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Posts tagged ‘The Books of Male Adolescence’

Revisiting the books of male adolescence – Part 6

The final instalment of Simon Akam’s re-exploration of the literature of male adolescence…

Now Willard Price. By the time I turned to ‘African Adventure’ and ‘Underwater Adventure’ I was reaching the limit of my tolerance for this particular act of literary regression. We can deal with the pair of books quite swiftly too. The author was a naturalist who penned a 14-strong series (adventurously titled ‘The Adventure Series’) of children’s books. The series chronicles the escapades of Hal and Roger, teenage sons of a celebrated naturalist.

The central conceit has aged badly in this environmentally inclined new century (originally the series was published between 1949 and 1980). Hal and Roger’s father John Hunt is not an Attenborough-esq, conservationist figure. Rather he captures beasts and birds and sells them to zoos (Rio and Hamburg’s establishments are mentioned). “If you see anything interesting down there, bring it up,” announces Dr Blake, another naturalist standing in for the Hunt paterfamilias in ‘Underwater Adventure,’ before the boys plunge into the azure waters of a lagoon. Memories of my own PADI training indicate this approach is no longer considered best practise in scuba diving.

Not only is the central practise of these books rather loathsome to modern sensibilities, but also the structure of the two I re-read was astonishingly formulaic. In both the boys had a few zoological scrapes before the entry of a blocking figure – in ‘Underwater Adventure’ a villainous fellow scamp called Skink Inkham, in ‘African Adventure’ a failed white farmer known as Colonel Bigg. The blocker gets in everyone’s way, potentially tries to kill one or both of the boys, and is finally vanquished. It is said that very small children thrive on repetition, but I think the teenage audience these books were originally aimed at frankly deserved better.

The fault lies less with the subject matter than the treatment. You can write a good book about a safari – Hemingway’s ‘Green Hills of Africa’ for example. Price just did not. Likewise, as I read my two adventure stories a series of unanswered questions sprang to mind too, which I doubt troubled me on first reading. What, for example, is the business model of the Hunt family animal hunting? In ‘African Adventure’ the safari is equipped with a large assortment of vehicles (we know, because at one point they go head to head with a herd of buffalo). How are these pantechnicons paid for? Are the receipts from the Hamburger Tiergarten really sufficient? More fundamentally too, over and over again as I re-read these slight and unfulfilling texts, I wondered where, oh where, is Hal and Roger’s mother? She seems to be neglecting basic duties of care.

Done then. What have we learned? Never go back is one possible moral. To re-engage with a quantity beloved in first youth is always reckless, even if books cannot age in a way that, to chose another property in initial bloom at the time I read Clancy et al, the Spice Girls have done. (The same, it should be said, is true also for things I despised at that age; today I barely even dislike courgettes, which seems to fundamentally undermine the integrity of my erstwhile hatred).

More seriously though, I would posit the following conclusion. Narrative retains its power to grip even as reading tastes change. However, narrative alone becomes insufficient in adulthood. The writing that appeals to the male adolescent lands full adult engagement because it is fundamentally a literature of the surface. If one does go back, one can skim but not sink into it.

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).

Revisiting the books of male adolescence – Part 5

Simon Akam continues his re-exploration of the literature of male adolescence with what he sincerely believes to be the first ever litero-critical essay written about Andy McNab…

McNab now. It is not only my distinct memory of where I first found ‘Immediate Action’ that marks it out from the other books under examination here. It is also distinguished by the fact that its ‘author’ did not actually write it, at least not in the manner that, for example, I am writing this sentence. For those unfamiliar with his aetiology Andy McNab is the nom de plume of a former member of Britain’s Special Air Service, who sprung to prominence with the publication in 1993 of ‘Bravo Two Zero’, an account of his escapades behind enemy lines in Iraq in the First Gulf War. ‘Bravo Two Zero,’ along with ‘Immediate Action,’ which followed two years later, was ghostwritten.

