At about age nine I came across my first Biggles book. I’m pretty sure it was The Camels are Coming, and those Camels were not the ships of the desert but the Sopwith Camel fighters of the Royal Flying Corps in the Great War. I was hooked at once. The book came from the small collection of a new friend who had arrived from England (he also had Dinky toys, and was thus a really important friend). Before long I had read all of his scant Biggles library, and eventually enrolled in the National Library, then in Kings Avenue, Canberra in order that I could read more, because the NLA had a few too. By the time I was fifteen I had probably read as many Biggles books as Johns had then published (he went on to write 98 of them). I thought Gimlet and Worrals, his World War Two creations, distinctly smaller beer.
Why was I hooked? First, Johns could tell a story. All his books are page-turners. You suspend critical judgment because of the speed and flow of the story. Second, like so many boys of my age, I was into flying. My first magazine subscription was to Flight, the cost of which took much of my scant pocket money; I was drawing aeroplanes in combat when I was seven or eight; and I would join the Air Training Corps, the RAAF’s version of cadets, as soon as I could. Third, while Biggles was the hero, he had a gang, and I was a member of a boyhood gang. All of us read Biggles books whenever we could get hold of them. And so did thousands and thousands of others. In 1957 Johns was in England the most popular author of stories for boys.
And Biggles seemed to me to be the classic hero. He was about fair play, and every boy believes in that. He had standards, and they seemed to be the right ones. He was for King and Country, for open-ness, for sportsmanship, for loyalty, for the team and for self-sacrifice in the interests of the group — not that such a sacrifice was ever finally called for in any of the books, at least on the part of Biggles, or Algy or Ginger, his side-kicks. He was brave, and we all wanted to be brave. And there were few women, and almost no romance, in any Biggles book. That would have put us off the books at once. I read and re-read Biggles until I was an adolescent, then found H. Rider Haggard, John Buchan, Berkeley Gray and Leslie Charteris more to my taste. Their heroes were just as brave, but the plots were more complicated, and they had women in them. At 15 I was beginning to be most interested in the younger women about me. Berkeley Gray’s hero was a ‘Saint’-like figure called Norman Conquest, whose nickname, appropriately, was ‘1066’. John Buchan was the most important of that new set, and I’ll come back to him one day.
In the mid-1970s I came across a job-lot of Johns novels that my daughter had bought from a second-hand bookshop, which I was storing for her. I started to re-read the Biggles books of my youth and was now much more sensitive to incident and context — the sorts of things that the author fills out the plot with. I got so interested in what I was discovering that with Sue Elderton, my new wife, I fleshed out the design of a book that would be called Revisiting Heroes. A Study of Series Fiction. We boiled down our work into a paper to be given at an academic conference in 1978, which Sue delivered, because I was taken ill.
As I had re-read and re-read I had begun to wonder how much Johns had influenced my generation, and of course, me. Paul Hazard, George Orwell and many others have wondered about the extent to which children’s books have influenced whole generations. And I had read a lot of G. A. Henty as a boy, partly because our school library had shelves of it. Henry too was for Queen (Victoria in his case) and Country. But by the late 1970s I was a progressive, pro-feminist, Labor-sympathising and public-education-supporting academic. These values were not those of Johns, I think, and with my older eyes I could find objectionable values in his books as well. Johns had for example, pretty clear views about race: the whites were and ought to be top dog. I will quote from that 1978 paper.
For example, the reader is told that an evil-looking character is a ‘half-breed’ and is (therefore) not to be trusted; later he proves indeed to be treacherous. Second, the reader has no warrant for doubting such information, partly because so little is made of it by the author, and partly because the reader cannot dispute what is a ‘given’ from his or her own experience. Third, authors repeat themselves: when half-castes appear they are always treacherous or otherwise unpleasant. Memory tells me that Biggles encountered one noble half-caste in Biggles delivers the Goods, a young man whose father was a British officer and his mother a Burmese princess.
Johns had a series of stereotypes for other nations: Germans were stiff-necked, the French were unreliable, Canadians were solid, Australians were laconic. I’m sure I had echoes of these stereotypes in my head until I travelled, and was able to form my own views.
One outcome of our paper was that within days it had (as we now say) gone viral. Its message was re-broadcast in The Times, the New York Times and elsewhere, and librarians were asked here and overseas whether or not they should remove his books from their shelves. Some did so; some said proudly that they had done so a long time ago. We had specifically said a ban was not our intention, because we knew that some librarians had a dim view not only of W. E. Johns but also of Enid Blyton and her genre. I was then and still am opposed to book censorship of any kind. But we had a week’s international fame.
The second was a meeting I had with Rayner Unwin, of Allen & Unwin, in London in 1981. I had sent him the paper, and he was keen to discuss it, and the book that would flow from it. Now Rayner Unwin had been the 10-year-old who told his publisher father that Allen & Unwin should publish a kid’s book called The Hobbit, and later, in 1951, that the firm should publish the same author’s inordinately long manuscript of The Lord of the Rings. In consequence, and given that I was a Tolkien fan, special attention was due to his appraisal. I had a most enjoyable conversation with him that covered a wide range of topics. He loved the paper, he said, but we would have to be quick, because there would be half a dozen manuscripts with that purpose floating around London within the next year.
Alas, we couldn’t find the time to do it, and in fact, to the best of my knowledge, no book like the one we proposed has in fact been published. Though I’m still writing, finishing Revisiting Heroes would be a long way down my priority list. Perhaps satire dealt with Johns most successfully. The Monty Python crew had an episode of Biggles Dictates a Letter, with a promised sequel of Biggles Flies Undone, as well as Biggles and the Naughty Things.
Johns would not have approved. I still think that the link between children’s literature and adult behaviour deserves more exploration, but not with a view to banning. And while we would today see Johns as ‘racist’, the word did not exist when he was writing. He was proclaiming what seemed to him the core values of Britain as he saw them. It is a mistake to judge the actions of those past with the moral perspectives of today.