Frank’s Lament: ‘The Sportswriter’ and the American Dream
Frank Bascombe is my kind of guy. He’s isolated, irrational and unreliable – just like me. He’s a failed novelist – just like me. He’s a successful sportswriter – just like, err, not me. In fact, Frank’s the sportswriter, the figure made famous by American author, Richard Ford, in his novel of the same name.
Frank, he tells us himself, was all set up to have a fine life. Loving wife, great kids, fantastic job – he had them all. But when his eldest son, nine-year-old Ralph, is struck down by a rare brain disease, things start to go horribly wrong. The boy dies, dreadfully. Mired in mourning, Frank’s wife finds letters from a female friend in his desk and sues for divorce, separating Frank from his family.
Now Frank is trapped in a world of his own, isolated from others by his ongoing grief and by the very nature of his vocation – he’s a writer, after all, someone who belongs to a ‘club with just one member’. Frank tries to ‘lose that terrible distance’ by wooing Vicki, a young nurse, but his attempts to ‘simulate intimacy, interest, anticipation’ fail, as they’ve failed before with other women.
Frank’s relationships with men are equally appalling, for he has lost all faith in friendship, that ‘lie of life’. ‘What’s friendship’s realest measure?’ he asks himself. ‘The amount of precious time you’ll squander on someone else’s calamities and fuck-ups.’ When Walter, a fellow divorcee, comes to him seeking consolation, Frank keeps his cool and his distance – with tragic consequences.
It’s an unfashionable approach to friendship and yet one I find fascinating – as I do Frank’s unique way of thinking, which, we discover, is more intuitive than intellectual. Frank admits to having no love of ‘useless and complicated factuality’, he being drawn instead to mystery and all its ‘frail muted beauties’. ‘Explaining,’ he explains, ‘is where we all get into trouble.’
But Frank is in trouble anyway. Despite living largely in his head, he finds himself suffering from a ‘failure of imagination’ – an inability to empathise with others. This, according to Frank, is why he’s a sportswriter and not a novelist. ‘I did not, in fact, know how people felt about most things,’ he says. ‘And needless to say that is the very place where the great writers – your Tolstoys and your George Eliots – soar off to become great.’
Frank’s other endearing quality – to me, at least – is his unpredictability. He’s almost always on the move, racing restlessly from one place to another. If he’s not parked outside his ex-wife’s house, then he’s pulling up in front of a church or making his way to New York on a whim.
Frank’s unreliability – as a character and, I suspect, as a narrator – reminds me of another classic fictional creation: Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s precocious brainchild. Both characters lack a solid sense of identity and morality; indeed, both seem to have lost their ‘authority’, as Frank puts it.
The problem is that Frank is an idealist stripped of ideals, an ordinary American robbed of his illusions about family, friendship and, finally, the future. For the other character of note in Ford’s novel is the nation itself: America as an idea and an experience. In this sense The Sportswriter is a guide book; it takes us on a tour of Frank’s corner of the country, through New Jersey, Michigan and New York, through ‘literal and anonymous cities’ with all their ‘bricky warp’.
Tellingly, Frank likes nothing better than ‘staring off at the jewelled shore lights of New Jersey, brightening as dark fell, and feeling full of wonder and illusion – like a Columbus or a pilgrim seeing the continent of his dreams take shape in the dusk for the first time’.
At its heart The Sportswriter is a lament: a lament for the loss of innocence. The story speaks of an awakening and thus of the dispelling of a dream – of the American Dream, no less, a dream as familiar to a foreigner like me as it is to a native like Frank. It’s the last and largest thing we have in common.
Whether I like it or not, Frank Bascombe is my kind of guy.
Image courtesy of PxHere
Crossing That Bridge: Heather Rose’s ‘Bruny’ Blunder
Seen the road to hell lately?
It’s a mess. Paved with good intentions, the path to perdition is littered with bad decisions, the failed forays of famous folk who sought success in a speciality other than their own.
Many are called to cross-over but few are chosen…
Singers and sportsmen, authors and actors – the line of wrecks is long and varied, taking in everything from Ash Barty’s crack at cricket to Chris Cornell’s dalliance with dance-pop.
Now the Tasmanian novelist, Heather Rose, has come a cropper.
