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I found some excerpts online recently [via a Google Book 'preview'] which had some interesting comments about WEJ & other 'Flying Stories' authors who wrote in a similar vein in the 1930's. After converting pdf to text, & completing some spelling checks, here is what I have found, 7 pages in total. Unfortunately the 'preview' excluded some pages from public viewing, but I believe the editor gives WEJ some praise, where praise is due:
[IMPERIALISM AND JUVENILE LITERATURE: 'Flying Stories'.
Edited by Jeffrey Richards, 1988
…authors began to produce ﬂying stories in remarkable abundance, both
in book form and in magazines.
The Boys Own Paper, which had been started in 1879 by the
Religious Tract Society, had by the 1930s become a monthly magazine
costing a shilling. Though it still relied on romantic adventure ﬁction
rather than contemporary realism for most of its stories, it did include
many features about aviation among its non-ﬁction, such as articles
about air pockets, and instructions on modelling monoplanes, as well as
photographs of such famous pilots as Mrs. A. Mollinson [formerly Amy
Occasionally, too, serials such as George E. Rochester’s The Flying Beetle
appealed among its more traditional tales of boarding school life or historical
romances, and its articles about cricket and cycling.
The Modem Boy was a twopenny weekly which appeared every
Saturday in quarto compared with the B.O.P’s folio size, and with a
three-toned pictorial cover. For twopence readers [adults as well as
juveniles perhaps] got thirty pages of serials, photographs, features, and
usually the strip cartoon retelling the plot of a recent ﬁlm. Johns wrote
regularly for it, and George E. Rochester actually had a ﬂying Western:
The Smugglers of Rustler Ranch, featuring Chickenfeed Wilson, the
ﬂying sheriff, published in 1935.
When Johns’s serial Winged Menace [reprinted in book form as The
Black Peril] ended on 13 April 1935, it was immediately followed
by Percy F. Westerman’s Standish serial, Hinged by Fire, which started
on 20 April. Though it would be wrong to describe Modern Boy as entirely
devoted to ﬂying stories, for it also contained such items as The School for
Slackers by Charles Hamilton [i.e. Frank Richards] and Colin Robertson's
Fire on the Film Set, it was clearly an important source for them in the 1930's.
Popular Flying, which began in April 1932, under the editorship of W.E. Johns,
was an even more important source, publishing for sixpence a month sixty-four
pages which not only usually included ﬂying stories by Johns and perhaps John
Templer, who wrote about the adventures of Jaggers, the sky detective, but
features on such topics as 'The Air Force Overseas', 'Airports of the Future’
and ‘How Record Flights are Planned’.
Johns wrote a regular column of comment from ‘The Editor's Cockpit’
in each issue, but though circulation rose from 12,000 a month in 1932
to a peak of 32, 000 in 1938, he ceased to be editor in 1939 after a series of
editorials attacking the government for its policy of appeasement.
Flying, a weekly which began in April 1938, and was also edited by
Johns, cost threepence, and had a much greater emphasis on factual
articles than either Modern Boy or Popular Flying, including discussion
of such topics as ‘Aerial Advertising’ and ‘Who Did Kill von
Richthofen?'. But though Johns did contribute an air-thriller Murder By...
...Air, featuring another hero Steeley, he ceased to work for the magazine after 31 December 1938, presumably because of his sustained attacks on Air Ministry Policy. (The magazine itself was discontinued in December 1939).
In addition to the fiction which appeared in magazines and periodicals, flying stories were published in book form, of course, and almost every publishing house seems to have realised how popular they were and had their particular aviation authors.
A. & C. Black published such books as Pirates of the Air (1937) by M. E. Miles and Jack Fleming's The Air Spies (1936) in its 'Air Adventure' series; S. W. Partridge published Rowland Walker's Captain McBlaid of the Air Police (1932) and (some) Percy Westerman in its 'Great Adventure' series; Sampson Low, Marston published the flying stories of Michael Poole, such as Couriers of the Air (1936), and a remarkable series by Eileen Marsh about female pilots such as Lorna: Air Pilot (1937), The Oxford University Press published flying stories by Air Commodore L.E.O. Charlton, J.F.C. Westerman (Percy's son), and (some) W. E. Johns, including such titles as Biggies Flies North (1939).
