Some folks have been a long time waiting, but at last Brian Alderson reflects on The Camels Are Coming by Captain W E Johns.
Ah, Mr Salway,
how perceptive you were, way back in 1969. No one now knows much about Children’s Book News which was at that time by way of being a forerunner of Books for Keeps, but it was there that you reviewed the final adventures of Captain (later Major) James Bigglesworth. The stories of Biggles and the Little Green God and also The Noble Lord took us a hundred volumes on from his earliest flights and were published just over a year after the death of their archivist, ‘Captain’ William Earle Johns (he was actually a Flying Officer.).
‘Biggles Breathes his Last’
was the title of your piece and its perceptiveness lay in its recognition that, despite what you called the predictability and banality of the works under review, and despite the author’s facts being ‘often wrong and his geographical and anthropological errors frequently grotesque’, his hero had ‘given rise to a myth that is unlikely to disappear with time’.
How right you were remains apparent now.
For here, wing-tip to wing-tip alongside four further ‘action-packed adventures’ is a reprint of the seventeen short stories that marked Biggles’s arrival in the world of very English derring-do. And it can hardly be fortuitous that Random House have picked 2014 as a year for its revival – a classic by reputation rather than performance…
The Camels Are Coming
takes place in France during the battles of the First World War – ‘Camels’, as his first readers may have known, being ‘single-seater biplane fighters with twin machine-guns synchronised to fire through the propellor’. (This paperback edition is furnished with many such useful explanatory notes both on English and German planes and on contemporary slang [‘Buffs‘] and technology [‘Scarff rings’].) As to what happens, Johns excuses himself in his Foreword that ‘it may seem improbable that only one man could have been in so many hazardous undertakings and yet survive’; he has thus created in Biggles a sole recipient of many adventures that ‘did actually occur and are true in their essential facts’.
the ‘show’ will seem pretty incredible to readers today. For one thing the character and performance of those Camels with their fabric cladding and their delicate struts, and with their liking for landing and taking off in farmers’ fields rather than airfields has a primitive charm unlike that of the warplanes that we know and love. For another thing, their unsophisticated modes of combat encourage an equally primitive Romanticism. Biggles lands in a field to gather a spy’s message stuffed down a rabbit-hole; Algie Lacey (later to be a long-term comrade) revenges himself on the Boche by bombing a bed of geraniums; dangerous assaults are made on a German observation balloon in competition for case of pre-war whisky. It is so different from what was going on among the ‘half a million men’ in that ‘intricate tracery of thin white lines that marked the trench system’ that one thinks one is at a schoolboy rugger-match where coming down in flames (there were no parachutes) was a customary hazard.
with boys’ school stories is not inappropriate to our first meeting with Biggles in 266 Squadron: ‘a slight, fair-haired, good-looking lad, still in his ‘teens’. As Acting Flight-Commander he is a prefect, perhaps soon to become Head Boy, with his Squadron C.O. a master-in-charge, and Colonel Raymond a shrewd Headmaster. There is much badinage, and endless heroics amid the tracer bullets, and even an embarrassing ‘affaire de coeur [sic]’ with a female spy, and it was only to be later in the ensuing series that a now more-or-less adult Biggles assaults a changing nation’s views on politically correct behaviour on the part of its adventurers.
First published in 1932
the book was among several others that Johns put out through the firm of John Hamilton who specialised in such works. His catalogue of 1935 lists over fifty, including boys’ stories by George E Rochester which could to have competed with Biggles. But in that year Johns was induced to join the whacky Children’s Division of the Oxford University Press in London, for which august company he became an unlikely bestseller. Such a time of international crisis offered a fruitful opportunity for flying to all points of the compass with patriotic zeal and Biggles was to feature in two books every year up to 1942. At that time reforms set in at Amen House and our hero moved on to the runways of Hodder & Stoughton where what Lance Salway called his ‘sinister and poisonous opinions’ found a more comfortable lodgement in company with those coadjutors Gimlet the commando and Worrals of the WAAF.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.
Biggles Adventure Double: Biggles Learns to Fly & Biggles The Camels are Coming: WW1 Omnibus edition, Captain W E Johns, Doubleday Children’s Books, 416pp, 978-0857532060, £6.99 hbk