Last year Rose published Bruny, the follow-up to her Stella Prize-winning novel, The Museum of Modern Love, a work of literary fiction. Billed as a thriller, her latest book proves that acing a new genre ain’t easy, even for an accomplished author.
What went wrong?
It’s a good question. Bruny appears to have all the hallmarks of a respectable thriller: a preposterous plot, a cast of barely credible characters, an awkward romance and a nondescript style.
And yet it lacks a key component of any self-respecting suspense novel.
Show don’t tell – it’s the shibboleth most closely associated with creative writing. Despite its limitations, this tenet holds true for some books. Take the thriller: readers of this kind of novel need to feel close to the action.
Too often in Bruny the real business takes place in the background, especially as the story goes on. The result? The tension never builds. (And the book garners praise as a ‘satire‘.)
Sadly, some parts of the story kept me on the edge of my seat: namely the narrator’s tiresome tirades about the state of Tasmania. Would they never end?
Despite my reservations – all totally valid, I’m sure, and yet totally irrelevant – Bruny continues to sell well here in Hobart, almost a year after its release.
Which just goes to show: I’m as bad a judge of another writer’s work as I am of my own. Failure is clearly more transferable than success.
Seeing Things Feelingly: Books, Climate Change and Me
Books – they’re a man’s best friend. Patient and eager to please, they lead us into the light.
I realised this recently while convalescing at home, the victim of an illness less of body than mind.
It started with a familiar feeling: I wanted to write – desperately, truly, madly – but I didn’t know what. As I sat and pondered the options, my eye fell on a magazine I’d been reading whose theme is topical.
Okay, I thought, here’s my chance to take a stance on a hot button issue, on the most pressing problem, they say, of our age.
So I settled back to give it some thought.
Gazing out at the clouds racing across the sky – as if I could see the climate changing and not just the weather – I tried to make sense of my impressions.
I’m aware, first of all, of the scientific argument, neatly stated by NASA:
The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.
I know, too, of the consensus in scientific circles, the one in which ninety-seven percent (to be precise) of actively publishing climate scientists agree that ‘climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities’.
The evidence, I realised, should sway me, should spark outrage and action. And yet it doesn’t.
Then I remembered the news reports I’d read, the articles about displaced polar bears, besieged Pacific Islanders and smoke-swathed city-dwellers. Surely they tugged at my heart-strings?
Only a little. Truth be told, I sympathise with the sufferers without being truly touched.
Feeling sick at heart – am I some kind of monster? – I turned away from the window.
In desperation I looked to my bookshelves where, like a dog in waiting, one work leapt out at me: Peter Watson’s Ideas, a history of ideas ‘from fire to Freud’.
Unable to locate ‘climate change’ in the index, I turned at random to the chapter on romanticism. And there, in a book bought fifteen years ago but barely opened since, I found what I was looking for.
The real aim of romanticism, the underlying aim, had been set forth by Keats, who wrote poetry, he said, to ease ‘the burden of the mystery’ . . . Whereas the scientists tried – or hoped – to explain the mystery, the romantics relished it, made the most of it, used it in ways that many scientists could not, or would not, understand.
So, I thought with relief, I’m a romantic.
I mean, the signs are all there.
In my view the world can’t be analysed or fully explained; it can only be experienced directly or seen through a glass, darkly, reflected in the workings of the human mind.
Nature to me is more metaphor than model, even if the metaphor often used is that of a model. ‘We live in a world we create ourselves,’ the philosopher-poet, Johann Herder, once observed. (Herder him?)
Only the arts, I reckon, can ‘ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where,’ Shelley wrote, ‘the owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar’.
I’ve said as much in a song:
You can cut it all up
And weigh it all out
But when you put it together again
You leave the meaning out
You can test all the theories
Check all the facts
And still the truth
Gonna slip through the cracks
(Nothin’ Adds Up)
Clearly I can’t rely on rationalists – scientists and journalists – to help me make sense of the world: they simply don’t speak my language. I have to look elsewhere for help.
Short of ideas, I turned back to the bookshelf.
This time a play jumped out of the pack: Shakespeare’s King Lear, a story wracked by a fabulous storm. I opened my Arden edition and began to read. Before long I found what I was looking for: ideas and images that made my impressions much clearer.
