Diners toast Biggles

MARVEL Wagenaar-Wilm admitted her husband thought she was slightly mad. From Purmerend in the Netherlands, she spent yesterday afternoon lunching at the RAF club in Piccadilly with 130 Biggles fans.

'I never liked girls' books. They were too soft and sweet. I like the comradeship and the way you always know that Biggles is going to win but it keeps you to the end,' she said.

Mrs Wagenaar-Wilm, 39, was one of 10 Dutch members of the International Biggles Association in London for the centenary dinner for Captain W E Johns, Biggles' creator.

'By jove, Biggles, what a smashing occasion this is,' introduced Sir Peter Masefield, wartime adviser to Lord Beaverbrook and a personal friend of Bill Johns.

Sir Peter swiftly nailed the rumour that Biggles was based on Lawrence of Arabia in favour of Air Commodore Arthur Bigsworth and gave an insight into Captain Johns creative process in a description of their first meeting in 1933.

'He had two pints before lunch and two pints over lunch and the flow of anecdotes increased with the volume of tankage downed,' he said.

With not a handlebar moustache in sight, the audience were warmed up by Mary Cadogan, author of Women with Wings and a fan of W E Johns since reading the 'Worrals' series, the adventures of Flight Officer Joan Worralson, as a schoolgirl in 1940.

She predicted a rise in consumption of the Biggles' books in the centenary year as young people saw the sense in old fashioned values of 'decency, championing the underdog, loyalty and everything that is good and positive about this country of ours'.

The diners cheered a goodwill message from John Major.

The main interest of most enthusiasts is collecting, as even moderately popular editions change hands for pounds 30- pounds 40.

The more prized examples are analysed down to the last illustration, with regular articles appearing in Biggles & Co, a quarterly magazine for enthusiasts.

'It's the same sort of thing as you get in the newsletter of the German Short-haired Pointers' Association,' said one member of the Johns family who lacked a true understanding of the enthusiast.