In a later and altogether more appealing chapter of my existence than my sojourn as a tweed-jacketed second former in 1997-1998, while living in New York three years ago my then girlfriend once introduced a friend of hers to mine with the explanation that her father was Andy McNab’s ghost-writer. Such a tendentious connection ranks, I acknowledge, in the very lowest category of celebrity association stories, but there is a valid point to be made of it. Andy McNab’s ghost-writer’s daughter had attended a very smart West London girls’ school.

This fortune spent on schools fees illustrates a crucial point. The monumental success of McNab’s ‘authorship’ in the early to mid-1990s made his books a kind of ur–text. ‘Immediate Action’ and its predecessor ‘Bravo Two Zero’ spawned countless imitators, and created a whole new genre of the ‘SAS book.’ They are the great-grandfathers and progenitors of whole tranches of verbiage – literature is perhaps the wrong word – to be found in airport departure lounges and next to DVDs on shelves in houses otherwise devoid of books. Meanwhile, hilariously, McNab himself has not only faced accusations that his own early works fictionalised key details of events, but also branched into officially writing fiction himself.

Re-reading ‘Immediate Action,’ which chronicles McNab’s life story from London tearaway urchin to the eve of his deployment to the Gulf with the SAS, I found though that I could fit McNab into a tradition that is essentially a literary one. Not only did his books spawn a host of imitators, but they also interface with a written tradition that stretches backwards from their date of publication.

Alan Judd, the author of ‘A Breed of Heroes’, a much-underrated novel detailing a British regiment’s tour of Northern Ireland in the 1970s, once told me in an interview that the two greatest fictional chroniclers of the British army are Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh. I would agree with this assessment; Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy and the sixth, seventh and eighth tranches of Powell’s ‘Dance to the Music of Time’ (‘The Valley of Bones,’ ‘The Soldier’s Art’ and ‘The Military Philosophers’) anatomize the British military of the Second World War better than any historian.

The key takeaway from both these novels is an image of the British military machine as an organism of truly astonishing bureaucratic sloth. Once absorbed in this institution a man finds himself transferred for no apparent reason from grimy Nissen huts at one end of a rationing-depleted damp island to the other, subject, as in the opening scenes of ‘Brideshead Revisited’, another Waugh novel that addresses the war, to pointless exercises, training for months for operations that are later cancelled, or, as in the case of the hapless Lieutenant Bithel in ‘The Soldier’s Art,’ consigned to command the division’s “mobile laundry.”

Post-war there was a shift. The conscript behemoth of the 1940s slimed down like a Hollywood ex-starlet with a gastric band. Sometime in the 1980s the British army reinvented its public images as a lean, trim fighting force, the best small army in the world, starring in the Princes Gate embassy siege in 1981, the Falklands in 1982, Iraq in 1991, Sierra Leone in 2000. (I am indebted to the father of a friend for pointing out some of these points).

Subsequent misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have dented that sheen a little, but it remains a strong image. In many ways this shift was valid; the institution did change greatly, but it was also a shift in perception crafted by media in the broadest sense – and we shall place McNab in that category. In ‘Immediate Action’ the Cold War Royal Green Jackets in which he first serves as a young soldier are rooted in the pointless soldiering tradition of Powell and Waugh – as in the extract below.

“Almost immediately we started having to do two or three-week exercises. We’d drive to a location, dig in, stay there for a couple of days, jump in our APC again, go somewhere else, and dig in again. It was incredibly boring and as far as I was concerned we weren’t really achieving that much. Certainly none of us at the coalface was ever told what the big plan was.”

Later though the Special Air Service, which McNab finally reaches on the second attempt, is truly the “broad, sunlit uplands” of Winston Churchill’s post-war imagination, the epitome of the panache of the British profession of arms. Here is an exhortation:

“A major part of what made the Regiment more professional than the normal military unit was that it was staffed by people who could tell the difference between work time and play time. When you’re working, you’re working, when you’re not, then it’s time to be the idiot – you can do whatever you want, you can go and get drunk out of your head or you can go home and mow the grass, it doesn’t really matter. But everybody has to be able to cut between when they’re working and when they’re not.”