In Lear the heavens are in tumult because human affairs have fallen into disarray.
‘Nature finds itself scourg’d by the sequent effects,’ the Earl of Gloucester declares.
Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack’d ‘twixt son and father.
Deceived by the fine false words of his two eldest daughters, Lear spurns the one who truly cares but flatters him not.
‘I love your Majesty/According to my bond,’ Cordelia tells him, ‘no more nor less.’
Having broken this bond, Lear is lost; assailed by wild and stormy weather, he wanders the heath, succumbing to madness. Later, when Cordelia is murdered, he dies.
Are we too doomed, I wondered. After all, aren’t we destroying that which sustains us, just like Lear?
But then I pondered the sub-plot of the play, which seemed to say something more. Can we not, I thought, take heart from Gloucester’s fate?
Blinded by egotism – he too has betrayed his one true child – the remorse-ridden Earl is led to the ‘brim’ of a cliff at Dover, where he leaps but does not fall, the actual edge of the precipice being a little way off. Thus is he reunited with his son.
Earlier on Gloucester had, with astonishing insight, given voice to my feelings.
‘Heavens, deal so still!’ he cried,
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly
Greed, profligacy, heartlessness – is it any wonder nature rises against us?
Then, finally, there is Gloucester’s other implicit assertion: that by seeing things feelingly we can reconcile rationalism with romanticism and come to more fully appreciate what we have. This, and a little luck, might keep us one step ahead of oblivion – assuming, of course, that we are perched merely on the ‘brim’ of the precipice and not on its outermost edge.
Feeling better, I took my dog for a walk, safe in the knowledge that books are surely a man’s best best friend. For, unlike our furry favourites, literature guides us through dim thickets of thought and out into the light of the world, the one true home of humanity.
Sweetly Sour: Lennie Lower, Antipodean ‘Plum’
Oranges and apples can’t be compared – we all know that. But what about plums?
Well, you be the judge. See if you can spot the similarities between these two fleshy fruit.
First, a piece of P.G. Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle:
He was profoundly stirred. It is not too much to say that he was shaken to the core. No father enjoys being flouted and defied by his own son; nor is it reasonable to expect a man to take a cheery view of life who is faced with the prospect of supporting for the remainder of his years a younger son…
And now a slice from Here’s Luck by Lennie Lower:
Problems innumerable beset the conscientious father, but the greatest problem of all is to know in what trade or profession the boy will be best fitted to support his old father at a later date.
Yes, both are about self-pitying parents – that’s a superficial similarity. More telling, though, is their matching moods, the light satirical tone that makes both excerpts amusing. Because this is what our two ‘plums’, Wodehouse and Lower, have most in common: both are masters of comedy.
We’ve all heard about the European ‘Plum’, as P.G. Wodehouse was known to his friends. He published scores of best-selling books, and is, some say, one of the funniest men who ever wrote in English.
And yet his southern equivalent, Lennie Lower – the Antipodean ‘Plum’, as I’ve dubbed him – is much less famous, despite being no less funny or prolific.
Born in Dubbo, Australia, in 1903, Lower served briefly in the navy before falling out of work. He started publishing humorous pieces in the late 1920s, and for the next two decades he wrote up to eight newspaper columns a week.
Published in 1930, Lower’s one and only novel, Here’s Luck, was an instant success. The work has gone on to become a modern-day classic, a contender for the title of ‘Australia’s funniest book’.
And funny it is.
Set in Sydney during the early depression years, Here’s Luck is a tale of middle-aged male discontent. Jack Gudgeon has it all: a wife and a job, a terrace house and a teenage son. But aged forty-eight, worn down by responsibility and his routine existence, Gudgeon finally rebels, seeking solace and excitement in women and wine. Mayhem ensues.
His wife, Agatha, leaves him.
Here was I, a lone man, left to look after the house and Stanley, my wife selfishly gone off to her mother’s, leaving me to manage as best I could, with only memories for companionship. Deserted. Bereft. Alone . . . Hooray!
Gudgeon and his son, Stanley, are left to fend for themselves.
‘The trouble with some people,’ said Stanley, stamping on a piece of blazing charcoal that had once been bread, ‘is that they’re too well fed. There’s an onion behind the gas-stove if you’re feeling fastidious.’
