging myself into the past, it’s also true to say that it would be the great Hungarian-American Ehrich Weiss, Harry Houdini, flinging himself forward into this, our, day and age, the third millennium, a time when we can barely be bothered filming the movements of aircraft at all, unless you have serious mental problems, because they have become — as everything does eventually, even grief — routine, dull, mundane, everyday, completely unremarkable. Which is bizarre, because now, in this pocket of time just waiting for the great escapologist to come zinging in scarf flapping, it is more or less — and more more than less — the unremarkable that is, in fact, recorded, filmed, saved, posted, archived and cached — meals, walks, dogs, cats, cleaning, driving, flowers, views, statues, clouds — while the miracle of flight, the absolute improbability, the impossibility, of something as heavy as, say, a three hundred-tonne Boeing 777-200ER ever getting off the ground let alone soaring at thirty thousand feet at almost 1000kph, is barely given the time of day and now comes in a very distant second to meals, walks, dogs, cats, cleaning, driving, flowers, views, statues, clouds; everything’s upside-down, because we should be completely mesmerised by the fact — and it is a fact — of such an enormous contraption, the size of an office building, being able to lumber down a runway and hoick itself into the air with almost two hundred and forty souls onboard jetting off for the far corners of the globe. It’s bizarre, even tragic, that the remarkable has become, in an age in which we’re best equipped to share in it, unremarkable, in which the miraculous, three hundred tonnes at thirty thousand feet — imagine telling old Henry Leete! — has become so humdrum that we don’t even bother monitoring every single second of every single instance of flight when truly we should be completely mesmerised; so humdrum that we don’t sit around oohing and ahhing all day long like we did for the Moon Landing, as we should, watching out for absolutely every detail of it, as we could — why are we doing anything else?! — because the surveillance technology is most definitely there and would allow us to never miss a thing, not one moment, so we would have all the facts, nothing would be left to guesswork or imagination or likely or unlikely theories or suppositions and we could all say, “Ah, well that makes sense!” now that everything would be grounded in cold, hard fact. As I sit here writing this, I cannot believe my own eyes; cannot believe that I am not, this very minute, outside looking skyward — it’s a beautiful clear winter’s day, the air is fresh and even the sounds of the neighbourhood, power tools, barking dogs, passing cars, all seem so crisp and new — there’s a flightpath on the northern horizon so I can see, every now and then, blinking lights by night or a glaring fuselage by day and really it’s just astounding that I’m not online tracking every single flight in progress right this very second all around the world, shaking my head in disbelief and yet comforted by the facts, the coordinates, the waypoints, the messages transmitted through state-of-the-art fly-by-wire technology backwards and forwards to air traffic control — it is worth noting also that not ten days after Houdini’s flight at Diggers Rest, George Taylor, who presented the great escapologist with a trophy from the newly formed Aerial League of Australia, transmitted the nation’s very first military wireless signal on behalf of the Wireless Institute of Australia (founded one week before Harry H.’s flight, 11 March 1910) — those Kings of the Sky, whose eyes are, like a spider’s, supposedly everywhere all the time, like the government’s, so they tell us, there’s no privacy anymore, the authorities know everything about us all, they have the facts about your age, date of birth, income, internet searches, habits, etc., they can compile dossiers on anyone they like, watertight character profiles, which enable them finally to lean back in their office chairs, clasp their hands over swelling junk-fed stomachs, and say, “Ah, well that makes sense!”

About Adam Ouston

Adam Ouston is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and the recipient of the 2014 Erica Bell Literary Award as well as the manuscript prize at the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards in 2017. He holds a PhD and has worked as a copywriter, editor and bookseller. As a musician he performs as Costume. He lives in Hobart, Tasmania.