Wednesday, 13 November 2013


James Bigglesworth was a pilot and adventurer who was the title character of almost a hundred books by Captain WE Johns, published between 1932 and 1970. They were unashamedly boys' own adventure tales, with the hero taking on Germans in World War One, flying as a charter pilot between the wars, fighting Nazis in World War Two, and then becoming an air policeman in the fifties. He flew a wide range of aircraft ranging from Sopwith Camels, to Hawker Hunter jet fighters in one of the last books. By that stage he must have been in his 60s.
I encountered Biggles when I was about 8 or 9, and enjoyed the books immensely. I was building Airfix kits of the early biplanes and relished the chance to read stories about them and the brave pilots who flew them. For about three or four years I devoured the Biggles books alongside all the other books I was reading. By the time I was in my teens, though, they lost their appeal and I didn't read another for many years.

While on holiday a few years ago I found a couple of ageing paperbacks in the cottage where we were staying, and read them with interest and amusement. They were competently written adventures, but to an adult twenty-first century eye they creaked very badly. Unthinking casual racism, a complete lack of female characters (one of the two I read had no women at all within its pages), and characters who were limited in their complexity. They were a product of their time, and I wasn't surprised at my adult's eye view of them. Some books I enjoyed as a child I happily passed on to my children – Biggles was not in that category.

But the structure of the pilot getting into a range of adventures caught my imagination again. And there is no doubt in my mind that when I started work on Sorrel in Scarlet the spectre of James Bigglesworth was standing at my shoulder, encouraging me.

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