Concorde – Too Perfect?

I have been doing a number of posts recently about my favourite shinkansen and designs that defined modern Japan, and these, together with a podcast that I was interviewed on and which will soon be released, have inspired me to do a different, but connected, post. In this post I want to discuss Concorde.

I never got to fly on Concorde. In the words of Tinie Tempah

I’m pissed, I never got to fly on a Concorde

I been Southampton but I’ve never been to Scunthorpe

Pass Out, Tinie Tempah, 2010

Perhaps a post (or series of posts) about favourite lyrics from songs is due at some point. Anyway, while I have been to both Southampton and Scunthorpe, it is only relations of mine that got to go on the plane – both as a passenger and as crew.

I have a variety of memories of Concorde. I remember that, as a child, when visiting my grandparents in Surrey being able to see and hear Concorde go over. The noise was amazing. As was, of course, the shape. I also remember in those days how, even so many miles away from an airport, there would be a smell of kerosene in the air from time to time. Probably not good for the health, but I do love that smell.

Of course, another memory of Concorde is the what happened on 25 July, 2000 when AF4590 crashed. I have written about that in a separate post, so won’t discuss that further here.

Rather, what I would like to discuss is the design of the plane and its place as a symbol. This is a theme I discussed in my book Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan,

Although the shinkansen remains largely a Japanese symbol, Concorde was one that crossed boundaries, for it was a result of Anglo-French cooperation. Yet, when the lossmaking plane was retired, the event apparently passed without significant attention in France. Although this may in part have been due to the crash at Paris that was a contributing factor in Concorde’s eventual withdrawal, it is also appearsaccurate to say that Concorde never captured the French imagination in the same way as it did for the British. For Concorde was special and symbolic for many British people and, as Clarkson (2004b:14) suggests, when it crashed in Paris, ‘we were actually mourning the loss of the machine itself’. The final commercial flights of Concorde were covered by special live broadcasts by all of Britain’s leading news networks. The BBC described Concorde as being at the ‘cutting edge of modernity although its design is around 40 years old’, a phrase that could easily be applied to the 0-series shinkansen, and described the atmosphere on the day of the final flights as being ‘like a national wake – a mixture of celebration and mourning’ (BBC News special 24 October 2003).

Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan, p.69-70.

I was certainly one of those who had a feeling of mourning that day when the final Concordes came into land at Heathrow as I watched the images live on TV.

I have seen Concorde at Heathrow and also visited one at Duxford.

Concorde at Duxford (photo taken in 1998)
The Concorde cockpit
Concorde at Heathrow in 2005 (view from a plane that I was on)

There is no doubt that Concorde was an amazing achievement of technology. And there is also no doubt that it looked amazing. But, I would like to suggest that it was almost too perfect. Looking again at the penultimate picture above, where a Boeing 747 jumbo jet can be seen in the background, there is no question that it is the 747 that I prefer to look at. Perhaps this is an example of wabi sabi – the concept that there is beauty (and naturalness) in some imperfections. The 747 shouldn’t work and elements of it aren’t that beautiful, but it is the Queen of the Skies. Concorde was amazing, but it was just too perfect, in my view.

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