Books that have been important to me #2 Biggles, by W. E. Johns

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.

 

Join the discussion 34 Comments

  • Alan Gould says:

    Yes,
    I never quite took to Biggles, nor Gimlet. The book that hooked me had the wonderful title of “In The Texas With Davy Crockett” and told the story of The Alamo, Sam Houston etc. One wonderful line I recall from it was in a scene where a Mexican draws a knife on Davy and the famous bear-fighter puts out a restraining hand and says, “Now don’t get too riproariously rambunctious friend.”
    I suspect the book upheld similar values of fair play, decent behaviour and heroism to the Biggles where my sampling is small. I agree with you that such illuminations of past values and outlook should be left alone by the censor unless there is a case that an item breeds actual viciousness; one should not drub the past with present attitudes.
    One lasting influence the Davy Crockett book had on me was the sophistication of its structure because it was the first time (I was circa 7) I encountered the flashback narrative technique, where the Alamo episode is recounted in retrospect by a woman who was freed by Santa Anna after the siege was over. The idea of a story gaining impact both from its original events and the consciousness of its being told in certain circumstances was a haunting one. I next encountered it when I read Wuthering heights on the matriculation syllabus, and then with very sophisticated usage in Conrad, of course, and have used it several times in my own fiction and narrative poetry.
    My Davy Crockett book, alas, disappeared in the many moves our Army family made, but a few years ago I saw it reprinted on the internet somewhere, complete with illustrations, the above rambunctious quote getting a particularly choice depiction of the tasselled and coonskin hero.

  • whyisitso says:

    Judging the moral deficiencies of people in past generations is extremely useful to today’s generations, many of whom have a real need to display their own moral superiority to all and sundry.

  • PeterE says:

    Yes, I was a Biggles fan, for sure. Boys couldn’t care less about political correctness in books; they know it’s just a yarn and not to be taken as a model of behavior, except for fairness, loyalty, and such more general values. ‘Robinson Crusoe’, ‘Gulliver’s travels’, R M Ballantyne’s ‘Coral Island’ and his other books as well as the rattling yarns of Ion L Idriess, were favorites of mine along with Mark Twain’s fine books, Long John Silver and other pirate books. At secondary school Charles Dickens’ ‘David Copperfield’ made an appearance as well as Frank Dalby Davidson’s ‘Man-Shy’ . At about 15 I found Hemingway’s ‘First 49’ short stories in the school library and I was entranced. It was a good library and I like the works of Alexandre Dumas, although I think I eventually lost interest in ‘Louise de la Valliere’. In short, I read everything I could get my hands on and it all led to three years majoring in Eng Lit under the wise guidance of F R Leavis ( I had to get that in). At age ten, I was given Arthur Mee’s ‘One Thousand Beautiful Things’. I still have this and was reading it yesterday. It is an enduring delight.

  • margaret says:

    I expect it would be a little odd if I had read any Biggles books and I haven’t. Without having read them they seem to me to be part of that ‘muscular Christianity’ tradition of right is might, or is that might is right … ?

    • margaret says:

      I won’t clog the blog after this. When I was a child/young adult I loved these books :
      Myths Every Child Should Know edited by Hamilton Wright Mabie, Rudyard Kipling’s All the Mowgli Stories, a book about an Eskimo (now Inuit) boy who lived in an igloo and ate whale meat, The Famous Five (for jolly good times, freedom and feasts), and then … Coonardoo by Katherine Susannah Pritchard – beautiful and tragic. I read a lot so these are just the ones that stand out.

      • margaret says:

        I must also include my Ancient History high school text book, it was so beautifully illustrated in colour and so fascinating through those school years that I wish I had kept it.

      • margaret says:

        The books you read as a young person have a huge influence. Unfortunately not many young people read avidly any more.
        https://griffithreview.com/coonardoo-katharine-susannah-prichard/
        Do you know Don that you are quoted on p.17 of Peter Hunt’s An Introduction to Children’s Literature with reference to Biggles?

        • margaret says:

          Having studied children’s lit through Deakin, I have a lot of reference books on this. I looked in Peter Hunt’s for Biggles and was surprised to see your name there – Taking Some Flak over Biggles.

