IN his July 19 Art Market column, Huon Mallalieu asked: ‘Does anyone still read “Biggles” books? If remembered at all, they are assumed to be all ‘chocks away!’…rather than grounded in real experience.’ By coincidence, as Huon was writing, I was actually reading one of the series, Biggles Defies the Swastika. We’d spotted two in a charity shop and bought them for £5 each.
Until I started reading, I was of the ‘chocks away!’ persuasion. I’ve always maintained that my only knowledge of German came from Biggles and it was not the sort to be of use today. ‘Hande hoch, Tommy’ is a favourite along with ‘Raus, schnell’ and ‘Schweinhund!’. Not everyday conversation.
The reason for the new interest in Biggles and his author, Capt W. E. Johns, is that six of Johns’s watercolours of First World War air combat appeared on the market after 30 years. The six sold for £11,800—one, Tripehounds, at £3,300 against an estimate of £500–£700.
Johns was thus very far from the amateur ‘chocks away!’ image. He fought above the Western Front with the Royal Flying Corps (which was where he became captain), was shot down and imprisoned. He knew exactly what he was talking about.
Nor did he mess about. In his biography, By Jove, Biggles!, authors Peter Berresford Ellis and Piers Williams say that, between 1931 and 1938, he wrote 40 books (18 about Biggles), he edited two flying magazines and wrote a monthly and a weekly column. The monthly column was for The Garden. He wore a Basque beret and corduroy trousers for this and particularly loved scented flowers.
Another enthusiasm was birds. He had pet jackdaws, hawks and owls—one owl was called Algy, perhaps a forerunner of Biggles’s crewman, Capt the Hon Algernon Lacey, known to all as Algy.
The extraordinary success of the Biggles stories ‘encouraged thousands to join the Auxiliary Air Force and RAF volunteer reserve,’ according to one civil servant and the editor of The Boys’ Own Paper, to which Johns was a contributor, added that Biggles ‘was a most valuable recruiting aid for the RAF’. Johns was asked to do the same for girls and wrote books on the adventures of Worrals of the WAAF.
Biggles’s real name, as any avid reader of the stories will know, was Maj James Bigglesworth DSO. This name apparently came from the real Air Commodore C. G. Wrigglesworth CB, AFC, who also flew in the 1914–18 war. Was he known as ‘Wriggles’, I wonder?
The Biggles books are masterpieces of brevity. Biggles Goes to War (in which he fights for a small, threatened country) is 187 pages long. This compares with 613 pages for another book I’m reading, David Baldacci’s Hell’s Corner, yet Johns manages to include a plot to hijack a fighter plane, a fiendish traitor and a last-minute reprieve from a firing squad. The modern term is a ‘page turner’ and this certainly is.
Johns later described how to get young readers: ‘No sex, no hard liquor, no violence, no coarse expletives.’ Action was vital and long descriptions were out. ‘In a grown-up’s novel, you can write that the scarlet sun was sinking in the West and go on about it for hours. But a schoolboy knows what the sun looks like when it is sinking, he knows that it is red, that it is sinking and that it is in the West—so shut up about it.’
And, of course, Johns was also an artist, having gone to evening classes. The six water- and body-colour paintings at July’s auction show bi- and tri-planes in dog fights and I don’t suppose any written description will give the atmosphere of a fight in a tri-plane quite so well. I think Close Work, with its scarlet Fokker and flimsy Bristol planes, well worth the £3,792 paid. I would like to have bought it myself.
‘My only knowledge of German came from Biggles