The irony here is that while McNab’s army, or at least the SAS, is in general much more efficient than the forces described by Powell and Waugh, his writing is incalculably worse. The depiction of the British army in literature 1940-1995 could be depicted on a graph as increasing professionalism couched in deteriorating style. Of course there are exceptions: Fitzroy MacLean’s ‘Eastern Approaches’ is not only a great work of memoir but also shows sections of the Second World War British army as efficient and formidable, as undoubtedly they were. But the broader point stands.

Perhaps some responsibility can be deferred as McNab, as we have established, did not actually write his books himself. But still, an archetypal ‘Immediate Action’ line – “But I didn’t realise, because I was a dickhead,” sits uncomfortably against, for example, the following exchange early in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Men at Arms’ about the best fabric for military boots.

“’This is my new pair of porpoises. I expect you wear them too.’

Guy looked from Apthorpe’s boots to his own. They seemed very much alike. Was ‘porpoise’ Halberdier slang for ‘boot?’ ‘

I don’t know. I just told the man I always go to, to make me a couple of pairs of thick black boots.’

‘He may have given you cow.’

‘Perhaps he did.’

“A great mistake, old man, if you don’t mind me saying so.’

He puffed his pipe for another five minutes, then spoke again: ‘Of course, it’s really the skin of the white whale, you know.’

‘I didn’t know. Why do you call it porpoise?”

‘Trade secret, old man.’”

One imagines Andy McNab and the father of my ex-girlfriend’s friend sitting knee to knee, almost certainly in an upstairs room of a Forte Travelodge off the M25 in the drizzle in 1994, together working out how on earth to put the nobility of McNab’s thoughts into simple words. “How about, but I didn’t realise, because I was a dickhead?” the ghost-writer moots. “Ideal,” McNab replies. Back home, a tweenage girl gets her name down for St. Paul’s.

The broader truth here, which we have arrived at in a fashion that I will concede is somewhat roundabout, is that to produce good – and certainly great – first hand literary depictions of the military requires conscription. In retrospect reconstruction is possible; Sebastian Faulks showed that in ‘Birdsong’, after many mornings spent (also in the early 1990s) in the archives of the Imperial War Museum and afternoons making up what could not be found there.

Memoir or good autobiographical fiction on this theme though generally requires the collision of a sensibility that in general would not be attracted to the army with the military machine. That requires compulsion. To take another country but the same war that Waugh attended; we would not have ‘The Naked and Dead’ unless Norman Mailer was drafted 1943.

For all its banality though McNab has the greatest weight, the greatest impression of the all the books I revisited here. Not only can I remember where I found it, but as I re-read it, for the first time in many years, it was as if I could see around the corner. I could sense the next element of the story, down to individual paragraphs, looming out of my subconscious where they had long ago lodged.

Likewise, I can remember how as a child factoids that must have been culled from ‘Immediate Action’ or ‘Bravo Two Zero’ became widespread boy lore. I was once, when I was perhaps eleven, told that the SAS fire more rounds in training each day than the entire rest of the British army. My informer was not only rather rotund, but also all of three years older than me, so his information presumably came from McNab, rather than his own personal Special Forces service.

Elements of McNab’s prose acquired life beyond the page  – as long as you were 13, listening open mouthed as someone tells you the SAS always carry a condom in their belt kit in the desert. And so, as with Tom Clancy, on revisiting we cannot be too rude about him. It is just not fair.

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).

Revisiting the books of male adolescence – Part 4

Continuing his adolescent odyssey, Simon Akam this week turns his attention to Frederick Forsyth…

Frederick Forsyth, unlike Clancy, at least began as no pot-bellied shore side scrivener. As a journalist he covered the Biafran separatist war in Nigeria. The ‘Dogs of War’ opens with a clear facsimile of the end days of the enclave there – “I didn’t bring any supplies, sir, there were no more supplies to bring.” Subsequently we follow a disparate collection of mercenaries through their reengagement to topple the government of a West African state to secure a platinum concession for a London mining entrepreneur.

