Spec­ta­tor

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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

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