          • margaret says:

            I can’t imagine the nomenclature changing to kid’s lit in an academic course offering.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            Yes, I think I remember that, or maybe he he wrote to me about it. “Can’t ‘member”, as one of my grand-daughters used to say.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    Although I too read Biggles, he was preceded, by many years, by Bulldog Drummond, another iconic British character in the James Bond mould.

    For margaret, Swallows and Amazons, which series has not yet fallen foul of the PC set, and Deerfoot, when Indians were innocently romantic, and not the proprietors of American casinos.

    I graduated from these when I discovered ‘adult’ literature, thoughtfully hidden on the top of my parents’ wardrobe.

  • roger underwood says:

    Don

    I wish I had read your 1978 paper before I wrote my essay “Spitfire Parade – the best of Biggles” published in “Pelican Point and other stories” in 2013. I thought my views were original, but you have already been there. We agree on most points, although in this story I can amplify one issue: the question of Biggles’ interest/non-interest in women. There is an intriguing explanation. If I knew how to, I would email you a copy of the story.

    Roger

  • margaret says:

    I didn’t read Swallows and Amazons but know its appeal of adventures in the Lakes District of four kids (you see I would naturally tend to say children but one of my daughters thinks that’s too formal so now I say kids).
    I think what I like about that sort of series and the Famous Five is that for a brief halcyon moment in the life of men and women, they are actually just friends … and then, it all becomes very arbitrary as to how relationships between them pan out … because of what you discovered on top of the wardrobe Bryan.
    At least those series are inclusive of both girls and boys in a child’s world – instead of the boy’s own adventures of Biggles which Introduce boys to the patriarchy and its structure.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      Can you tell me why you would be in the least influenced in your use of language by what one of your children thinks?

      Especially since they have probably never been taught English.

      • margaret says:

        Because, said daughter is the mother of two of my grand(kids) and I ask her how the ‘kids’ are.

        • margaret says:

          The daughter majored in English and has a post graduate degree in Professional Communication.

          • Bryan Roberts says:

            If she majored in English, she should understand the distinction between ‘children’ and ‘kids’. Or you should.

        • Bryan Roberts says:

          Her reproductive capacity is unrelated to her literacy.

          • margaret says:

            Kids is simply current vernacular even though my grandmother would say they are baby goats. The wind of change encompasses language use as much as any other facet of ‘progress’.

          • Bryan Roberts says:

            You can extirpate children if you wish. How does ten kids killed in France sound?

  • margaret says:

    Weird. Context missing.

    • margaret says:

      Understood. It doesn’t sound appropriate – kids is for informal usage not for reportage of tragedy.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        So your language is influenced by context, not by your daughter’s opinion.

        • margaret says:

          I take into account what people I love think and am able to accommodate things which are of no consequence unless one digs in one’s heels and makes them so. Which is a long winded way of saying yes … and no. I can tolerate ambiguity you see.

          • Bryan Roberts says:

            Very nice. I admire evasiveness, but my admiration does not extend to calling dead children ‘kids’. Language means something, or it means nothing. Bodies can be corpses, carcasses, or carrion. Or dear Uncle Joe.

          • margaret says:

            It’s become a pointless exchange. I don’t think evasiveness is admirable. I prefer transparency and being open.

          • margaret says:

            I think I was on my high horse … ; )

  • Ross says:

    How does “kids playing in the park” sound? It’s Sunday Brian. Lighten up, for goodness sake.

  • margaret says:

    As Remembrance/Armistice day approaches, Biggles might pause to reflect on this poem amidst his boy’s own adventure.
    W.B. Yeats
    An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
    I know that I shall meet my fate
    Somewhere among the clouds above;
    Those that I fight I do not hate,
    Those that I guard I do not love;
    My country is Kiltartan Cross,
    My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
    No likely end could bring them loss
    Or leave them happier than before.
    Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
    Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
    A lonely impulse of delight
    Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
    I balanced all, brought all to mind,
    The years to come seemed waste of breath,
    A waste of breath the years behind
    In balance with this life, this death.

  • Roger says:

    If anyone wants to find out more about Biggles books – try http://www.biggles.com or http://www.wejohns.com

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