Isaiah Berlin was returning from Paris in 1952 when the aeroplane - 'it was an Air France: Air Chance is a better name' - 'caught fire and scenes of extraordinary panic occurred'. Berlin mentions this, jokily and in passing, in several letters, but Alice James, the wife of William James's son Billy, gets the full story of the disaster that didn't happen, at least to Berlin. 'I saw a thin flame crawling up the side of my window & decided that it would take at least ten minutes to reach me & there was, therefore, no reason for haste. I was, however, mistaken in this':
The aeroplane was emptied amid screaming etc. I thought of little save how to save (a) my Abercrombie & Fitch new overcoat to which I felt devotion (b) a particularly neat small wireless set which I was bringing as a present to my parents. I therefore behaved with a false calm & as I imagined some detached dix-huitième observer of life might have behaved. But no sooner was I out & contemplating the burning wreck in a Gibbonian manner than I was screamed at by a loudspeaker: told not to be mad . . . & to run fast. It was only then that I observed that the other passengers were as specks in the distance & that I was alone in my distinguished detachment.
LRB 23 July 2009 | PDF Download