Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Biggles Series by WE Johns

If you have boys, you either have Biggles books, or need to get them.
Biggles is one of those literary characters to filter through to mass cultural awareness, and yet a whole new generation is growing up—a generation that has never crouched in a chilly cockpit high above the Flanders mud, squinting into the sun for enemy fighters; has never been high in the midst of a whirling dogfight, realising with panic that the guns on its Camel have jammed; that has never waited on tenterhooks in the darkness with a beating heart and a drawn revolver for archenemy Von Stalhein...
Instead they read such modern classics as “The Day A Part Of My Anatomy Which Should Not Be Mentioned In Polite Company Went Psycho.” O parents, there is a better way! You don't have to pander to the worst in human nature to get your sons (or daughters—hey, Biggles isn't just for boys!) to read. Alternately, you don't need to raise them on a steady diet of Louisa May Alcott.
Major James Bigglesworth was introduced to the public after World War I, when a flying-officer who had been demobbed found there was a pretty good market in tales of derring-do in the air. He was already a published writer, but not a well-known one, when he decided to make a little money off his wartime experience writing about what life in the RAF actually was like. At least that's how it started, in 1932. Captain Johns soon ran out of wars (World War I, World War II, Spanish Civil War...Cold War?) and that's when the Biggles stories got a bit more formulaic, a bit more far-fetched as Biggles visited every part of the globe for some thrilling adventure or another. There are around a hundred Biggles books to be had, some of which are of middling quality and some of which are hardly worth bothering about for an adult reader. This review is about the gems.
The best Biggles stories are the first. Short stories set in WWI, they are still some of the best war stories I've ever read, combining realism with adventurous excitement. They were also written for adults and contain plenty of un-PC behaviour, which is to say whiskey. If you want to get just one Biggles book, get The Camels Are Coming, the first one; stories from it are also contained in Biggles Pioneer Air Fighter and Biggles of the Special Air Police. Later Biggles stories would not be so edgy, but these contain a solid grounding of realism: danger, wounds, trauma, stress, and the spectres of death and alcoholism. Biggles, barely out of his teens but already bearing a heavy load of responsibility, comes close to cracking more than once as he faces the deaths of his friends and the sense of inevitable death for himself, in a fledgeling (pun semi-intended) air force which sees most pilots die in their first week. There are lighter stories too, some so crazy they must certainly be based on real events, like the story of the boy who flies into a dogfight with a jammed gun. There's the story of Biggles's one brief, tragic romance, never to be repeated—for the most part, although a big squishy sentimentalist, WE Johns avoided it like the plague in future Biggles novels.

More WWI Biggles stories can be found in Biggles of the Camel (sometimes Fighter) Squadron and Biggles in France. By the time of these later stories, however, Biggles had found his audience in crowds of young boys, and WE Johns focused more on entertaining this audience than on writing realistic (yet thrilling!) tales of the war for grown-ups. With this came a subtle shift in tone and usually, in quality.
Biggles and the Rescue Flight is typical of this shift. One of the better Biggles books, it tells the story of “Thirty”, the younger brother of one Lord Fortymore, who escapes from school, lies about his age to join up, and gets out to the Front when he hears that Forty, his adored elder brother, has gone missing presumed dead. Thirty is positive that not only is his brother alive, but also that he can find him.
Biggles Flies East is yet another story set during the First World War. On leave in London, Biggles is mistaken for a German spy and ordered to Egypt. He tells his superiors, only to be surprised by an order to obey the spy's directions and make contact with another spy in Egypt as a double-agent. And that's how Biggles meets his once and future nemesis, Erich von Stalhein, in a thrilling battle of wits on land and in the air.
Biggles in Spain was published in 1939, when the Second World War broke out. It delves into the Spanish Civil War, known as the “dress rehearsal” for WWII and is, once more, gritty and realistic. With death facing them at every turn and ruthless enemies from both sides on their trail, Biggles and his mates Ginger and Algy must deliver a letter safely to the British Foreign Office. Of all the Biggles books, this may be the best.
The next notable Biggles story (that I've read) is Biggles Defies the Swastika. The Nazi takeover of Norway finds Biggles peacefully sleeping in an Oslo hotel under the name of Sven Hendrik, but when he realises that the enemy have arrived it's time for a thrilling chase over hill, dale, and fjord. At first Biggles only wishes to escape, but in the process he meets up with old enemy von Stalhein and finds himself, to some surprise, actually drafted into the Gestapo and ordered to look for one Major James Bigglesworth, believed to be in the area! Once more his superiors, unwilling to let a good chance go to waste, order Biggles to stick around and do some spy work. I still recall this book as one of the most thrilling spy stories I've ever read, so good it actually reminds me of a John Buchan book.
One Biggles book I'm quite fond of is Biggles Fails to Return. Biggles's squadron is horrified to learn that on a mission to Monaco to rescue a princess on the run from Nazis, both of them disappeared. The last anyone saw of Biggles, he was fighting a stiff rearguard action and may have been shot. Ginger and Algy immediately put together a team, parachute into Monaco by night, and set about finding him in occupied territory. Johns must have been to Monaco, for the place is vividly and lovingly drawn. Anyone with an interest in the various Resistance groups will find this book lots of fun. So, to tell the truth, will anyone who has an interest in capable—yet feminine!--crack shot spy-princesses.

Have I missed a good one? Let me know—I'll always have time for a Biggles story. I just finished reading a late Biggles—Biggles Buries a Hatchet, “the one where von Stalhein turns good.” How could I pass up on such an important part of Biggles history? Next up: a non-Biggles pirate story, Champion of the Main.

Useful link: Complete WE Johns bibliography!


Christina said...

If I ever have a son, my preferred baby gift is a Biggles omnibus. Oh, and that second paragraph? LOL. I liked your piece on Alcott very much. I find myself wondering if part of her attitude to boys comes from the fact she had no brothers herself, only sisters...

Anonymous said...

Biggles sweeps the Desert! He manages to rescue Ginger from dying of thirst, rescue a plane load of people and still win and epic dogfight after being shot in the head! He the reason I'm still single!


Suzannah said...

A Biggles omnibus, Christina? I will remember that!

@Sophie--LOL! I don't recall if I've read that one.

outbacklawyer said...

Sergeant Bigglesworth CID: rare and highly recommended. Set immediately post WWII, in Northern Africa, it is geographically and chronologically accurate and has an interesting storyline.

Without revealing too much, Biggles takes a drop in rank to take his first post war assignment from Colonel Raymond. He assembles his usual team, and takes off to investigate.

I actually think this is the best Biggles story in terms of character profile: even Lord Bertie Lissie's personality is painted in some detail. Well worth a read.


Suzannah said...

Thanks for the recommendation!

Anonymous said...

Best of the post WW2 stories is Biggles Foreign Legionnaire. Although set in the early 1950s, there is much said in the first chapter that applies to today's world. The plot moves swiftly with lots of action. Then there's the chapter that describes Iraq and how many armies have marched into it, and how they have all ended up marching out. Pity the Bush family didn't hand this one down from father to son. Young readers of today can learn a lot from this one. I rank it as one of WEJ's best efforts. Cookymonster

Suzannah said...

Cookymonster, I've never read that, but it sounds fascinating! Thanks so much for the tip :)

James Bigglesworth said...

You completely forgot Spitfire Parade old boy, which introduced us to Tug Carrington, if my memory serves me right.


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