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Revisiting the books of male adolescence – Part 2

In the second part of his series on revisiting the literature of male adolescence, Simon Akam turns his attention to Biggles…

Let us commence with Biggles. Not least because, out of all the books under examination here, he came first. The para-textual apparatus of my edition informs me that ‘Biggles Learns to Fly’ was first published in 1935 by an institution genuinely called the ‘Boy’s Friend Library,’ an imprint that I suspect cannot have survived long into the second half of the twentieth century. For many readers I imagine Biggles requires no introduction, but for those unfamiliar with him by dint of deprivation or gender a brief précis is as follows.

Captain WE Johns’ books chronicle the escapades of a British aviator, James Bigglesworth, through the First and Second World Wars and a number of subsidiary peacetime scrapes. Johns, once a Norfolk sanitary inspector, is himself an appealingly elusive figure, the rank of captain that prefaces his name on the cover of the books apparently self–appointed, and his own First World War flying career chequered. Johns destroyed so many British aircraft in accidents that were he a German he would have been categorised as an ace. In Johns’ defence, such right offs were apparently not uncommon at this juncture, given that contemporary airframes were constructed largely of balsa wood, canvas and cellulose dope.

(Such a naming of the parts necessitates a parenthetical note; cellulose dope is a substance used to render fabric covering aircraft wings taut and aerodynamic. In the mid-to-late 1990s chez Akam model aircraft production was interrupted by a series of experiments by my brother and I to ascertain whether, as rumour avowed, the dissolution of expanded polystyrene (used for packaging Nintendo 64s, cassette tape decks and other items of now-vintage consumer electronics) into cellulose dope (sometimes adulterated with petrol and mixed with egg whites for consistency) did indeed produce a passable simulacra for napalm. Results were encouraging)

‘Biggles Learns to Fly’ came from Abebooks in an edition with which I was subconsciously familiar. The Red Fox paperback’s cover bore a realist painting, presumably in acrylic, of a dogfight between a roundel-daubed British aircraft and a Maltese Crossed German biplane. Below, at a rakish angle, lies a red-roofed farmstead of vaguely New England appearance, though presumably intended to indicate the rural build of Flanders or the Somme. Credit for these visuals lies with the scarcely credible design house of “FABA/NORMA,” which, just possibly, could be the ‘Boy’s Friend Library’ rebranded for a crueller world.

A glance at publication dates reveals too whence the familiarity came. This edition, noted in pencil to have once been the property of a Callum Brown, was published in 1992. In 1992 I turned seven, the state of life at which the Jesuits offer to relinquish their charges, confident of their eventual manhood, and at which a child (unless they are a girl or have perhaps spent the previous seven years with the Jesuits) enters the early stages of Biggles engagement.

By contrast ‘Biggles Flies East’ came in an altogether funkier edition with which I was unfamiliar. The publisher remained Red Fox, but the production values were much changed. Gone was the wall-of-the-officers-mess school of aviation ‘art.’ In its place came a desert sky washed jaundice yellow, before which sprint silhouette figures, all block black in their flying jackets (credit this time to a certain David Frankland).

Again, a glance at dates explains my lack of familiarity. The redesign dates from 2003. By that juncture I was 18, and well into the early thrall of literary pretension. It was in 2003 that I man-hauled a paperback ‘Middlemarch’ to the summit of Austria’s second highest peak, the 3774m Wildspitze, to the amusement and derision of my fellow post A-level expeditioners. There was not time for Biggles by then.

‘Biggles Learns to Fly,’ which chronicles the eponymous hero doing just that in circumstances of quite extraordinary amateurism, bears structural clues that it came about from the splicing together of a series of individual magazine stories. Characters are unnecessarily reintroduced deep into the text. For example, we encounter “Second Lieutenant Bigglesworth (Biggles for Short)”, as late as chapter eight. More striking though, on adult reacquaintance, is the pervasiveness of death.