However, Forsyth’s journalistic background, though it may have provided him with elements of the required material, hampers his fiction prose. The balance of the text is concerned with the preparations for the coup; the procurement of weapons, a ship for their carriage to Africa and so forth. All too often the exposition of these processes involves a complete step back from the narrative, a blunt intrusion of authorial voice.

Such prose not only violates that cardinal creative writing school principle of show not tell, but also undermines any three dimensionality the characters may otherwise have acquired. Blank statement of facts has a place in journalism but it is an affectation to be wary of in fiction. Long sections of ‘The Dogs of War’ read like the middle passages of magazine stories, as the following example illustrates.

“The trade in lethal weapons is the world’s most lucrative after narcotics, and not surprisingly the governments of the world are deeply involved in it. Since 1945 it has become almost a point of national prestige to have one’s own native arms industry…”

The target of the coup is called Zangoro. The conceit of the fictional West Africa state has pedigree, with some antecedents that are recognisably more literary than Forsyth. Graham Greene never names Sierra Leone as the analogue for the ‘colony’ in ‘The Heart of the Matter’, while, seven years after ‘The Dogs of War’ was published, William Boyd set his debut novel ‘A Good Man in Africa’ in fictional Kinjanja. Despite the track-record of such a device it can be clumsy though, necessitating repeated references to an unnamed former ‘colonial power.’

Likewise, while Forsyth writes from a more substantial reservoir of experience than Clancy, elements of authorial fantasy-enactment still find way into the text. The industrialist’s minions employ their particular dog of war at the recommendation of a freelance writer who has written stories about mercenaries. So far, so fair enough, the writer is evidently an avatar of the author. Is this a cunning metafictional device, à la the appearance of a writer called Martin Amis in the Martin Amis opus ‘Money’?

Readers, it is not. The in-text writer has a girlfriend who is a model, who has been to “model school” with the daughter of the mogul commissioning the coup. Anyone who uses the term “model school” cannot surely be acquainted with many of the graduates of such institutions. Is this ironic, Mr Forsyth, a clever witticism? I am not convinced. (Nb. The use of the rhetorical question here despite my previous criticism of the form is hereby acknowledged).

We have parsed two thrillers now, two novels both purportedly marketed at an adult market, which I read in youth. A penchant for right wing views binds the books together; these sentiments are more widespread in Clancy but occasionally more pointed in Forsyth, whose hero, for example, hits a woman as a badge of his non-nonsense character.

But true common ground, the binding stuff of the thriller, is surely the concentration on surface matters, the emphasis on process and action at the expense of characters who often come across as one dimensional cut outs with no inner life.

As I mentioned before, much of ‘The Dogs of War’ concentrates on exposition of contraband processes; on buying arms or shipping them. The neglect of the inner life, combined with the forms of international communication widespread at the time the novel is set, make Forsyth’s book a kind of eerie reconstruction of EM Forster’s ‘telegrams and anger.’ Let us not forget that telegrams and anger are precisely the irrelevancies of life. To connect is what matters.

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).

Revisiting the books of male adolescence – Part 3

In the third part of his series on revisiting the literature of male adolescence Simon Akam moves from Biggles to the American thriller writer Tom Clancy….

Now Tom Clancy. A change of tack in every sense. ‘Red Storm Rising’ is a tome, 830 pages in all. The date is present day, so actually about as old as I am, for the novel was published in 1986. The canvas is expansive; a wholesale, though non-nuclear, war between east and west, a thought experiment in violent conflict betwixt the Warsaw Pact and NATO writ large. The author is a former insurance salesman.

