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.

9 comments:

Jock McTrousers said...

Biggles, come back! Where are you in our hour of greatest need? Come back and make your last battle the rebuilding of the organisations of the working-class! Would Biggles have joined in the assault on Iraq? Unfortunately, he probably would. I haven't read any of the books since childhood, but I seem to remember there being a generous helping of imperialist, king and country, propaganda - maybe just implicit, and quite probably unconscious, but there nonetheless.

Roland Hulme said...

Actually, Jock, I think the thrust of Neil's article was that the imperialism was attributed to Biggles - mostly by people who'd never read the books. Biggles was a straight up guy, a decent bloke who just did his duty.

Neil - this is a brilliant article. Really great.

Neil Clark said...

Many thanks, Roland. I'm pleased you enjoyed the piece.
In answer to Jock: Biggles as I said in the article was no 'lets invade X,Y,Z' imperialist. The Biggles books are full of denounciations of imperialism and 'the white man knows best' kind of stuff.
For instance, this passage from 'Biggles and the Leopards of Zinn: "Then came a time when small parties of men, dissatisfied with conditions in their own country, or perhaps seeking wealth, would set out for some new land that took their fancy and establish themselves there regardless of how the native inhabitants might feel about it. As the new arrivals were usually armed with guns, and the local people had only bows and arrows, argument was one-sided, and more often than not the invaders stayed. Let us admit it. The conquerors generally came from Europe and their victims were the coloured races that occupied most of the great land masses of earth... The coloured races, those that have managed to survive the disastrous habits and disease introduced by the white men, are now reminding us of certain sinister facts that cannot be denied".
I'm fairly sure WE Johns would have supported the war to liberate the Falklands (and rightly so), on the grounds that it was an an illegal seizure of British sovereign territory and that he would have written about Biggles exploits in that conflict, had he still been alive. By the same measure, I'm fairly sure that like many ex-military men, he would have had grave misgivings about the Iraq war. The fundamental difference between that war, and WW1, WW2 and the Falklands conflict, is that Britain was the aggressor.

Anonymous said...

"conquerors generally came from Europe"
Really?
No imperialism from Ch-aka ,Genghis Khan and all the other ambitious imperialists.
What happened to the poor oppressed Neanderthals. Bloody white men did them in I guess.

Anonymous said...

Neil,

During my dim and distant childhood I was a huge fan of Biggles. I must have read at least thirty of the books - most of them more than once!

But if you were to ask me now - hand on heart - whether any of these books were racist...well...the kindest answer would be that they reflected the values and opinions that an Englishman of Capt W.E. Johns's generation would be expected to have.

If my memory serves me correctly, then the passage you quote about treating all men decently regardless of race or creed actually refers to a Chinese nobleman who was educated in England. It is, however, a rather different matter if you read 'Biggles in Africa'; there you will find passages about black Africans that would be, by any modern standards, several miles to the right of the BNP. (And no, I'm sorry to say that this isn't an exaggeration!)

It's a shame, because Johns was a very gifted writer.
I would, perhaps, support the re-publication of all those Biggles-books which do not contain any racist passages. (And I'm sure that this would be the majority.)

But the truth is, Biggles really belongs to a distant age - one which is long gone now.

Jock McTrousers said...

Actually, I must read one or two of the books again. How about Rider Haggard? He usually gets a name for racism, but many of his main characters, like Umpslopogaas, are black and presented in a very favourable light, and his hero Alan Quatermain always prefers the company of the 'natives'. But... in 'Nada the Lily', Quatermain and co. are surprised, in a previously unexplored region of Africa, by some potential hostiles; Quatermain upbraids them (I can't remember if he used a local tongue): " How dare you accost a subject of the Queen of England in her Crown Estate?" (or something like that). Those were the days, eh?

Neil Clark said...

jock: Rider Haggard was a great writer. One of my earliest memories is my father reading me 'King Solomon's Mines', a fantastic adventure. I've got a copy of 'Allan's Wife' and hope to read it shortly.

Douglas said...

It has just dawned on me that the Biggles of whom you speak so fondly is mentioned not once, but twice by Monty Python's Flying Circus. One time was in the sketch Biggles: dictates a letter, and the other was in the Spanish Inquisition sketch, where Cardinal Biggles, wearing a flying helmet and goggles, was one of the inquisitors. The significance of that never registered for me until now...

strak said...

No... the world doesn't need Biggles more than ever. I fear your objectivity has been fatally clouded by nostalgia.

Much of the content of the books is imperialist and racist, and there is much academic and sociology commentary to support this view. Thrilling stories they may be, but the world has moved on and some of Biggles attitudes to other races are indeed outmoded. You can't find many Biggles books in UK public libraries now, and there is no prospect of them reappearing. There are good reasons for this. I point out 'Biggles in Africa' and 'Biggles in Australia' as two examples that contain attitudes that were questionable even at the time they were written. In any case, the fact that views were contemporary is not a defence to complaints and accusations.

Your promotion of Biggles stands on two eminently collapsible legs:

* Biggles' more progressive statements do not count as 'credit' in a credit/debit list against the charge of racism. That is the '...but some of my best friends are black' non-argument

* The bravery and upstanding values (and anti-imperialist statements!) in the stories likewise cannot be played off against the contemporary imperialist setting that is a constant undercurrent in the books.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Biggles#Racism to view a discussion of some of these issues with examples.
I'm a critic who has read many of the Biggles books, and where you see other 'most' races treated 'sympathetically', I see 'patronisingly'. There is a clear distinction between the qualities of coloured people and white people and what their lives are worth in the books.

Your comment that Biggles would have grave misgivings about the Iraq war is laughable - in which story did Biggles refuse to serve his country because he didn't agree with the premise of the war? If he served while disagreeing, then he would have been an imperialist aggressor all the same.