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How Boys' Own, Blyton, and Biggles brought me up

June 1st, 2016


Wany years ago, when I was a shy Anglo-Norwegian lad in rural Victoria, Australia, I’d retreat from the heat, or snuggle into cold nights by the fire, with a trove of battered old books. We lived in a ramshackle wooden house with windows full of cobwebs — we never swiped cobwebs because the spiders would eat the flies. Our dark and peeling walls were held up with crayon drawings in every room. The floorboards had a few holes, and we had to worry about the occasional reptile that might come in under the kitchen. I remember one, a venomous, four-foot tiger snake, his tail visible under the kitchen cupboard. We lured him outside with a saucer of milk and Mum chopped his head off with a shovel.

We had no money and no television. Instead, Mum got us books from the local Church of England Opportunity Shop. I remember many of them: an encyclopaedia from 1905 or thereabouts; a little red book called Every Fact a Boy Should Know, from which I memorized the length of rivers, the height of mountains, and how to write the Greek alphabet; The Children’s Book of Famous Lives, in which stineguyreadingSocrates drank his cup of hemlock, Sir Francis Drake singed the king of Spain’s beard, and Florence Nightingale was kind to soldiers. I read about the heroes of Greek mythology, stories of Baldur and Loki and Odin, sea yarns like The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk and Olaf the Sea Bird by Major Charles Young. I had several thick Boys Own Annuals from an empire that had withered away several decades before my time. I possessed a pile of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventure stories and a scuffed brick of books by the prolific author Captain W.E. Johns, concerning the adventures of Captain James Bigglesworth of the Royal Air Force. I had an old atlas to consult, in which the dominions of the British Empire draped like a crimson mantle across the shoulders, waist and loins of Terra Firma. Red China was yellow, Africa was a patchwork of colonial colors, Soviet Russia was grey, and Nazi Germany was an enormous bloated brown tick engorged on the blood of Central Europe.

Australia has its own children’s literature, which I loved and must read again: Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs, The Muddle-Headed Wombat by Ruth Park, The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay, Headhunters of the Coral Sea by Ion Idriess. But I was always drawn back to northern latitudes and climes. Nearly everything I read was as if seen through an English spyglass, though I loved Dumas’s Three Musketeers romances, and I got a brand new Bonanza Annual for my eighth birthday from the Nolans, who owned the farm next to the house we lived in for a while. We never brought any books with us from Norway. When my grandfather sent me Jules Verne’s Jorden Rundt pa 80 dage for Christmas 1969 he was two years late. I couldn’t read it. All but one of my childhood books is gone, so I thought I’d browse the secondhand bookstores and libraries for a look back. Here’s a sampling, a few sambal dishes of sound and color, that give some savor of a pre-pubertian education.

Boy’s Own Annuals (there were Girls’ Own, too, of course) were the main fodder for adolescents across the British Dominions during the first half of the twentieth century, with tales of Great White Hunters in the jungles of Africa, Maharajas and Muftis both sinister and civilized, and the green and pleasant sward of English Public School playing fields, populated by tall, decent, rose-cheeked chaps getting the better of misshapen bounders, rotters, and cads. I still have my old copy of the Boys’ Biggest Book, published by Collins of London and Glasgow in 1935. Here’s a smattering from its thick, foxed pages:

“Fish, where’s my check lounge suit?” cried Gadsby, prefect of the sixth form at Blaneley, addressing his fag. From Who’s Got Gadsby’s Suit by Ronald S. Lyons, involving a schoolboy’s flying contraption, a strange (swarthy) man in a hurry, Morse code, and the bully (part cad, part Gatsby) who gets his comeuppance.

And “Madre de Dois! It would mean death for you!” (Yes, Dois not Dios) From Risks Unlimited by F. Haydn Dimmock, in which the evil Don Pedrovitch (surely a Red!) foments revolution in the little South American country of Lorenzo, foiled by Frank Fayne in his flying machine.

Lastly: “Yon is no vulture of the air which deals swift death, like those that came before,” cried a guttural voice, and the watchers, a group of grim faced Bedouins, glared still more fiercely at the approaching plane. From Down in the Desert by Sidney Maycock. Our heroes, ditched in the desert by vengeful tribesmen, are rescued in the nick of time by the Royal Air Force.

Enid Blyton penned several series of children’s stories, Noddy and Big Ears (banned in the US due to the questionable relationship Big Ears supposedly had with Noddy), the Adventure books, Secret Seven, and The Famous Five, the latter being the books I really got into. Five on Smugglers’ Top, Five on Finniston Farm, Five Go Down to the Sea, et al., preserve, as though in bottles of formaldehyde, an England I barely remember from my toddler years living near Manchester, where my brother was born. I was addicted to this series, about siblings Julian, Dick, and Anne, their cousin Georgina (George, a tousle-headed tomboy), and her dog Timmy. They’d ride their bicycles on little lanes across the moors, or sit on cardigans in the dappled shade of oak trees, picnicking on bottles of warm lemonade and potted meat sandwiches. They’d take train trips, to Yorkshire, or Cornwall, to stay with kind and eccentric uncles and aunts where they’d consume huge cream teas before going to bed, to be woken up at four in the morning by strange winking lights in the dark and misty distance. The Five would, by the end of every first chapter, stumble upon smugglers (usually swarthy men with stubbly jowls and glowing, or shifty, eyes), or thin, shy secret agents living in lighthouses, or unpredictable gypsies up to no good. I must confess that I have retained quite a fondness, into my adult life, for persons such as these.