In many ways too – on reacquaintance – ‘Red Storm Rising’ is also a very bad book. An excoriating Christopher Hitchens essay from the New York Review of Books in 1996 does much of the heavy lifting of what can, with only a slight smirk, be called Clancy ‘criticism.’  Hitchens damns, among other failings, “two recurring Clancy tropes… his matey populism and his deference and snobbery.”  For those unfamiliar with that raging, and highly recommended screed I will outline Clancy’s other faults here.

First, serial numbers and abbreviations. Perhaps these are a necessary adjunct to the production of the techno-thriller, but they do become wearisome rapidly. Must we, Mr Clancy, be told repeatedly that it is an “E2-C” surveillance aircraft, an “AN-22” transport aircraft, or an “ASAT” missile? Perhaps we must. But I do not want to know.

Likewise, I would argue it is simply unacceptable in a purported work of fiction to refer to characters solely by the condensed acronyms of their positions in a military command hierarchy. To do so strengthens the already robust impression that these individuals are not in fact human but rather simply stanchions on which to hang the hardware, the true stuffing of the techno-thriller.

Only in the very death throes of ‘Red Storm’ (when the West has won, just to throw in that profoundly surprising spoiler) do we learn the name of SACEUR (for the uninitiated Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Eisenhower’s old job). Thus far he has remained just SACEUR. Perhaps we haven’t been told because Eugene really is not much of a name for a warlord, but for the love of god Clancy why?

A prefatory note assures us that ‘Red Storm Rising’ began with an encounter between Clancy and a certain Larry Bond at a war games convention in 1982– frankly not an auspicious zone for initial literary inspiration. Credit – or perhaps it should be responsibility – for the subsequent novel, Clancy tells us in a preface, should be shared equally between Bond and himself, though magnanimously only Clancy’s name appears on the cover. The broader point here though is given this proven willingness to collaborate – with, of all things, the designer of a board game – why did Clancy not simply subcontract out the dialogue in his novel? To, perhaps, Tom Stoppard? As he did not we have to deal instead with enormities like “You’re strong and you’re brave… I know you love me Michael.”

Repeated and deliberate turns away from moral ambiguity – itself the stuffing of greater fiction – is also characteristic of Clancy’s work. He writes in a world of moral certainties, Manichean good and evil. When a Moscow-based journalist, named with what passes for nomenclatural flair here, Patrick Flynn, collaborates with British intelligence the act is one of simple patriotism (“For the hundredth time, the Reuters correspondent blessed his decision to cooperate with the SIS”). In the hands of, for example, John Le Carré, we would have had instead a gradual sell out of personal principle.

Yet the nadir of Clancy’s prose is elsewhere. Indeed these nadirs are twin, like the humps of a Bactrian camel held inverted by its ankles. The first is the authors’ penchant for catapulting wimpy rear echelon types oddly reminiscent of Tom Clancy himself to martial glory. In ‘Red Storm Rising’ a lanky air force meteorologist gets to stomp around Soviet-occupied Iceland committing acts of derring-do, while a naval reservist called Bob Toland elevates himself to an oracular authority on Soviet intentions, trusted by admirals and admired by veteran salts. Given Clancy’s own plump civilian status it is all too easy to read these types as a gushing exercise in authorial wish-fulfilment.

The other nadir is, if anything, worse. When he attempts – and mercifully such actions are relatively rare – to chronicle the inner life of one of his so-called characters his favourite trope is the rhetorical question, often italicised, a device of ground–breaking laziness. This failing could be illustrated with a quotation, but it is more telling to use a composition instead. In the following paragraph I will attempt to distil the experience of reading Clancy (as an adult) in the style of Clancy himself.

“Could this dialogue really be this wrenchingly awful? He thought. Are we really expected to believe that one of the protagonists is called COMSUBLANT? Would he ever see his wife and kids on Chesapeake Bay again or will he have to spend purgatorial years toiling through dross like this, punctuated only by the occasional hard right assertion or cod-aphorism? Oh well, staff officers can sleep after the war.”