Most remarkable of all was the publisher John Hamilton, however, who seems to have set out to corner the market in the 1930s. He published biographies of distinguished airmen, instructional books, war memoirs, histories of aviation, picture postcards of famous aeroplanes, and fine water-colour examples of aerial art, as well as over seventy different full-length stories by such writers as Covington Clarke and I. Railton Holden, W.E. Johns and George E. Rochester in his famous 'Ace series' of flying stories.
By the 1930s it is clear that flying adventure stories had become enormously popular. As well as
W.E. Johns, Percy Westerman and Herbert Strang, authors such as Covington Clarke (3 flying stories), L.E.O. Charlton (4), Jack Heming (6), David Lindsay (5), Eileen Marsh (9), Michael Poole (6), George E. Rochester (36), John Templer (3), Rowland Walker (14), J.F.C. Westerman (7), and Eric Wood (9) had established what looks like a minor literary genre.
What then are the characteristics of the flying story, and what does it tell us about imperialism in this period? The genre can usually be defined quite readily in terms of plot and characters, though there are naturally a number of individual variations. The hero is normally a youth, old enough to learn to fly and serve in war, though an important feature of many stories is the hero's actual induction into the skills of aviation.
In J.F. C. Westerman's Menace from the Air (1936) Ralph and his friend Tom are novices when the book begins, and the second chapter is devoted to learning to Fly. After that the hero moves through other initiations, the solo flight, cross-country journeys, being forced down, engaging an enemy whether in war or some other...
[Page 134 missing]
“...wide. The ailerons appeared normal until a second glance showed that there were no contro1 wires operating them. Nevertheless, they moved easily and smoothly when Dick climbed into the pilot's cockpit and handled the controls”.
But though W. E. Johns actually included a glossary of technical terms for his early flying stories, explaining the meaning of such words as 'blipping', it is surely the way writer's describe the combination of man and machine which is noticeable. Despite the references to the control-stick, the rudder and the engine cowling, in this incident from George E. Rochester's The Scarlet Squadron (1938), for example, it is what the hero does with his plane that matters when he is pursued by a Chinese antagonist:
“I pulled viciously on the control-stick, jerking on full rudder. The machine swung with a jar that might well have strained every strut and flying-wire. But I kept her so, and as I completed a small circle in the air at an acute banking angle, Kiu Lo tore past me. It was my chance. As swiftly as I could I kicked the rudder bar straight and whipped back the control-stick to centre. The machine answered gaIlantly and right on the tail of Kiu Lo I started in pursuit, my gun roaring a staccato accompaniment to the pulsating thunder of the engine.
He banked, his nose downwards. But I had anticipated the move, for in very truth I was so close that it was about the only course left to him. The range was too short for me to miss and as he banked he laid his flank open to my gun. I pressed slightly on the rudder. The machine swung and, in the act, the bullets from my synchronised gun ripped through his fuselage from behind the cockpit to the engine cowling."
Even so, technology, objects and planes are very important, and become animated and almost take on a life of their own occasionally, as here the machine 'answered gallantly', like another companion. Elsewhere E. Keble Chatterton describes a flying-boat in these terms in his 1932 story Scouts of the Sky: “To see her twist and turn was a lesson in perfect mobility. No insect could have been more agile.”
Similarly in T. German's 'Gorilla Gold' of 1937, an autogiro is said “to wink back at her master from every scrap of white metal about her”, and Couriers of the Air (1936) describes some criminal aircraft pursuing the young hero's monoplane in terms of a fox-hunt: “The Gnat had become the fox of the air and the pursuing planes were the hunters, glorying in the joy of the chase.”
On the other hand, even Biggies becomes a mechanical object in Biggles Defies the Swastika, when Johns says: “For the next two months he became a machine, a part of the aircraft!”. With this apparent dissolution of characterisation and a greater emphasis upon technology, it is clear that there is some reification present in flying stories, but with it there goes an occasional expression...