Hounded by hoodlums and by the private detectives hired by his wife and her sister, ‘that parrot-brained Gorgon’, Gertrude, Gudgeon is unable to work.
Woggo Slatter was on my trail . . . Agatha and Gertrude would arrive with a gang of witnesses at eleven o’clock that night. I had lost my job; this did not worry me much but I put it in with the rest.
The destruction of the family home proves to be the last straw. As an ‘enormous green elephant’ walks out of the ‘flickering ruins of the gutted house’, Gudgeon collapses. He comes to in a sanatorium.
I’ve been out of hospital a week now. My life was despaired of and I suffered frightfully. The doctors told me that I had alcoholic poisoning but I know that it was something entirely different and far more serious. Something to do with a nervous breakdown.
Is it the fire that pushes Gudgeon over the edge? Or rather his realisation that he can’t escape his fate as a fettered man, his wife having forgiven him and a job having been found for him in a ‘little ham and beef shop in the suburbs’.
Either way, all is not lost. Gudgeon still has grog to fall back on. In fact, alcohol is seen as much more than a drink, as the words of the proselytising politician, Mr Sloove, suggest:
‘Gaze on your glass of beer . . . See how the lambent, lazy bubbles drift to the top, as men drift through life; linger a while in the froth, and burst of old age, or are cut off in their prime in Fate’s thirsty gulp.’
It’s shadowy sentiments like this one that distinguish Lower’s novel from the works of Wodehouse, which are invariably sunny throughout. For there’s an underlying sense of futility to the action in Here’s Luck, as if Gudgeon knows that his struggles are hopeless, that life itself is a flop.
It’s in this way, then, that we’re able to tell the two writers apart, despite their similarities. Both are funny, but each has a flavour of his own.
P.G. Wodehouse is the original European ‘Plum’, a Damson perhaps, and is large and lovely and sweet. Lennie Lower, on the other hand, has a tartness to him that doesn’t travel well, for he is an Elephant Heart, the perfect Antipodean ‘Plum’.
Goode’s, Better, Best: ‘Ladies in Black’ and the Growth of a Nation
Aussie, Aussie, quite contrary – how does your country grow?
In three ways, according to Bruce Beresford’s latest film, Ladies in Black, a pointed, semi-poignant parody of life in 1950s Australia, a land where men are ‘gormless’, women are entrusted with the sacred task of putting tea on the table, and where a department store – Goode’s, the proud purveyor of robes and respectability – becomes the scene of social change of a far-reaching kind.
Based on a novel by Madeleine St John, the movie dramatises the workings of a trio of transformative forces – immigration, regeneration and education – by tracing three distinct stories: the tales of Fay, Patty and Lisa, the eponymous ‘ladies in black’.
Fay is restless and romantic, a good-looking girl put off by the boorish behaviour of the ‘Australian’ men she usually meets. Enter Magda, the stylish Slovenian mistress of Goode’s high-fashion department. She introduces Fay to an urbane ‘refo’ called Rudi, and the two fall swiftly in love. Vowing to learn the ways of her husband-to-be, Fay sets out on a new path, her life – and the life of the nation – irrevocably altered by immigration.
Her pal behind the counter, Patty, has a different problem: her husband hardly touches her. A shy boy from the bush, Frank is deeply ashamed of his desires. He worships women, and the thought that he might have harmed his wife drives him briefly into exile. By putting Frank’s fears to rest, Patty succeeds in remaking her man, who, in a matching act of regeneration, plants the seed that will see them grow up and out of themselves, out of the old world and into the new.
For sixteen-year-old Lisa (née Leslie), it is learning that promises to free her from the present. A ‘clever girl’ who goes to Goode’s as a temp, Lisa loves literature – she reads Anna Karenina on a park bench before reciting poetry later in bed – and has her heart set on going to university, despite the objections of her philistine father. An actress, a poet, a novelist – there’s no limit to what Lisa thinks she can be. And, thanks to the reformative power of education, her future does indeed look bright.
By movie’s end, the lives of these three ‘ladies in black’ have been altered forever: powerful forces have dispelled the darkness and led them into the light of a remodelled land. Like the film itself, which, it must be said, makes only mildly amusing viewing, this vision of national growth is simplistic and sentimental. Therein, though, lies its charm.
