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Posts Tagged ‘Ginger’

Biggles’ Big Adventures: Four Classic Stories Starring the British Empire’s Most Fearless Pilot Adventurer, Captain W.E. Johns (Sevenoaks 2007)

Some of the Biggles short stories, particularly those set during the First World War, are excellent and inventive literature. The Biggles novels, on the other hand, are usually formulaic pot-boilers. Reading them can be like watching the same play over and over again with different scenery. That’s certainly true of the four novels collected here: Biggles in the Baltic (1939), Biggles Sees It Through (1940), Biggles Flies North (1941) and Biggles in the Jungle (1942).

Each has the same plot: Biggles and his comrades Algy and Ginger face a ruthless and cunning enemy, are captured and imprisoned, escape, and ultimately triumph. Sometimes they’re captured and escape more than once. Little else varies but for the landscape, the name of their enemy and the nature of his ruthlessness and cunning. In Biggles in the Baltic and Biggles Sees It Through it’s the Nazi Von Stahlhein; in Biggles Flies North it’s a crook called Brindle McBain and in Biggles in the Jungle it’s a crook called The King of the Forest.

I’ve never managed to finished Biggles in the Baltic, because it’s so dull. There’s little memorable in any of the others apart from a bar scene in Biggles Flies North in which McBain puts a bullet through Biggles’ cup of Bovril and Biggles puts a bullet through McBain’s bottle of whiskey. All the same, reading the middle two novels of this collection has been one of the most interesting literary experiences of my life, because I carried out a simple experiment I’d been meaning to try for some time.

What did I do? I read the the novels upside-down. That is, they were upside-down, not me. I simply turned the book through 180° and read the lines of text right-to-left and from the bottom of the page to the top. It was hard work: from being a fluent, fast and careless adult reader I was transformed into a slow and stumbling learner again. I had to spell some words through letter by letter. I made mistakes and jumped to wrong conclusions about the word I was trying to decipher. It was hard work and the stories were a lot more interesting than they would have been if I’d read in the usual way. They were also more frustrating: when Biggles & Co. were captured or otherwise in difficulty, I couldn’t get to the bits where they escaped or overcame the difficulty as quickly as I wanted to.

And I was much more aware of the act of reading – its strangeness and its power. Or perhaps you could just say that I was aware of the act of reading. It wasn’t easy and automatic any more. But it might have become so if I’d continued the experiment for long enough. My skill at upside-down reading improved even over the course of two Biggles novels. Something was happening inside my brain: I was re-learning to see words as Gestalts and not as sets of individual letters. Would I ever read upside-down as easily as I normally do? In time, perhaps. I doubt I’ll ever try to find out, but it was certainly an interesting experiment and I may try it again if another suitable book comes my way.

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Front cover of an Armada edition of William in Trouble by Richmal CromptonWilliam in Trouble, Richmal Crompton (1927)

This may be my favourite William book, which means that it’s very good. Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) had ambitions to be a serious adult writer, but I doubt her books for adults can be as good as her books for children. Which are books for adults too and may even be informed by the classics she studied at university. My theory is that the Outlaws represent the four Greek humours: the gang consists of William Brown and his three chief friends, Ginger, Henry, and Douglas. William is choleric, Ginger sanguine, Henry phlegmatic and Douglas melancholic. Their names seem to reflect this: choleric literally means “bilious” and bile is brown like William’s surname; sanguine literally means “bloody” and Ginger has red hair; melancholic literally means “black-biled” and Douglas is from the Gaelic Dubhghlas, meaning “dark river”:

“We can’t fight him — not if he’s grown-up,” said Douglas gloomily. Douglas was always something of a pessimist. (ch. 10, “William to the Rescue”)

But the Outlaws are also miniature satyrs, lordlings of misrule who introduce chaos into the orderliness and calm of what J.G. Ballard, a fan of the series, called a “curiously empty middle-class world”. I don’t think the emptiness of the world is deliberate: Crompton just doesn’t seem interested in topography and architecture. The homes of William and his friends, the old barn they use as a headquarters, the countryside they roam, the church they reluctantly attend, the shops and high street in their village — they’re just settings for what really interests her: children and their psychology. This, from the slightly earlier More William (1922), is an excellent piece of prose and observation, capturing the fearlessness and skills of early childhood:

He [William] was getting jolly hungry. It must be after lunch-time. But it would spoil it all to go home too early. Here he caught sight of a minute figure regarding him with a steady gaze and holding a paper bag in one hand. William stared down at him.

“Wot you dressed up like that for?” said the apparition, with a touch of scorn in his voice.

William looked down at his sacred uniform and scowled. “I’m a scout,” he said loftily.

“’Cout?” repeated the apparition, with an air of polite boredom. “Wot’s your name?”

“William.”

“Mine’s Thomas. Will you catch me a wopse? Look at my wopses!”