It is fun, this Clancy bashing, but it is a cheap kind of fun with undertones of cruelty, like mocking the obese or cock fighting. It is a kind of denial too. A denial of the gripping nature of the work. Christopher Hitchens could excoriate Clancy in better faith than I, having never read him as a teenager (a chronological impossibility, when Clancy’s prentice work ‘The Hunt for Red October’ was published in 1984 Hitchens was already in his mid thirties. I was unborn).

Counterpointed against my own waspish slights must lie the fact that I read in youth not solely ‘Red Storm Rising’ but a host of Clancy’s other novels. But more than that, not only did Clancy grip me at 14, but it did not fail to grip me at 26. I kept on through the 800 odd pages, negotiating the reefs of atrocious dialogue and catalogue-sized consignments of serial numbers, as though propelled by an invisible force, like gravity. I fell through the book. The experience was less grim than wading through some of the other texts at stake in this essay too – Oh Willard Price, waiting in the wings, confident of your merits, listen to my apostrophe and quake at the prospect of my forthcoming rage. That is the Clancy paradox; on adult reacquaintance its faults are undeniably clear. However, its narrative drive does not dissolve.

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).

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).

Revisiting the books of male adolescence – Part 1

Some people can remember the exact moment from their early teenage years when they first encountered A Great Book. Such recollections are the stuff of literary memoir. The child reaches up on tiptoe, in a library into which autumnal sunlight filters through green-tinged glass. He pulls a calf-bound volume from a high shelf. Or a well-thumbed paperback, abandoned by an unknown stranger to whom the author will forever be grateful, fills a lengthy train journey to Crewe or Novosibirsk. Whatever the mechanics of discovery, Austen, Trollope, or Dickens is found, like illumination in a wholly darkened world. The details are immaterial. You have read such things before. By contrast, I can remember the exact occasion that I discovered Andy McNab.

It was in the library of my minor Fenland public school. I was, I am fairly sure, in the second form, which places us in 1997-8. A matter of months beforehand the headmaster mounted a dais and expressed concerns regarding the new Labour government. I, by dint of a July birthday and the longer summer holidays gained by my recent evacuation from the state education sector, must be 12 (previously there was some chance I would be at school on July 18, now, in this brave new fee-paying world, there is none).

The book I find is called Immediate Action. It is large format, hard back, the cover is green. I cannot be sure, but I imagine it is swaddled in some kind of plastic protective sheath. Most extraordinary of all, and of this element I am quite certain, is the bookplate. ‘Immediate Action,’ I discover, has appeared in the school library through the bequest of no lesser personage than Mr. Strong.

Strong, and that really was his name, occupied a slightly unclear portfolio, more than caretaker, less than estates manager. He favoured adidas tracksuit trousers. He had been in the army. His gift of Immediate Action to the library was surely an unprecedented act of literary donation, perhaps intended to stiffen the weedy youth of Cambridge. (All will be clearer when we turn to the book’s subject matter). Who knows Strong’s true motivations? But at the time I was grateful for them. ‘Immediate Action’ went into my rucksack. I read it. Indeed, I practically inhaled it. I loved it.

In retrospect, all this is rather embarrassing. But it is true, and I think it illustrates a wider phenomenon. Retrospective assertions of youthful literacy are not to be trusted. I have always questioned, for instance, whether John Stuart Mill really took Greek at three. Such claims are such robust scaffolding for subsequent intellectual adulthood that, to my mind, they should always be treated with suspicion.

I would therefore like to make a counterclaim. I did not read much classic literature as a child. Of course, the proof of a negative is a notoriously thorny philosophical proposition, so here too an element of trust – nay credulity – is required on behalf of you, the reader. But if you can privilege me with such little faith please do. For, as someone who has in later life read a number of books, I am interested in the fact that, with few exceptions, I did not tear through serious ones when I was small. Is this, for instance, evidence of some deep-lying failure on my behalf?