From Goode’s to better, Australia awaits its best.
Radical Dehumanisation: Dunkirk’s Retreat from Reality
Dunkirk was no ordinary evacuation. Over nine days in mid-1940 almost 340,000 British, French and Belgian troops were ferried across the English channel to safety – not by the Royal Navy but mostly in fishing boats, merchantmen and yachts sailed by ordinary Englishmen. Remembered as one of history’s great escapes, the evacuation gave a boost to the Brits and, more importantly, it kept the Allies alive.
It’s fitting, then, that Dunkirk is no ordinary war movie. At first glance it delivers all the on-screen death and destruction we expect from a modern-day epic: men dying horribly and in droves, bombs blowing up, ships and planes going down. The carnage is appalling but what makes it especially compelling is its closeness. There’s a clarity to the film’s cinematography and sound design that draws us, its audience, into the action, casting us more as actors than onlookers. Thus we find ourselves trapped, for example, in a cabin filled with drowning men or in the cockpit of a creaking Spitfire alongside its anxious pilot.
It’s an exhilarating and excruciating experience, one made all the more powerful by the sequencing of the story. This is the filmmaker’s masterstroke. Using a technique more often associated with arthouse thrillers, Christopher Nolan presents us with three perspectives of the one event, splicing the storylines together with assiduous asynchrony, throwing them all out of time. The effect on us, his unsuspecting subjects, is unsettling. Before long, we’re as dazed and disoriented as the boys on the beach. Their eventual rescue restores our temporal equilibrium, so that the film’s climax hits us with all the impact of a triple crescendo.
And yet for all its active ingredients, Dunkirk is far from a balanced diet. A feast for the senses, it provides scant food for thought. To his credit, Nolan tries to give the film a point, by showing us that war makes monsters of men. In doing so, though, he radically dehumanises the movie’s combatants, rendering them less than lifelike. The scenes on the beach exemplify this retreat from reality. In them, soldiers queue on the sand in uniform masses, mute and unmoving, devoid of individuality and expression. Few are recognisable as people. Even the pilots are depersonalised; oxygen masks obliterate their faces and radio deadens their voices.
Nolan’s combatants are unnatural in another way too: they are, in the main, amoral beings, automatons bent only on self-preservation. The soldiers we follow struggle among themselves for survival, exploiting the injured and deserting the endangered. Only twice do they act selflessly on screen and even then their actions are shown to be futile. Missing from these figures are the myriad motives that more or less drive all mortals: the urge to impress and inspire, the desire to help others, the need to defy fate and to hope for the best. In reality, few men are so fully debased by battle; most continue to behave in complex and self-conflicting ways, some even heroically.
In Dunkirk, the heroes are not to be found in Dunkirk. Instead, Nolan’s ministering angels are civilian sailors, the old men and boys who set out from England in small boats to save the entrapped army. The film features three such folk, and all are endowed with qualities the soldiers lack: singularity, speech and scruples. Untainted by war, they appear almost lifelike, thanks to their ordinary attire and earnest exchanges, to their concern and their courage. And yet for all their humanity these civilians are barely more believable than the film’s military men: they’re just too good to be true.
As a visceral experience, Dunkirk truly excels. Like many war movies, though, it misses the metaphysical mark, as it misrepresents the actuality of battle by demeaning one side while idealising the other. No matter that the two parties – soldiers and civilians – are on the same side, because the retreat from reality remains. A beach can be evacuated with élan on the big screen and yet there’s no escaping the facts: war is more complex than that.
Taking Flight: How Biggles Saved My Bacon
Growing up in Australia, I gained a love of wide open spaces. Not from my surroundings, as you’d expect – I lived in a narrow-minded provincial city – but rather from a book. A British book. Here’s the passage that worked its magic on me:
The sun was setting in a dull red glow behind a mighty bank of cloud that was rolling up from the west. Below him the world was lost in a vast well of deep purple shadows, while the east was already wrapped in profound gloom . . . Around, above, and below, was a scene of peace and unutterable loneliness.
Thomas Hardy, perhaps, or D.H. Lawrence? No, this is the work of a less exalted author: Captain W.E. Johns, whose Biggles books are better known for their entertainment value (and these days for their dated moral values) than for their ability to elevate and inspire. And yet, as late as the 1980s, they gave this earthbound Antipodean boy a glimpse of a higher realm – of literature and life.
