Peter Berresford Ellis & Jennifer Schofield: Biggles!

Cover of Biggles! by Peter Berresford Ellis & Jennifer Schofield

It seems a tragic thing, and one that I cannot regard without distress, that a country which can send out such delightfully worded bulb catalogues as does Japan, can at the same time unload an inferno of death and destruction on unhappy people, most of whom could not have been in the slightest degree responsible for the incident that provoked the outrage.

W.E Johns, My Garden October 1937
(Commenting on the onset of the Second Sino-Japanese War)

Best. Cover. Ever.

Well, actually, the cover illustration for this book seems to have been borrowed from a 1993 Red Fox edition of W.E. Johns’s Biggles of the Fighter Squadron, which was a retitled edition of Biggles of the Camel Squadron, originally published in 1934. (Presumably the editors at Red Fox felt that the Sopwith Camel aircraft of the original title might be confused with … well, a camel.) Red Fox went on to publish a couple more editions of Biggles of the Fighter Squadron, with different (but vastly inferior) cover art.Red Fox covers of Biggles of the Fighter SquadronThis book, Biggles!, a biography of author W.E. Johns, was published in 1993 (the centenary of Johns’s birth), but it’s actually a revised and expanded version of a previous book, By Jove, Biggles! (1981), by Peter Berresford Ellis and Piers Williams. But Piers Williams turns out to have been a pseudonym for Jennifer Schofield, so the authors are actually the same. This new edition was published by Veloce, an automotive publisher. Ellis is a Celtic historian and novelist; Schofield is something of an expert in W.E. Johns’s work, particularly his Biggles stories, and worked with Red Fox in the preparation of their various reissues of Biggles novels.

So here we have the biography of an aviation author, published by a publisher that generally deals with cars, co-written by a historian and someone whose name has changed since the first edition, which also had a different title. But with cover art taken from a different book issued by another publisher (with whom one of the co-authors worked), which also had a different title from the original work, and which went on to be published by the same publisher under different covers.

Got that? Good. Now we can move on.

Although nowadays remembered primarily (if at all) for his stories about his pilot hero Biggles, W.E. Johns was a marvellously prolific author, with works scattered across many magazines, using several pseudonyms. So the great success of Ellis and Schofield’s biography has been to draw together samples of his writing, so that his life story can be narrated in his own words. It also gives Johns the chance, as it were, to respond to those critics (writing chiefly in the 1970s and ’80s) who have labelled his work as racist, misogynist or glorifying war.

On the charge of glorifying war, Johns is clearly innocent—having served in the trenches of Gallipoli and Salonika before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps, having seen friends shot dead by snipers or spinning away in burning aeroplanes, it is evident from Johns’s writing that he loathed war. This is particularly evident in his early Biggles books, set during the First World War. In Biggles of the Camel Squadron, he has Biggles reflect:

It was hard to believe that within a few miles thousands of men were entrenched, waiting for the coming dawn to leap at each other’s throats. War! He was sick of it, weary of flying, and the incredible folly of fighting men that he did not know …

In the 1930s, Johns used his position as editor of Popular Flying to produce several editorials critical of the UK government’s policy of winding down the aircraft complement of the RAF. (With flying contacts on the continent, he was well aware that Germany was furiously expanding its own air force.) For this, he was accused of “war-mongering”, to which he responded:

Our recent editorials, it seems, have led one or two people to believe that we, or I, personally want war. What utter nonsense. No one in his right mind wants war. Paradoxical though it may seem, it is my fear of war that makes me plead for more aeroplanes.

At the time he wrote those words, Johns felt that the only way to stay out of the coming war in Europe was to have a protective “ring of aerodromes around the coast.” Later, the fall of Republican Spain to the Fascists, and Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, convinced him that Britain had an obligation to become involved in war, and that the need for aeroplanes was even more urgent. His outspoken editorials on this topic eventually led to the publishers of Popular Flying coming under (successful) pressure from the UK government to have Johns removed from editorship.

So it was ironic, then, once the Second World War had started, that the Air Ministry should realize that Johns’s early Biggles books had helped recruitment into the RAF. They approached him to ask if he would write something that might encourage women to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Worrals of the WAAF was the result, and something of a counterblast to those who claim Johns disliked women. The intrepid Worrals is a female ferry pilot who becomes involved in various adventures and missions through 10 subsequent novels. Throughout it all, she is coolly dismissive of the patronizing and paternalistic attitudes of “pilots in pants”.

It seems that Johns is accused of disliking women solely on the basis of the Biggles canon, in which women hardly ever make an appearance. This was, however, a specific policy Johns applied to the Biggles books, in the belief that his young male readership were put off by female characters. That may well have been misguided, or nowadays might be seen as pandering to a preference that should not be encouraged in prepubertal boys, but it’s very far from the misogyny of which he is sometimes accused.

On the topic of racism, Ellis and Schofield conclude that casually racist remarks are lightly scattered among the Biggles books, as they are in the writings of most of Johns’s contemporaries. But there are intriguing counterbalancing passages. Biggles holds forth on the evils of imperialism on several occasions, and sticks up for the rights of indigenous people on several more. And a Chinese character whom Biggles addresses with “Speakee English?” replies wearily, “Not that sort,” in a cultured English accent.

