I was unsure about approaching Biggles. He's a rather a cultural icon for those of us in the English speaking world. Well at least the Commonwealth parts of it. But I'd never read any before. Of course I knew that Biggles was famous for his dogfights with German fighter pilots, most notably the Red Baron. But I didn't know how much of a cultural icon he really is. There are many fan sites, crazed book collectors, and it seems everyone reads Biggles, even Hilary Mantel.
James Bigglesworth is a young pilot stationed in Northern France in the later days of World War I when we meet him in Biggles, The Camels are Coming, released in 1932 and the first of 96 Biggles books. Boys of a certain age cut their teeth reading Biggles and his adventures. A friend in his 70s came over while I was reading Biggles- he saw my library copy sitting on the desk, and immediately a warm smile spread across his face, as he fondly remembered Biggles, Algy, other characters and their companions.
Written as a series of 17 short stories, The Camels are Coming is a fascinating insight into the action of the first world war. Captain W. E Johns, himself a pilot, although not ever a Captain, is clearly familiar with his subject.
From his elevated position in the cockpit of a Camel, Biggles surveyed the scene below him dispassionately. An intricate tracery of thin white lines marked the trench system where half a million men were locked in a life and death struggle, and a line of tiny white puffs, looking ridiculously harmless from the distance, showed the extent of the artillery barrage of flame and hurtling steel.
I did come to wonder though if war really allowed so much individual decision making as Biggles charged off on yet another rather solitary and unplanned undertaking. I can believe that whiskey played such a large part. Biggles gets drunk with German captives, and drowns his sorrows after a love interest goes bad. It is unusual though to have a children's book hero be such a prodigious drinker. But I can well see why he needed to.
"Don't shoot outside 200 feet- it's a waste of ammunition."
There was more humour than I was expecting, and more emotion too. I was astonished when Biggles took leave, and went to visit his family.
Arriving home, he discovered the house closed; he telephoned a friend of the family, only to find out that his father and brother, his only living relations, were in the Army and 'somewhere in France.'
Amazing to think about the level of uncertainty that everyone lived with back then, and such a contrast to our connected world, where we can contact friends, family, or even strangers so simply and around the clock.