My childhood was ‘ocker Aussie’ in lots of ways. During the day, I frolicked in the sun, knocking balls around the backyard until the cockatoos came home. Darkness brought tea: lamb chops or steak, followed by swags of fresh fruit. In other respects, though, my upbringing was baldly unpatriotic. Beaches were closed to me and barbeques out, for as a family we kept to ourselves, rebellious and remote.
My amusements, too, were less than true-blue. With its talkback and livestock reports, local radio lacked the punch of the Beatles and Goons. Britannia ruled our airwaves. She dominated the small screen as well, winning us over with the Goodies and Doctor Who. But it was on my bookshelves that the Brits reigned supreme. Blyton, Milne and Kingsley led the charge; in their wake came C.S. Lewis and then W.E. Johns himself.
Born in Hertfordshire in 1893, William Earl Johns fought at Gallipoli and later in the air over the Western Front, where his stint as a bomber pilot – all six weeks of it – ended when he was shot down and captured. After the war, Johns served as a RAF recruiting officer in London, famously turning away Lawrence of Arabia when the well-connected writer tried to enlist under an alias. It was then that Johns separated from his wife, whom he had married early in the war. Posted to Birmingham, he met Doris Leigh, the daughter of a neighbour, and they became lifelong companions.
Johns wrote his first novel, Mossyface, in 1922; by the end of the decade his aviation illustrations and articles were appearing regularly in print. A versatile and prolific writer, he published crime, science fiction and romance novels and had long-running columns in My Garden and The Modern Boy magazines. Biggles himself was born in 1932. As Johns explained,
The first stories were written for a magazine of which I was the editor, and apart from the entertainment of the reader had the more serious purpose of presenting a picture of war flying as it was in its infancy.
A self-appointed ‘Captain’, Johns wrote over 160 books, a hundred or so featuring his most famous fictional creation. In a career spanning several wars and most of the globe, James C. Bigglesworth fights the good fight in various guises: air fighter, charter pilot, air detective and more. Armed with unerring instincts and an aeroplane, Biggles gets the better of his every enemy, common criminal and sinister Erich von Stalhein alike. It was a winning formula, and by the 1960s Biggles had become the golden boy of children’s fiction in Britain and beyond.
There the joy ride ended. Later in his life, Biggles faced his most formidable foe: academics and educators who felt he was a literary menace. Johns’ books, they argued, oversimplified reality, glorified war and demonised outsiders. Biggles was banished from library shelves. Latter-day critics tend to be more sympathetic; they accuse Johns of simply failing to keep up with the times, a charge that is hard to dispute. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), Biggles has kept his commercial appeal, and a range of the books are still in print today.
To my credit, I was a discerning fan: the early Biggles stories appealed to me more than the rest. And, having reread them recently, I understand why. At their best they’re fast-moving, funny and affecting. I was barely thirteen when I got them as gifts: three sleek anthologies whose vivid livery sucked me straight into their slipstream. On the cover of one, a leather-clad Biggles strides away from his biplane, fists clenched, a faraway look in his eyes – a look, I fancy, that mirrored my own.
Like all good adventure tales, these stories have an irresistible impetus. Their drive is provided in part by the action itself, which Johns is adept at describing, for he details the thrills and spills of old-fashioned aerial warfare with dexterity and dash. Here’s a burst from ‘The Funk’:
The dog-fight became a delirium of whirling machines, zooming, rolling, and banking, firing and firing again through a network of tracer bullets. Machines flashed across his sights, and his guns chattered incessantly.
An exciting mix of poetic and pictorial effects, John’s prose delays the resolution of tension as deftly as it demands it. There’s a rhythm to the way he structures these stories – an oscillation between action and reflection, conflict and peace, the serious and the silly, whose impact owes much to the contrasts within aerial warfare itself.
In ‘The Thought-Reader’, for example, we lounge in ‘a patch of deep, sweet-scented grass in a quiet corner of the aerodrome’, staring ‘lazily at a lark trilling gaily far above’. The war seems distant to us – as it does to Biggles, who lies alongside. An enemy aircraft disturbs the peace, its antics luring us skyward. The story’s undulating dance has begun. Back and forth we sweep, nearing the flashpoint of the action with each shortening swing. It’s the pas de deux of a tale well told, and it delivers us to our destination with sure-footed finesse.