The charge that a large number of Biggles villains are of mixed race is (Ellis and Schofield respond), “… to put it mildly, exaggerated.” They present figures culled from every Biggles book. In the Air Police stories of the 1950s and ’60s, for instance:

A countdown of the principal villains reveals that in eighty-two tales there are 31 British, 17 of whom are ex-RAF; 12 Germans; 11 Americans; 33 miscreants of assorted origins; and 2 half-castes!

As Ellis and Schofield point out, a better theory based on these figures would suggest that Johns was prejudiced against RAF personnel.

But their own casual use of the word “half-caste” above serves to illustrate the concern of modern librarians—Johns does use expressions that are nowadays considered offensive. In Biggles Flies Again (1934) we encounter “mulatto”, “half-caste”, “Chink”, “dago” and what I’ll here call “the n-word”, so as to avoid some mindless search bot flagging this blog as racist. One may argue that all this was common at the time Johns was writing, and that Biggles Flies Again also includes the Oxford-educated Chinese pirate, Li Chi, who so neatly subverts Biggles’s patronizing assumptions. And one could point out that many of his books lack any such references—I think it’s no coincidence that Red Fox skipped over Biggles Flies Again when republishing some of Johns’s work—but there is nevertheless a feeling that one could not offer a Biggles book to a child today without vetting it first.

What else is on offer in this lively biography? There’s Johns’s poignant writing on his own wartime experiences; his love of gardening (evinced in the quotation at the head of this post); his work as an aviation illustrator; his thriller and romance novels aimed at an adult audience, and now long forgotten; the long, happy years he spent writing, hunting and fishing on Speyside; the story of how, as an RAF recruiting officer, he once knocked back T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) in a way rather different from that recorded in Lawrence’s own memoirs; and how he came to be  universally known as “Captain W.E. Johns”, despite having retired from service with the rank of Flying Officer.

Essentially, it’s the story of what seems to be a thoroughly nice man (albeit very much a product of his own particular culture and time) who had many interests, who lived a largely contented life while writing many, many books for which he is fondly remembered by many, many people. That’s got to be good, doesn’t it?

7 thoughts on “Peter Berresford Ellis & Jennifer Schofield: Biggles!”

  1. I have been waiting patiently – well sort of – for you to post this review. Thanks very much for your efforts. I hadn’t realised how varied hi career and interest actually were.

    I certainly didn’t remember his books being particularly racist or pro-war admittedly I read them a long time ago. If you read Wodehouse, Thurber or most of the authors of that era the same suspect words and attitudes appear. So I am pretty comfortable with your point of view.

    I am perhaps more sanguine about the offering of these books to a child than you. My son had a real liking for them as a child – admittedly it was a fair while ago as he is close to 40 now.

    I am glad that Johns comes across so well in the biography. It is always a bit sad when a favourite comes across poorly in a biography. For example, I was surprised to learn that by the end of his life Thurber had become pretty much an alcoholic aggressive bore, admittedly he had lots of health problems. Then H.L. Mencken was revealed to be in private an anti-Semite when his diaries were published. So it is nice to see you view of someone improved the more you know about them.

    1. Sorry you had to wait patiently. I’m generally operating quite a few weeks ahead with blog posts, and I try to ring the changes so that the themes are different each week, but topical posts are not too long delayed. So sometimes stuff stays in the pending tray for a while before being published. This was one of those.

  2. I am just glad you post these interesting pieces. After all you do have a life outside this blog. It is nice to read some interesting viewpoints about lots of different things. Not many sites will jump between W.E. Johns, Ordnance Survey maps & Ultima Thule in a few posts – I am happy with what I get and when I get it.

    1. To be honest, the blog is fundamentally self-indulgent. I’ve always jotted down summaries of things and connections I find interesting – it seems to be a useful way of driving things into my memory. Ideas stay frustratingly vague and elusive until I try to organize them into coherent written form.
      So I started writing the blog when I retired from my day-job, in anticipation that I’d have more time to read and do interesting things that I’d like to remember in future. And it was always going to be a sort of mild-mannered and discursive miscellany, because that’s just my particular cognitive style.

  3. One of the great writers, sadly and wrongly criticised, for PC reasons that are largely invalid if you actually read his books. The selected cover is a little unfortunate, as the gallant aviator depicted would have fallen to a sticky end long beforehand. The artist did not differentiate between interplane struts and centre section struts. In the original story the rescued pilot was clinging desperately to the struts over the fuselage. A number of real life rescues were achieved that way.

    1. Not to mention the effect on the aircraft of having so much weight so far out on the wing.
      I do remember, from Johns or from Gould Lee, that one could carry a rescued pilot lying prone on the lower left wing root of the Camel, where his weight opposed the huge torque of the engine.
      But, as you say, cavorting about on the wing in the manner depicted would have been a recipe for immediate disaster. But the sheer bonkersness of the depiction is why I love that cover–it’s about the spirit of the Biggles stories, rather than the reality of aviation.

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