Monday, June 02, 2008
Why the world needs Biggles more than ever
Forty years on from the death of Captain W.E.Johns, here's my article from the Daily Telegraph on why we need his wonderful creation more than ever.
He fought and defeated the Germans in two world wars. He foiled plans for a Russian invasion of Britain and scuppered a Japanese plot to poison Allied pilots with chewing gum and chocolates.
He faced certain death on countless occasions, not just at the hands of humans but from giant snakes and octopuses, too. But despite his numerous brushes with the Grim Reaper - and the fact that he was a lifelong heavy smoker - he was still going strong and thwarting evil-doers into his late sixties.
The man in question is Captain, Major and later Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth, DSO, DFC, MC, the most famous airman in English literature and surely a candidate for the greatest Briton of all time.
The stories of Biggles's amazing adventures, chronicled in 96 books spanning four decades, enthralled and inspired generations of schoolboys around the globe. As we mark the 40th anniversary this month of the death of Biggles's creator, Captain W E Johns, it's time for a fresh appraisal of a series of books which are sadly neglected today.
Biggles made his first appearance in the short story "The White Fokker", published in April 1932 in the aviation magazine Popular Flyer, of which Johns was editor. The tales that followed were published later that year in book form in The Camels are Coming.
The early Biggles stories were set in the First World War and were based on Johns's own experiences as a bomber pilot on the western front. Johns only served six weeks before he was shot down and imprisoned. It was a fate which was to befall his fictional creation on several occasions, but Biggles - unlike Johns, who had to wait until after Armistice Day to be released - always managed to escape.
With the Great War over, Johns gave Biggles a new career as a freelance charter pilot. Together with his loyal companions, his cousin Algy and his youthful protegé Ginger, Biggles was able to fly around the world, battling international conspiracies, searching for buried treasure and getting involved in hair-raising escapades from Bolivia to Barcelona.
When the air-raid sirens sounded again in 1939, Biggles was back to answer the call of king and country. He not only fought against the Nazis in Norway and Finland, but defied the Japanese in the Orient, rescued a Sicilian princess from the clutches of Mussolini's Blackshirts and did his bit as a Squadron Leader in the Battle of Britain.
In fact, Biggles played a key role in Britain's "finest hour" in more ways than one. It was said that the intrepid airman, by now the idol of millions, did more for RAF recruiting than a thousand posters. Peter Beresford Ellis and Piers Williams note, in By Jove, Biggles: the Life of Captain W E Johns (1981), that during the war, Reynolds News interviewed a leading British fighter pilot and asked him to what he owed his success. "Biggles," he replied. There was also the tale of the RAF officer who escaped from a PoW camp by employing methods learned from Biggles.
Having helped save the world from the Axis powers, Biggles and his pals (who by now included the monocled Lord Bertie Lissie), were then drafted into the newly formed "Air Police Service" and, once again, the adventures came thick and fast.
Into the Sixties, Biggles was going strong: a Unesco survey in 1963 found that he was the most popular schoolboy hero in the world. But it was in this decade that the anti-Biggles backlash began.
Complaining that Biggles's attitude to other races was "outmoded", William A Taylor, borough librarian of St Pancras, informed the Evening Standard that when children asked for Biggles books, his librarians would "recommend other books we consider better".
Ipswich's chief librarian denounced Biggles, a man who had risked imaginary life and limb defying the swastika, as a "fascist", while a Merseyside race relations officer called for all public libraries to destroy their Biggles books.
Needless to say, the charges against Biggles were ludicrous. "While men are decent to me I try to be decent to them, regardless of race, colour, politics, creed or anything else" is hardly the credo of an Alf Garnett in flying goggles.
Far from being an apologist for Anglo-Saxon supremacy, Biggles, like his creator, was an instinctive anti-imperialist whose ethos can best be described as live and let live. Other races are more often than not portrayed sympathetically, far more so than the westerners seeking to exploit their natural resources for material gain.
The misguided assault on Biggles did nothing for the cause of race relations, but only prevented a generation of library users from enjoying some of the best written adventure stories in the English language. And by Jove - as Algy might say - what wonderful stories they are!
Johns was a gifted writer whose matter-of-fact style made the most implausible plots seem believable. The pace of his writing is terrific, and the depth of his characterisations will surprise those who believe Biggles's world to be peopled by cardboard cut-outs.
Biggles himself is no stiff-upper-lipped goody-two-shoes, but a man who gets angry and irritable and feels the waste of war like any sensitive human being. His arch-foe, the Prussian Von Stalhein, is not a "boo-hiss" stereotype either: he even becomes a friend of Biggles after the war.
Although they are generally regarded as children's books, the quality of Johns's writing, and the fact that he never insulted his readers' intelligence, means that the Biggles stories can be equally enjoyed by adults. I devoured the adventures as a child, but my pleasure is undiminished when I re-read the books today.
Biggles reminds us of human qualities that are now in all too short supply. In Biggles's world, a self-sacrificing esprit de corps still exists. When Biggles is presumed captured or dead in enemy-occupied Monaco in Biggles Fails to Return there is no question that his pals will risk their own lives to try to rescue him.
Monetary gain means little to Biggles and his chums, and they hold those who put commercial motives before doing the "decent thing" in particular contempt.
The exotic and varied locations of the stories also adds to their appeal. One minute Biggles is shivering in the Antarctic, the next he's on the look out for oases in the Sahara desert: the books provide the most entertaining geography lessons you're ever likely to get.
And, of course, there's the flying. Biggles takes us back to the golden age of aviation, long before the horrors of Terminal Five and concerns over carbon footprints turned the most romantic method of transport into such a stressful, angst-ridden activity.
Biggles's world is an exciting, fascinating and colourful place. The more sanitised and standardised the 21st-century world becomes, the more we have need of W E Johns's inspired creation.