This article was written by Anthony Lipmann. All views and opinions expressed are strictly his own.
Lord Copper threw down the challenge. If he could write about Asterix and its creators Goscinny and Uderzo, and make a link with metal, would I be able to do the same with Hergé and Tintin?
Buying metals from Russia in the 1990s was always a serious business. But there were times when, I confess, I felt more like Tintin than James Bond. The occasion I felt this most keenly was sometime in 1993 when a good friend of mine, who had travelled frequently with me to Russia on hunting trips, decided to deliver some little sacks of rhenium metal powder in his Beechcraft four-seater airplane to Fairoaks’ Airport near Woking, rather than Heathrow. As we met the plane and unloaded the pillow-cases that he’d stacked behind his seat, on a quiet summer’s evening at the edge of the runway, it seemed to me that my journey from city metal broker to physical metal merchant had reached its apogee. With me, that evening, was a Russian lady who decided on the spot to swap a return trip in my battered BMW for a taste of the high life back in the midlands. The trip obviously went well, because not much later she married him.
As for me, I got the rhenium. But the point about the anecdote was that quite often, when I was doing something faintly adventurous, a little voice told me I might, in some way, be emulating my young hero. In my adventures, true, I had bagged a front row seat at the ending of the Soviet Union, but Hergé, via the family of Tintin characters, had already covered most of the other 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 story that foreshadowed an event that was not actually 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 for the purpose of this piece, I couldn’t help recalling a meeting I attended in an enclave called Star City north of Moscow. Unlikely as it might seem, I found myself in the place from which the Russians' Mir Space Station programme was run, aware that few foreigners in the recent past would have been welcome there. The board-room table was peopled by scientists and engineers with server-farm levels of physics in their heads. But 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, the special privileges had all gone. My purpose as ever was merely to buy metal, while theirs was to earn foreign exchange, if only they could find new functions for the workshops that had sent the Mir into orbit. As I waited politely, a lackey entered the room and placed a gleaming 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, with the lop-sided conflict of statecraft and commerce?
In Objectif Lune, the plot line is as barmy - mixing Herge’s immaculately researched milieus with a buccaneering plot line. 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 the story further, but Tintin fans the world over know they can revisit the stories at any age and find all manner of 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 more upset that a miscalculation means it will miss by 48,000 km instead of colliding. Nevertheless, he gets very 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 the 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 send him off 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.”
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.