War is no laughing matter and yet some of our comic masterpieces – Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse 5 among them – are books about battle. As terrible as combat has been, authors have found its funny side. Johns is no exception, for his early stories are laced with laughs. In these droll double acts, the irony and understatement of the old soldier share the stage with schoolboy jesting and japes. This odd coupling reflects a reality: that in the air above the Western Front most veterans were painfully young.
Things are not always what they seem in these stories. Thus the sun, that light of our lives, routinely harbours death in its impenetrable glare. Beware the Hun in the sun, the old adage went. Johns’ characters, too, are adept at saying one thing while meaning another. ‘Anything for a quiet life,’ Biggles remarks, when asked to lead an attack. ‘There’s no sense in sleeping while there’s a good war like this on,’ he assures an exhausted flight engineer on another occasion. It’s a dry wit born out of desperate times.
And then there’s the other kind of comedy. In ‘The Battle of Flowers’, Biggles’ cousin, Algy, digs a garden on the aerodrome. ‘It isn’t hot enough for bananas,’ he says, fielding one flippant request. ‘Holy mackerel!’ Biggles says. ‘It feels hot enough to me to grow doughnuts.’ When the squadron is bombed Algy roars off to seek his revenge – not on the Huns’ hangars, as expected, but their geraniums. ‘Germaniums,’ Biggles splutters. ‘Am I going crazy?’ It’s a plum comic set-piece, one almost worthy of Wodehouse.
What sets these stories apart from Johns’ later works is their pathos, for they have some genuinely moving moments. None is more affecting than the ‘The Decoy’, in which a young pilot dies from his wounds soon after landing. ‘I got the bus home, Biggles,’ he whispers. There’s poignancy, too, in the full sweep of the stories. Taken together, they tell the tragic tale of a young man’s emotional undoing, of a pilot ground down by the depredations of war. Traumatised by the loss of his comrades, by the callousness of his countrymen (in ‘On Leave’, he is given a white feather) and by the betrayal of his French lover, Biggles is driven to the brink of a breakdown, as his C.O., Major Mullen, perceives. ‘Biggles is finished,’ he observes, ‘unless he takes a rest.’
This is the Biggles that spoke to me when I was a boy. For while the indomitable air fighter won my admiration, it was the damaged, delicate youth with whom I identified. This Biggles is slight, serious and self-contained, a keen reader who fell for books while bedridden as a boy. And he’s a loner to boot, someone with ‘a tendency towards individual action’, as Johns coyly puts it. This Biggles is at his best in the air, where he acts alone. Ordinary earthbound existence is beneath him, it being too much like life in the trenches. ‘It’s worse than flying in clouds,’ he growls, in ‘Biggles Finds His Feet’. ‘No altitude, no room to move – no nothing!’
I felt the same. Unlike Biggles, though, I was a sheltered thirteen-year-old who knew little of the wider world. ‘The Great Arena’ changed all that. In this story the last big push of the war has begun, and Biggles is tired of life. As another day ends, he makes a final test flight, a trial as much of man as machine. Buoyed by the beauty of the twilit sky, Biggles is filled with ‘a curious sort of rest’. His revival is realised a moment later when, drawn into a duel with another airman, Biggles is left defenceless, his guns having jammed. Death awaits him. And then a remarkable thing happens.
The enemy pilot waved cheerfully, turned steeply, and before Biggles was aware of his intention had lined up beside him . . . For some minutes, they flew thus, smiling at each other across the void.
It was uplifting stuff for a lowly boy like me. Biggles and his stories widened my horizons; they acquainted me with the long reach of literature, prompting me to read less for escapism than for escape – escape to places more real than my own. Five years later, I finally took flight.
When Johns died in 1968 he was working on another Biggles book, although his hero had, in a sense, already ceased to exist. For in the last of the early stories, Biggles is disabled during a dogfight; hurtling earthward, he knows ‘his time has come’. Had Johns known it, too, his literary star might have risen much higher. To me, though, Biggles will always be up there with the best, circling in the sun.