There is sometimes, often, a snobbery within academia surrounding popular ‘low-brow’ texts and it is no different with literature of the First World War. In some instances I do find myself agreeing, for example when an individual with neither personal trench experience or much literary skill writes a mass of shorts about witnessed frontline heroics and sends them to every available paper, magazine and publishing house. However, more what I am writing about here is the dismissal of the war’s popular adventure fiction. Through a review of Johns’ Biggles series I am going to try and show how within the simply written and engagingly popular stories there are serious issues depicted and that whilst being lowbrow, they are worth reading for both pleasure and for our understanding of war literature.
A Gaurdian article which encourages people to once again read these stories expresses the fact that the Biggles series has been mocked in recent times: “despite that [original] popularity, in recent years he’s become reduced […] to little more than a punchline, with Biggles remembered merely as an aggregation of preposterous verbal tics (“By Jove, Bertie!”).” However, there is much more to them than this…
Firstly, if you read the collection in order then the shorts can be seen to depict an aspect of war literature much admired in scholarship in a way simple and refreshing in contrast to the often difficult to follow syntax of modernism’s stream of consciousness – war trauma. I shall again quote the linked article by Sparrow as having read it I realise it has beaten me to a number of points I was going to make so I may as well admit he wins: “In the early stories, we’re told of Biggles’ high-strung nervous laugh: he doesn’t, he says, expect to live long. At one point, his commanding officer notes Biggles has begun drinking heavily and comments that he’ll probably be killed soon. Of course, as a kid, I didn’t register that Biggles had been traumatised. No, what I liked was the adventures, precisely the aspects of the books that now seem unreadably formulaic.” What Sparrow notes here is the author’s ability to present a serious issue through simple means. For example, In ‘The Decoy’ Biggles becomes obsessive over the death of his friend and in shooting down the plane that shot down his friend, his obsession means that whilst he was due for leave and instructed to take it, he refuses (69). This is inspite of the fact that he has become withdrawn from his collegues, is drinking to the extent of flying drunkenly and so fatigued that he pilots in a state of semi-consciousness. Rather than present his protagonist’s psychological suffering through contrasts between his external presentation and his internal consciousness, as is done by many of the war’s writers, Johns presents Biggles’ trauma through the plot progression and the events of the story. This means that the serious issue is still depicted, but done in a manner that is easy to read and clearly depicted.
Similarly to war trauma, the successful presentation of the war’s suffering is also a theme which scholarship looks for in the appraisal of war literature, and, arguably, Johns presents this with some ability and impact. In my view it is the ability of Borden to illustrate the fact that death and serious injury was the norm whilst heightening its impact through individuals who could be any of the hundreds of thousands of men that makes her one of the best writers of the genre for this theme. And, whilst not for a second am I putting Johns on the same par as her, he can be seen to use this technique to present the war’s suffering – showing the huge numbers and then presenting an individual example in detail to personalise it and increase its impact. A story which does this clearly is ‘Biggles Finds His Feet’ wherein Biggles finds himself no longer above the frontline, but in it and experiencing it due to his forced/crashed landing into the midst of a trench-line assault. On landing Biggles comes across Bert, a soldier who has been wounded to the extent of losing his knee cap and his mobility. Despite the current assault meaning that there are likely to be well over a hundred men in such circumstance, by drawing the attention to this single man and bringing him into the dialogue in a personable and witty manner, the reader cares for his circumstance more than the unidentified numbers talked about. The reader is drawn further into the tragic circumstance of the war and the fact that multitudes died through the colonel who says, when told by Biggles that they need to fetch Bert: “You’re crazy! I can’t bother about individuals – and I order you to stay where you are!” (131). This reminds the reader that there are hundreds of Berts in similar situation and that the war was full of these tragic stories.
My final example of how these simple and mocked shorts can be read in relation to useful revelations of the war culture is in relation to my own area of research – wartime leave. The psychological aspects have already been touched upon with Biggles refusing his allowed leave because his trauma caused an obsession to fly which made him oblivious, or uncaring, to his own wellbeing. However the stories also depict other angles on leave experience which provide useful angles for my research and key amongst these is the issue of a sense of duty. It is here where the text’s context must be acknowledged: these are adventure stories of heroics and as such a sense of duty is utmost in the texts – to the extent that elsewhere in scholarship they have been classified as propaganda texts. In this alone they have a value as they are a representative and out of this is also presented a more serious element of perceived war duty – ideas of guilt. This manifests itself when the protagonist is finally forced to go on leave having lost the fight with his superiors to pass it up. In ‘The zone call’ this is treated in typical Biggles style of aloofness with the protagonist away for the day on medical leave to get his tooth seen to and then on his return realising that his comrades have gone off to the front on a mission and he is annoyed he’s missing out as its his duty and feels guilty for not being with them to watch their backs (53). In ‘On Leave’ however there are more complex elements of wartime culture depicted. In this short there are presented a number of issues regarding the relationship between those at home and those fighting in the war. Firstly, the perception by members of the public that a man who is not a soldier is a coward. This can be seen during Biggles’ stay at a country hunting lodge where he hides his military rank from the other guests, they make jibes about him not being in France and then the women present him with a white feather. Johns then also presents in this same scene the soldier’s corresponding view of men who do not fight, with him feeling anger towards a man who is of soldier’s age but claiming he cannot join up because of this reason and that. Then finally at the end of this scene there is presented an embarrassment felt by the man not fighting when he realises he is in the presence of a decorated soldier, portraying the idea that people not fighting feel guilt and have a reason to feel guilty (152-168). The three different perspectives present depicted by Johns in this scene builds up a complex picture of perspectives on the single theme of wartime duty, further showing how the simply written adventure stories can be read on a deeper level.
So there we have it – yes the collection is written with a simplicity which doesn’t always match ‘simple elegance’ and at times themes are predictably mundane. However, amongst these dominant traits are penned impressions of experience that belong to be read alongside other wartime writings and mean that Biggles should be read again in its original forms and not simply in its mocked parodies wherein snobbery leads way for ignorance. At the end of the day, they are simple fun reads of adventure. 5/10