Biggles flies again

Round up Ginger, Algy and all the other chaps: the doughty fighting ace, Biggles, is back to do battle with the Hun. Brandon Robshaw celebrates the return of a most unusual children's hero
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The Independent Culture

He's an unlikely children's hero. For starters, he isn't a child, he's a man. He smokes. He drinks whisky. He kills people. Yet ever since Captain W E Johns first introduced him to the reading public in 1932, Biggles has been one of the most popular and memorable characters in English children's fiction. The books remained in print for over 60 years. And now, courtesy of the enterprising publisher Red Fox, they have taken off once more.

Eight titles appeared in June, four dealing with Biggles's exploits in the First World War and four with his deeds of derring-do in the Second. They are handsome editions, priced at £4.99, with retro-style cover illustrations that look thoroughly cool and modern while recalling boys' adventure stories of a bygone age. The mere sight of them stirs in me something of the excitement Biggles awakened when I was a 10-year-old boy.

When Captain James Bigglesworth first appears, in the collection of short stories Biggles - The Camels are Coming (the first two books are story collections; after that, Johns went over to the novel form), he's described as being still in his teens, slight and good-looking with "deep-set hazel eyes which were never still". He also has hands which are "small and delicate as a girl's", and an "irritating little falsetto laugh". These details struck me with peculiar vividness as a child; I absolutely loved the way this girlie-sounding adolescent was in fact as tough as old boots and pathologically courageous. What strikes me now, re-reading these stories as an adult, is how ever-present death is in them. The attitude of Biggles and his fellow-aces to death is perhaps similar to our own, except that it is dramatically foreshortened: we accept that we will die at some point in the next few decades, Biggles accepts that he'll probably die in the next few weeks. We go to funerals perhaps once a year; Biggles loses a comrade pretty well every day. It's really no wonder that these books thrilled me as a child - there's an intensity about them which other children's books couldn't match.

In the later Biggles books, he is older and a bit more of a man's man. He's also gathered about him a team who accompany him on his adventures: Algy, his cousin and a flying ace like himself; Ginger, young and hot-blooded, a Robin to Biggles's Batman; and Lord Bertie Lissie, who embodies a stereotype dear to English fiction: the drawling, foppish aristocrat whom everybody underestimates but who turns out to be "a wizard with a Spitfire and a devil with a gun". And although Biggles is older and more of a leader in the later books, they actually seem more boyish than the early stories. His gang of chums at times seems reminiscent of William Brown's Outlaws, except that they play with real guns and fly real aeroplanes.

After the Second World War, Biggles gets a job with Interpol and flies all over the world with his mates having adventures. These books - none as yet re-printed by Red Fox - are considerably more far-fetched than the war stories, involving international gangs, buried treasure and, in Biggles Hits the Trail, some extremely scary man-eating centipedes. As a child I remember a deep sense of satisfaction at the way Biggles's career developed; I liked the way that, rather than taking it easy after two World Wars, he flew off into even more extravagant adventures. I did work out that in the later stories he must be well into his fifties, but I don't think this bothered me.

Captain W E Johns' own career was far-fetched enough to give him licence to be far-fetched in his books. Like Biggles, Johns was a fighter pilot in the Royal Flying Corps; he was captured by the Germans and made a daring escape in 1918. Later he worked for the Ministry of Defence. He wrote an astonishing 102 Biggles titles. He also wrote a series of books about a character called Gimlet, who was a sort of junior version of Biggles, as well as an enjoyable novel about fishing and outdoor pursuits in the Scottish Highlands, and some SF novels about a space-explorer called Professor Lucius Brane.

Those other books are forgotten now, but in Biggles Johns created one of those characters who seem to step out of their books and take on a life of their own, like Sherlock Holmes or Falstaff. Johns employed a number of tricks to make the character not just memorable but likeable. There is his incredible physical courage, of course, but also his habits of modesty and understatement. Biggles is the stiff-upper lip personified - or, as Ginger puts it, "a pretty undemonstrative bloke". Biggles tends to act rather than talk, but if in a particularly tight spot he is called upon to speak then he will speak "evenly", or possibly "murmur". Of course it's now a cliché that the more the action hero is up against it, the more quietly he talks, but Biggles was one of the people who helped to make it a cliché, and nobody does it quite like him.

I think what most endeared Biggles to me as a child, though, was that beneath this undemonstrative exterior there beat a human heart. Unlike most action heroes, Biggles is capable of pity. "Biggles, after two years of war, had little of the milk of human kindness left in his being, but the scene [of a fugitive trapped behind enemy lines] brought a lump to his throat." Biggles is capable of love, too. After an unhappy love affair, we are told, "He kissed the letter tenderly, then held it to the candle and watched it burn to ashes."

I read The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle at around the same time as I read the Biggles books, and the contrast between Buchan's hero Richard Hannay and Biggles is instructive. Richard Hannay was simply impossible to like. He was an arrogant right-wing bully, although I don't suppose I put it in quite those terms then. Biggles, on the other hand, despite being every bit as tough as Hannay (no, tougher!) pulled off the difficult trick of being nice at the same time.

Johns' prose style is not especially literary, but it is always competent: the stories are well-plotted and enlivened by flashes of humour, as well as the occasional lyrical description of a sunrise or sunset. Rereading the Biggles books now, I'm surprised at how little they have dated. The stories are pacy. They work. And there is none of the casual xenophobia that disfigures so much English writing of the early 20th century. Although Johns frequently refers to the Germans as "Huns" in the early books, he points out in a footnote that the word was a familiar rather than a derogatory term. Biggles respects his enemies - another endearing trait - and after the war actually ends up working with his old arch-enemy, von Stalheim.

Red Fox say that the eight titles are selling well and they plan to issue a further set next next year. I think it highly probable that boys of today will thrill to Biggles, just as I did. I think it absolutely certain that their dads will.