Good Reading : April 2004
(shelflife) 10 Let’s be honest – the name ‘Biggles’ doesn’t sound like it would strike fear into the hearts of evildoers everywhere.Yet that’s exactly what Captain James Bigglesworth (known to every- one as ‘Biggles’) did in a career spanning nearly 40 years, in over 100 books.As a brave and daring fighter pilot, Biggles not only took to the skies against Germany in two world wars, he also fought spies, criminals and other riffraff in globetrotting adventures. It would be easy to dismiss Biggles as a relic of a bygone era, when much of the world map was still tinged by the rosy pink hues of the British Empire. But unlike other popular British heroes of his day, such as Nick Carter and Sexton Blake, Biggles continues to be rediscovered by new generations of readers. The Biggles books have remained continually in print for well over 70 years, and have been translated into dozens of languages. The tales of his adventures still find new life in comic books, radio, television and movies. Now, with a series of Biggles movies planned for filming, there can be no denying that Biggles is more than just an intrepid air-ace – he has become a literary phenomenon. For years, I used to think that reading Biggles was up there with trainspotting and stamp collecting as an obsession enjoyed by crusty old men – and no one else. So imagine my surprise, while recently working in a bookstore, when I started getting requests for Biggles books. Nothing unusual about that, I hear you say – except that the people asking for them weren’t senior citizens, but kids out of primary school! Now, I must admit that I’d never read Biggles, but I thought I knew what a typical Biggles book would be like: full of uptight, public school types who ‘bashed the Jerries’ with the same passion with which they played cricket. I was intrigued to see what this quintessentially British hero would have to offer Aussie kids raised on a steady diet of Paul Jennings and JK Rowling. So I bought a copy of Biggles in the Orient. And before you could say ‘Chocks away!’ I found myself utterly absorbed in Biggles’ one-man war against the Imperial Japanese Army. Far from it being a genteel, stiff-upper-lip fantasy, I was struck by the grim action, such as when Biggles ambushes two Japanese soldiers desecrating the body of a downed RAF pilot: ‘Biggles took deliberate aim and fired.The Jap pitched forward in his face, but crying out loudly, started to get up. Biggles walked forward and with calculated precision fired two more shots at point-blank range. His lips were drawn back, showing the teeth. “You unspeakable thug,” he rasped.The man lay still.’ Strewth! This was a world away from the British children’s booksIreadwhenIwasakid–butthiswaswarand,asweall know, war is hell. Even for Biggles. William Earle (WE) Johns was no armchair warrior. Like his famous fictional creation, Johns knew only too well the reality of aerial combat. Born in 1893, he joined the NorfolkYeomanry as an infantryman.When World War I began in 1914, Johns was sent to the Middle East. He returned to England in 1916, joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and was posted to France as a fighter pilot. Johns was shot down over the Rhineland in September 1918. He was taken prisoner and initially sentenced to death for bomb- ing civilian targets. Johns avoided the firing squad by escaping, but was recaptured and spent the rest of the war in a Bavarian prison. He remained with the Royal Air Force (RAF), rising to the rank of captain, until 1929, when he resigned to become an avia- tion journalist. He didn’t find his creative niche until April 1932, when he launched Popular Flying magazine, featuring his first Biggles story, ‘The White Fokker’, by ‘William Earle’. Johns may have been hedging his bets about his new crea- tion, but he needn’t have worried.When Biggles’ debut adventure was reprinted in The Modern Boy in January 1933, it was retitled ‘Biggles and the White Fokker’ and credited to Flying Officer WE Johns (The author promoted himself to ‘Captain’ with the next serial, Biggles and the Cruise of the Condor .) Biggles was, in fact, created in the skies over France, long before Johns wrote his first adventure. Introducing the first Biggles book, The Camels are Coming, Johns claimed ‘many of (GoodReading) flying high with Biggles KEVIN PATRICK traces the still-soaring career of an intrepid fictional hero whose brown leather flying jacket and helmet and aviator’s goggles are instantly recognisable symbols of Boy’s Own Adventures to countless fans – both male and female.