Along with its wartime cousin disfigurement death is widespread, nor is it confined to faceless foes. The following passage takes place at the “School of Fighting,” a training establishment in England. Biggles is seventeen (and, God, how young that seems when one is not five years younger oneself)

“A flight-sergeant was watching him grimly. “A nasty one, sir,” he said casually, as if he had been watching a football match in which one of the players had fallen. “You’ll soon get used to that, though,” he went on, noting Biggles’ pale face. “We killed seven here last week.”

Once we reach Biggles’ squadron in France the slaughter continues; Harris dies, Mappleton dies, two pilots die “whilst learning to fly the very tricky Camel,” even Biggles’ doughty crewmate Mark Way loses his right hand and an eye. The action is impressively unsparing, its philosophy summed up best by a passage in ‘Biggles Flies East’ (which, in fairness, shows a subtlety of plot and counterplot twisted around its sandy espionage theme that indicates that Johns could build a full length novel when he set out to do so from scratch.).

“Some things are not in the least like what artists and writers would lead us to expect, many are definitely disappointing, very few reach the glamorous perfection of our dreams…”

On re-reading then Biggles offers a wholly unexpected realism. Johns does have a tendency to indulge in pseudo-phrenological characterisation – admittedly a wider failing of literature of this vintage – in which a “the squareness of his chin and the firm line of his mouth” really does reveal “a certain doggedness, a tenacity of purpose, that denied any suggestion of weakness.” But the broader point stands. There is relatively little fantasy.

(Another additive is required here. During the composition of this article, a process, like its eventual length, of unexpected duration, I mentioned the theme over lunch while in London to an old friend, sometime literary editor of the New Statesman. When I said I was re-reading Biggles he pointed me in the director of Derek Robinson’s novel ‘Goshawk Squadron.’ This extraordinary book, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1971 (according to the author it was Saul Bellow’s pick for the gong), is a fascinating example of the milieu of Biggles reconstituted for a more cynical age.

The action takes place in a Royal Flying Corps Squadron in France in early 1918 – familiar territory indeed. However, Robinson’s chief protagonist Stanley Woolley – hero is the wrong word – is cut from a very different cloth to the pilots in ‘Biggles Learns to Fly’ who decry those who make a “flagrant breach of the expected rules of air fighting”. Woolley is determined to beat – sometimes literally – all notions of fair play and gentlemanly conduct from the pilots in his squadron, to push them to acknowledge that the business undertaken in their flimsy machines above the trenches is murder and they are murderers. In the following passage we see him in flashback, supine in a field hospital in 1916 having broken both his ankles in a flying accident.

“He was soon the centre of scandal and unrest. Anybody with anything juicy to report went to Woolley for an audience and a bottle of stout. He ran a sweepstake, supposedly based on the intake and discharge of patients; actually the winning number was the daily total of deaths in the hospital. He got a key to the blanket store and rented it out to randy nurses and hungry walking-wounded, many of whom he had introduced in the first place. For a sensational week he published a news-sheet which libelled everyone from the governor’s wife to the assistant chaplain, including both together. He won a piano-accordion at cards and taught himself to play sea-shanties. He circulated two new rumours a day: cholera was sweeping Paris; the Kaiser was in Rome looking for a divorce; Lloyd George had been charged with rape, Switzerland had invaded Germany. Nurse Jenkins was pregnant. The hospital was about to be moved underground. The Czar was going to visit the wards at 10 AM next day and everyone would get a medal.”

Goshawk Squadron is terribly, apocalyptically funny, up with John Kennedy Toole’s ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ as one of the very few novels to have made me laugh out loud. Its contemporary obscurity is extraordinary; to my mind it absolutely deserves a place in the pantheon of Great War novels and perhaps even status as a great war novel. However, for our purposes here its major interest is as an object lesson to prove that the materiel of Biggles can be poured into a rather different mould.)

Simon Akam is Reuters’ correspondent in Sierra Leone. His website is and he has also written these which we think are excellent:  The Long and Winding Road (on Land Rover parts in Africa) and Stars of the Stalls (on second hand book shopping).

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