James Bigglesworth, created by Captain W.E. Johns, who was a distinguished WWI pilot himself, was my favorite. Biggles, who started his career in the Sopwith Camel Squadron, was at times cold and harsh, but always courageous, modest, and faithful. Along with the aristocratic Algy Lacey, the youthful and impetuous Ginger Hebblethwaite, and various other males, he was forever taking off and landing in remote extremities — South Atlantic islands, Siberian archipelagos, steaming Burmese rivers, windswept Baltic beaches — and fighting Germans (the steely Von Stalhein, his nemesis and later ally against the Reds), drug runners, and Commie agents, amid a supporting cast of savages, noble and otherwise, sibilant Orientals, and other dastardly foreign coves. Here are snippets from a few yarns I remember.

“Fine!” he said. “Now we’ll show the Huns what’s what!” From Biggles Learns to Fly.

The servant, walking with soft, easy steps, returned. “This way, sahib,” said he. From Biggles in the Orient.

The Mexican smiled, flashing his white teeth as he coiled his lariat. (You wouldn’t expect some clerk in Cheltenham to flash his white teeth while sharpening his pencil, now would you?) From Biggles in Mexico, in which Biggles has a jolly rough time with a gang of American desperadoes, the gangsters Ritzy and Corny Cornelli, murderous diamond thieves gone to ground in the desert.

Biggles Defies The Swastika, in which Biggles, in Norway when the Nazis invade, tries to escape but is forced to join the Luftwaffe. Von Stalhein arrives and things get pretty sticky.

Here’s the story in which I encountered drugs for the very first time: Another Job For Biggles. Biggles is sent to Arabia to investigate a mysterious (unnamed) plant, from which a potion is distilled in which cigarettes are steeped, creating a powerful narcotic, enslaving legions of weak-willed Europeans in underground dens of vice. Biggles is nearly hanged this time.

My favorite of all was Biggles Hits the Trail, in which a race of ancient Orientals lives in a kind of Shangri La near the mysterious Mountain of Light in Eastern Tibet. The Chinese warlord Li Chen is manipulating them into building a factory to create the fabulous Blue Ray from radium deposits in the mountain, so he can set himself up as ruler of the world. Biggles, Algy, Ginger, and McAllister (a doughty old Scot) save the day after battling giant, slug-like, man-eating centipedes activated by the deadly ray. Here are some bits of Noir England, from this book.

Two oil lamps lit a dim yellow radiance on the platform.
“Watch your step. There are some funny people about in the park.”
A grand chap though, when all was said and done (describing the heroin-addicted Earl who finances their adventure

Queer, high-pitched voices were calling in a strange language.
Silence, a brooding uncanny silence fell.
“My gosh, there’s been trouble here all right.”
“Right,” snapped Biggles, “run for it.”
Biggles’s lips parted in a mirthless smile as his finger tightened over the trigger.

There is no suspense in Johns’s prose. Everything clicks together like cogs in a clock, but I was thrilled by it all when I was ten. I got a taste of the world and its heroic and wicked ways, and escaped the hot summer days, the sun glaring on dusty, tree-strewn plains, and the horrid Ocker boys who rampaged thereon.

Though I swam and rode ponies, non-competitive pursuits, I loved to lie on a rug under the plum tree by the horse yard, immersed in the saving otherness of distant lands while the local lads ran around the streets and paddocks. The State School kids would bait the Catholic kids and vice versa, and some occasionally did their best to scare the crap out of the aboriginal kids from the extended family who lived in the leaning, rambling house beyond the paddock next to ours. (Those dark, broadly smiling, sandy-thatched boys managed to scare the crap right back most of the time, though.) I kept out of everybody’s way.

But constant reading did not fail to inculcate a wholesome sense of sportsmanship, of fair play and the ability to interact with my peers. I remember my little brother Norbert tearfully pleading with me to play cricket in the yard. I’d magnanimously agree, with conditions. I must be allowed to sit on a kitchen chair and read my book while I tossed him his ball. So, while he missed, or hit it clear over the road, I could remain with my hero (in Biggles Flies Again) landing his twin engined Vickers Amphibian on a river in the jungles of Guyana on whose banks rare and deadly blue orchids exuded miasmas of death. As I read, skinny, sun-tanned little Norb would run and fetch the dog-chewed tennis ball himself, trotting back with it so that I might, with eyes still glued to my page, give it another toss. •

From the June 2005 issue.

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Black Lamb Review of Books, Books and Authors, Lossius | Link to this Entry


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