I find my own reading history interesting too because it is not that I did not read at all when smaller. There are issues of verb voice here; I was read to, as part of the suite of activities, viz. piano lessons (unsuccessful) and French exchanges that I once saw described as necessary to ensure your child becomes a bona fide member of the English middle classes. Being read to involved the classics of the pre-Harry Potter children’s canon: Black Beauty, Children of Green Knowe, Swallows and Amazons etc. But beyond this passive activity, or perhaps fostered by it, I was a self-directed consumer of books. I was, to choose a tired noun, a reader. It is just that the books that I chose to read on my own accord cannot now surface on an adult’s – or my own – bookshelf without causing wincing.

I decided therefore to revisit my teenage reading to try to find out, in the baldest terms at least, what it all meant, and if any of what I read stands the remove of time. The period in question is pre-15 adolescence. Pre-teen is too young, too much in the being read to category, 16 and onwards in occluded by forthcoming university entrance and another, equally potent spectre, nascent literary pretension (more of that later). Thus the age from 13 to 15 is the most fruitful to re-plumb. As I write this, in the kitchen of a Norman gîte with a large white wolfish dog asleep at my feet, I am not only on holiday but also on the cusp of 27. Therefore we are receding a dozen years and more. Stay with me please.

In terms of the texts that I chose to re-visit, it is most illuminating to first list the titles; subsequently we can examine whence came this seven-strong collection (seven being the limits I determined of my stamina for such an act of cod-Freudian regression). The books I re-read for this excursion were as follows: Captain WE Johns’ Biggles Learns to Fly and Biggles Flies East, Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, Andy McNab’s Immediate Action, (of course) Willard Price’s African Adventure and Underwater Adventure, and Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War.

Due to living abroad I did not have access to the shelves in my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house when collecting these texts. Due to the aforementioned wince-factor too, I knew that I had since purged a number of the books I needed, even from that ancient sanctum. Instead I listed a selection of texts that I could remember reading and ordered them from Abebooks.

My choices did not aim for completeness – I read more than seven books in my childhood. Rather I sought to choose a sample that reflected those I had found myself; books that I had never been told to read. In the interest of full disclosure I should say that in the case of Willard Price I could not remember which of his 14-strong ‘Adventure Series’ I had read, and so chose two representative examples from that plethora. In retrospect, in the light of their astonishingly formulaic composition, I do not think that it really matters which particular titles I chose to revisit from the Price Oeuvre.

Let us now, before cracking the spines of these well-worn volumes, draw initial synoptic conclusions. Our slice of seven books crosses genre boundaries. ‘Young adult fiction,’ is a grotesque term and one not in common parlance when WE Johns and Willard Price were writing. Both author’s work though was conceived and marketed in that niche on original and subsequent publication. ‘Thriller’ is a problematic term too, a pejorative built on the questionable suggestion that excitement is inimical to literary merit. Clancy and Forsyth were surely though pitched with that, notably adult, market in mind. Meanwhile McNab’s offering, boldly blurbed (and hyphenated) as “a no-holds-barred account of an extraordinary life” is surely – in the broadest sense – autobiography, or at least memoir.

The lesson or moral from this reading list culled from the depths of memory seems at first then that it is omnivorous. As previously stated, I chose texts on the grounds that I read them first without a sponsor, that my young teenage self had come across them independently. Of course, nothing, not least reading, truly takes place in such vacuum-like isolation. For example I was introduced to Forsyth – in the form of the more canonical The Day of the Jackal – by an aunt whose other literary gifts included a copy of Richard Burton’s 1883 translation of The Kama Sutra, presented on my 16th birthday.

Meanwhile, while I cannot remember how I first encountered Biggles it is true that he did subsequently acquire a measure of institutional sponsorship, when the tape collection in the Akam familial Volkswagen expanded to include (alongside the ‘Just So Stories’) an audio version of Biggles read by Tim Piggott –Smith (a name seared on my youthful memory). However, in general I found these books by myself. Returning to them they seem a disparate collection. Perhaps though it is more profitable to search for common ground, to look for a thread of continuity – perhaps ‘boy appeal’, which we can analyse.

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).