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On a Marché sur la Lune

Lord Copper threw down the challenge. If he could link Asterix to metal, could I do the same with Tintin? Buying metals from Russia in the 1990s was not for the faint hearted. But there were times when it was a lot more like Tintin than James Bond. The occasion I felt this most keenly was sometime in 1993 when a companion from my Russian hunting trips decided to deliver sacks of rhenium in his Beechcraft to Fairoaks’ Airport near Woking, rather than Heathrow. As we unloaded the pillow-cases that he'd stacked behind his seat, on a quiet summer’s evening at the edge of the runway, I could see my journey from city metal broker to physical metal merchant had reached its apogee. With me that evening was a Russian lady who opted for the chance of a private plane trip to the Midlands rather than the journey back to Walton in my old BMW. The trip obviously went well, because not much later she married him. As for me, I got the rhenium. It was when I was being adventurous like this, that a little voice told me I might in some way be emulating my young hero. It is true that my wanderings had bought me a good seat for the final curtain of the Soviet Union, but it was nothing as compared to Hergé's coverage of the great escapades of the of the 20th century. These were my generation’s wallpaper of subjects - Al Capone and the Chicago mob featured in Tintin in America, oil dealings in The Land of Black Gold, bank note forgery in The Black Island. Via Tintin, Hergé could traverse every geopolitical spectrum with stories populated by characters, a few of whom metal people might not admit to recognising – arms dealers, drug traffickers, bounty hunters, buccaneers, despots, secret police, inept detectives and a wonderful array of heavies and hangers on.

Then, in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, Hergé turned his attention to a subject which foreshadowed an event that was not to happen for another 16 years - a manned mission to the moon. In this story, Objectif Lune (Destination Moon) and its sequel, On a Marché sur la Lune (Explorers on the Moon), Hergé captures the essence of Cold War rivalry in the space race.

Re-reading the story just now, I recalled a meeting I'd attended in a place called Star City, north of Moscow. Unlikely as it might seem, I found myself in the compound from where the Russian Mir Space Station programme was run, aware that few foreigners in the past were welcome. At the board-room table were seated scientists and engineers with server-farm levels of astrophysics in their heads. However, as it was the early 1990s, the state that once funded their work had evaporated. The handsome rouble salaries and state pensions were worthless. The Zils and dachas and the special privileges had all gone. My purpose was merely to buy metal, but theirs was to earn foreign exchange, if only they could something to do for the workshops that sent the Mir into orbit. As I waited politely, an assistant entered the room and placed a titanium bicycle frame on the shiny boardroom table leaving it to the boss to explain. ‘We have expertise to make thin-wall titanium tube'. 'We want to sell to great English company – Raleigh.’ ‘You will help us’.

What better opening for a Tintin adventure?

In Objectif Lune, Tintin’s partially deaf 'mad Professor', Cuthbert Calculus, (in French, Tryphon Tournesol) has disappeared from Marlinspike Hall, leaving a telegram requesting Tintin and Captain Haddock to join him in the Balkan Republic of Syldavia. Upon arrival, it becomes clear that our intrepid reporter is in a country where the secret police hold sway, as they are led to an atomic research establishment built next to some uranium mines. In reality, Hergé uses the uranium in his plot because at the time it was thought that nuclear power (not liquid hydrogen) was to be the rocket fuel to power man to the moon. As a child, not only was I learning French via the speech bubbles, but about nuclear fission too. In the reactor hall, with Captain Haddock, Tintin, and Snowy attired in protective gear, a nuclear scientist explains…

‘Voici…un atome d’U.235 va, en se diséntegrant, projeter deux ou trois neutrons. L’un ou l’autre de ceux-ci sera absorbé par un atome d’U.238, qui se trouvera ainsi transformé en plutonium…’

Pointless for me to recount further, but Tintin fans know they can revisit the stories at any age and find all life there, including, I might add, other references to elements in the periodic table. In one of my favourites, 'The Shooting Star', Tintin is trying to save the world from a meteor heading for the planet, while another 'mad Professor', Decimus Phostle, is upset that a miscalculation means it will miss by 48,000 km instead of colliding. Nevertheless, he gets excited by a spectroscope reading suggesting the discovery of a new element with the words 'I, Decimus Phostle, have discovered a new metal. I shall give my name to it: phostlite.' 

Hergé’s work started in pre-war Belgium inspired by graphic storybooks imported from America. Employed on a Catholic Daily Newspaper called Le Vingtieme Siècle (the 20th Century) his editor, noting Hergé’s talent for illustration, suggested he produce a weekly illustrated children's story for a pull-out on Thursdays, which was called Le Petit Vingtieme. In the first adventure to develop the character of the boy reporter, Hergé’s anti-communist editor commissioned Hergé to deploy him to ‘The Land of the Soviets’, and so is born the globe-trotting nature of the stories. So successful were the strips, that the paper initially sold double on Thursdays, which soon rose to six times. So, once safely home, Hergé wanted to send Tintin and Snowy straight over to America, but his editors had other ideas, so Tintin’s second stop was the former Belgian colony of the Congo.

The world’s greatest Tintinologist, the British journalist, Michael Farr (formerly of Reuters and The Daily Telegraph) in his wonderful book ‘Tintin - The Complete Companion’ recounts how Hergé meticulously archived cuttings from magazines of the day, later to be referred to in his drawings and plot lines. Cargo vessels, aeroplanes, trains and automobiles, uniforms and guns in Hergé’s hands are not approximations but deft and accurate extrapolations. Even the rocket that takes Tintin and Captain Haddock to the moon has an uncanny resemblance to the V-2 rockets developed by Nazi scientists at Peenemünde in the late 1940s.

In 1969, when Neil Armstrong finally set foot on the Moon, Hergé sent over a cartoon to Nasa, depicting Neil Armstrong stepping off the space module, only to be greeted by Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus with the words “Welcome to the Moon, Mr Armstrong.”

Courtesy of Hergé Foundation

Well, it’s all a bit like metal trading isn’t it? You think for a few moments you’re ahead of the game only to find someone got there before you.

As a child, I read many of Tintin’s adventures and later read them to my young ones in their turn. Today, I am not ashamed to plunge into them again with both nostalgia and amazement. 

First Published on on May 27th 2020


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