He opened the bag slightly and William caught sight of a crowd of wasps buzzing about inside the bag.

“Want more,” demanded the infant. “Want lots more. Look. Snells!”

He brought out a handful of snails from a miniature pocket, and put them on the ground.

“Watch ’em put their horns out! Watch ’em walk. Look! They’re walkin’. They’re walkin’.”

His voice was a scream of ecstasy. He took them up and returned them to their pocket. From another he drew out a wriggling mass.

“Wood-lice!” he explained, casually. “Got worms in ’nother pocket.”

He returned the wood-lice to his pocket except one, which he held between a finger and thumb laid thoughtfully against his lip. “Want wopses now. You get ’em for me.”

William roused himself from his bewilderment.

“How — how do you catch ’em?” he said.

“Wings,” replied Thomas. “Get hold of their wings an’ they don’t sting. Sometimes they do, though,” he added casually. “Then your hands go big.”

A wasp settled near him, and very neatly the young naturalist picked him up and put him in his paper prison.

“Now you get one,” he ordered William.

William determined not to be outshone by this minute but dauntless stranger. As a wasp obligingly settled on a flower near him, he put out his hand, only to withdraw it with a yell of pain and apply it to his mouth.

“Oo—ou!” he said. “Crumbs!”

Thomas emitted a peal of laughter.

“You stung?” he said. “Did it sting you? Funny!”

William’s expression of rage and pain was exquisite to him. (More William, ch. IX)

William isn’t always triumphant in the series, you see, and in one story (“April Fool’s Day”, I think) he’s even humiliated by a much less formidable figure than Thomas. Crompton doesn’t write a lot about the sadism of childhood, but it’s there all the same, as that extract shows, along with the irrationality, superstition, and love of noise and excitement. William supplies a lot of all those, particularly the last two, being the ugly, dirty, disruptive opposite of his calm mother and beautiful sister Ellen. In “William and the Fairy Daffodil”, the second story in this book, he’s an unauthorized addition to a play being performed by a girls’ school. The audience is shocked and disturbed by a “curious apparition” in “yellow butter muslin”, which delivers its misremembered lines, then sits down, “stern, bored and contemptuous”, until:

…a light as at some happy memory came into its face. It pulled up the butter muslin to its waist, revealing muddy boots, muddy legs and muddy trousers, plunged its hand into its pocket and brought out a nut, which it proceeded to crack with much facial contortion and bared teeth.

William’s mother is in the audience to witness the spectacle, as members of his family so often and improbably are when he breaks the rules. The embarrassment he causes them is always an important part of the stories. So are his chivalry and wayward but strong sense of honour. That’s how Violet Elizabeth Bott, his lisping, iron-willed, six-year-old female admirer, manages to control him and the other Outlaws. She’s not at her best in William in Trouble, but does utter her famous catchphrase when forcing the Outlaws to admit her to the staff of the paper they’ve set up:

Violet Elizabeth dried her tears. She saw that they were useless and she did not believe in wasting her effects.

“All right,” she said calmly. “I’ll thcream then. I’ll thcream, an’ thcream, an’ thcream till I’m thick.”

More than once William had seen the small but redoubtable lady fulfil this threat quite literally. He watched her with fearsome awe. Violet Elizabeth with a look of fiendish determination on her angelic face opened her small mouth.

“’Sall right,” said William brokenly. “Come on — write if you want to.”

The domineering William much prefers the demure and dimpled Joan, who’s happy to let him control events. “The Mammoth Circus” he arranges to welcome her home in this book succeeds in introducing more chaos into the adult world. He hides its star performers in the apparently empty Rose Mount School and they end up driving out the foolish and credulous women who have flocked there to a convention of the Society for the Study of Psychical Philosophy.

Crompton often uses William like that to deflate pretentious, superstitious and self-important adults. Later in the book he’s mistaken for a musical prodigy and produces a “Bacchanalian riot of inharmonious sounds” on the Vicarage piano, which the wives of the vicar and squire compete to praise. Bacchanalian is the mot juste: the eternally youthful William, eleven both when the series began in 1921 and when it ended in 1970, introduces the drunkenness of the irrational and unplanned into middle-class adult sobriety, as some of Saki’s anti-heroes do. Crompton doesn’t have all of Saki’s subtlety or much of his malice, but in her way she’s rebelling against the same conformity and rigidity, while recognizing that rebellion has its own flaws.

She’s one up on Saki in having an excellent illustrator, Thomas Henry, who enhances her books as Tenniel did for Lewis Carroll’s or Quentin Blake did for J.P. Martin’s. Henry obviously enjoyed portraying the ugly, stocky, shockheaded William and although the pictures here aren’t the best I’ve seen by him, one is a classic: William on stage as Fairy Daffodil, confronting the dainty Fairy Bluebell:

“It’s not my turn,” he hissed. “I’ve just spoke.”

That’s William in trouble again.

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