Books: Farewell to those oily types: Nicholas Tucker on the rise and fall of the jingoistic tradition of adventure stories
Saturday 20 November 1993
As a passionate conservationist, Price cannot be faulted for his attitudes towards wildlife. Not for him the continual slaughter of R M Ballantyne's Victorian best-seller, The Gorilla Hunters. Each book is headed by a note insisting that 'the descriptions of animals and customs of the people are factual.' But their all-male young heroes, Hal and Roger, have little to offer the female readership that now largely keeps teenage fiction going. Instead, there are passages like: ' 'Perhaps she's just curious,' replied Hal, knowing that lady lions were much like lady humans.' The regular tests of the lads' incipient manhood are resolved primarily through their physical strength, which fortunately proves to be superhuman. But in their attitudes to the local Masai or whomever, they remain limited and patronising.
Young readers like the constant near-encounters with danger that come their way in these pages or in stories about Biggles, the ace aviator created by Captain W E Johns. But now that video games present similar challenges in more personally involving ways, the classic adventure story for children is clearly on its last legs. They never really fitted into a post-war, post-colonialist Britain. Without the easy assumptions of natural superiority in class, gender, race and history that formerly proved such a heady mixture for young readers, modern replacements can only seem pale shadows of a proud tradition.
As The Boy's Own Paper put it in 1913: 'It is one thing to attack an alien and an anarchist, but to molest a healthy young Englishman is a more serious matter.' Biggles is equally forthright. 'He was a shifty-eyed, oily-looking type,' says a pal. 'I see,' snaps Biggles. 'He wasn't British.' No adventure story written today could ever take advantage of anything like this jingoism of yore.
One natural venue for former adventure stories was the Empire, successfully mixing the mystery of the unknown with the promise of unpredictable danger. The Victorian writer W H G Kingston (The Three Midshipmen and many others) worked for the Colonial Land and Emigration Board as well as editing The Colonial Magazine and The Union Jack. He used his fiction to urge the excitement of imperial adventure overseas. R M Ballantyne went further by describing the adventures abroad he had actually experienced, carried out in his novels by heroes looking remarkably like himself.
British history of the Our Island Story type also offered a fine playground for fictional adventure. Fighting for King and country while putting down the beastly Roundheads was the proper stuff of schoolboy readers. The mid-20th-century emphasis on holiday or school adventure avoided such political minefields. But already the imaginative canvas was beginning to shrink; a process only temporarily halted by the Second World War and a rebirth of super-patriotic adventure stories accompanied by chauvinist attitudes and jokes about sausage-eating Westphalians or 'Musso the Wop - He's a Big-a- da flop]'
Those writers still trying to create ultra-heroic characters had problems in maintaining belief in such nonpareils, so out of step had they become with the rest of the 20th century. Leslie McFarlane, the American author of the once- popular Dave Fearless adventures, was finally forced to draft a letter to his editor explaining why he could write no more. 'Dimwitted bravery is not enough. Fearless has the mind of a cretin; in fact, he is such a dull, insufferable bastard that I can't stand him any more.' Other former icons of bravery like Biggles or Enid Blyton's Famous Five eventually survived in the popular imagination as camp figures suitable for sending up; child readers still trying to cling on to such heroes faced an increasingly mocking adult response.
Adventure stories written today struggle along mostly in the murky surroundings of horror or the occult, with an occasional tilt at science fiction. A world that never was is preferred by most adventure story writers to a world that has changed so significantly. The white Britisher of fiction who once seemed to have a whole lifetime of adventure within his grasp has finally had his day. Never again can he peddle his fantasies to an acquiescent mass readership.
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