Monday, 17 January 2011

Biggles:Charter Pilot (1943)

"British political officers don't tell lies", apparently.

As much as 'a veray, parfit, gentil knight' or 'It is a truth universally acknowledged...', that one line from Biggles: Charter Pilot dates the book to sometime slightly before Noah launched the ark.

Well, to 1943 to be exact, slap bang in the middle of World War II, when one would expect the heroic Biggles, doughty Ginger and less easily defined Algy to be fighting Jerry along with the rest of his chums from the curiously numbered 666 Squadron.

And so they are, but in downtime between sorties to rescue downed Allied airmen and while Ginger isn't off on an extended stroll (which occurs about every second story in this collection), the chaps regale the other chaps with tall tales of giant crabs, abominable snowmen, mammoths and dodos.

The dashed bally bounders. It's just not cricket.

But enough of the mockery. It's very easy to poke fun at Biggles and his ilk, lamenting the casual racism, the paternalistic and jingoistic attitudes, and to write them off as antiquated, poorly written pap for non-discriminating schoolboys.

Very easy, and - in the last case at least - utterly wrong.

Because you'd have not to have read them to think they're badly written. These books, like the best of the earlier Target novelisations of Doctor Who, say, are functionally and effectively written, with plain but readable prose. they do what they're supposed to - entertain and divert. The stories in Charter Pilot are each around half a dozen frantic action-packed pages long, with no diversions for extended metaphor or long, luxurious descriptions of the scenery. A quick introductory scene in which Ginger mentions some implausible adventure ('ah yes, that's a memento of the time I was gored by a mammoth, don't you know'), then we're off, straight into the story itself.

There is racism of the sort commonplace in the first half of the 20th century, and women are pretty much ignored. Foreigners are portrayed as superstitious savages (cannibals if black, and cowardly ne-er-do-wells if white), and everyone not British is treated with a degree of condescension and patronisation which wouldn't wash today. BUt as this wasn't written today, that hardly matters and as I rattled through the dozen stories in an hour and a half, I can't say I cared. Like a Jules Verne seventy years on, this is almost science fiction, and like Alan Moore fifty years early, it's also a mash-up of all sorts of genres and types.

It's not played for laughs, ironic and knowing or otherwise though. I loved the way in which Ginger never seems to be lying or exaggerating - he has to be cajoled to tell every story and even then makes a point every time of re-assuring his listeners that Biggles could back up every word. The stories even manage to have a realism lacking in many similar Boys Own Tales, with half the stories being resolved by Biggles et al running away.

Ginger even claims that every story has a logical, scientific explanation behind it (except when it doesn't). Which makes it a bit disappointing when everything falls apart in the face of the wildly inaccurate science used to shore that claim up.

Is it really plausible that filling a pit with dead crocodiles would lead both to a new type of mushroom orchid and a new kind of co-operative killer worm being spontaneously generated from the pit in the space of a few years? Or that five foot wide underwater crabs could rise to the surface on a giant island made of pumice stone, worked loose from the ocean floor? Or that giant Patagonians could be descended from ship-wrecked 14th century mariners, made gigantic by a mixture of moss and mussel soup? Not really, but again it doesn't matter - the stories are so short that they're finished before you start thinking 'that's just stupid' and you're off onto the next one, stopping on your way only to nod approvingly at the accuracy of the description of Plato as a 'lecturer'. At least they got their liberal arts information right...

I wouldn't recommend reading a lot of Biggles book in a row, but if you're looking for an atypical but thoroughly entertaining read for a short train journey or a rainy afternoon, you could do a lot worse than this.

Biggles: Charter Pilot is available here.

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