...of joy at flying, which is almost transcendental. This near-religious impulse is often expressed in clumsy language, far from the simple directness of Cecil Lewis's Sagittarius Rising (1936) or Antoine de Saint-Exupery's poetic 'Wind, Sand and Stars' (1940), but those are adult books, and the youthful reader would have some glimmer of a similar feeling as he read of Jerry Dearling's joyful return to the air after illness in The Secret Flight Squad or of Derek Daventry's first solo flight in Winning his Wings:
“The ecstasy of it all! To find himself controlling a swift aerial steed„ to handle the responsive joy-stick, and to make the machine turn obediently to a slight pressure on the rudder-bar, Anxiety was cast to the winds. The sheer lust of eight in the exhilarating atmosphere gripped the cadet in its entirety.”
Whatever the reasons, emphasis on the activities of a group of flyers rather than an individual also helped to give flying stories opportunities for more complicated plots than traditional adventure stories sometimes had, because when a group is involved in a battle or in solving a mystery, it is possible for members of the group to take on different tasks, or to pursue their activities separately, and thus multiply the number of adventures.
W. E. Johns, in fact, developed absolutely formulaic plots along these lines when he moved on from stories about the First World War, in which Biggles is often the sole hero, to later books such as Biggies: Air Commodore (1937), for example, in which Biggles, Algy and Ginger Hebblethwaite set out together to investigate why some merchant ships have been sunk under mysterious circumstances in the Indian Ocean.
When they separate to begin their search, Ginger and Algy crash in the jungle, and Biggles has to rescue them, but later when BiggIes and Ginger are lost on an island Algy has to rescue them. Though the device was obviously used to create suspense, its use becomes very predictable, but the device is perhaps another characteristic of stories where men are seen as members of a team rather than as individuals.
The plots of most flying stories tend to fall into one of two categories: either about exploits in the First or Second World War, or about criminals or mysteries of some kind, perhaps about a search for a missing aviator or lost treasure. What is significant about most stories, however, is the way they are based upon a total acceptance of the social and political values of their period. Though Johns could depict, with more skill than he has sometimes been given credit for, the sufferings experienced in the First World War, there is no suggestion anywhere that it's causes might have been questioned. Indeed, in a famous letter to Geoffrey Trease written in 1946 he claimed: “I teach the spirit of...
[Pages 137-138 missing]
...show an awareness of nationalism, but it is rarely discussed. Eric Wood's Wings Over India (l938) is perhaps the most explicit, probably because in telling the story of how the RAF put down a rising on the North-West Frontier of India, the author felt some explanation was necessary:
“The key-pin of all the trouble had been a young gentleman named, after the fashion of his people, the Fakkir of Madda. He was a Moslem, had been educated in England, and, like so Many Of his kind, had returned home firmly convinced that the British Raj had no right in India, which should be 'free' and independent.
Occidental learning had only increased the Oriental fanaticism of the Fakkir of Madda. He was a one-idea man. He failed to see, perhaps deliberately closed his eyes to the fact, that if the British left India that country of strange romance and enormous wealth, with its teeming multitude of potential consumers, would become the cockpit of grabbing nations: some of whom, by insidious propaganda, fostered ideas of freedom and hoped, and waited, for the day when spasmodic eruptions would give place to extensive and extending war-like operations.”
Give the connections between flying and the imperial air-routes, and between flying and the RAF's duties of national defence, which included overseas duties, it seems natural enough that many flying stories should have been set in Africa or the Middle East, and that they should reveal attitudes of British racial superiority. What is still extraordinary to discover, however, is how in one flying story after another what begins as an investigation into an apparently conventional crime, involving robbery or smuggling perhaps, soon reveals an international conspiracy to overthrow Britain and to destroy the whole Empire being planned by sinister foreigners.
Jack Heming's The Air Spies (1936) is a characteristic tale of how a youthful enthusiast, Bill Smith, achieves his great ambition of learning to fly, when he is rewarded by a millionaire for returning his wallet. After qualifying as a pilot in record time, Bill is employed by the millionaire as an agent to help 'defeat the Empire's enemies'. Not only are foreign criminals plotting to steal the plans of a new aeroplane, but they are doing so to humble the Empire.
In the end the leader, Radiloff, who seems to bear a considerable resemblance to Lenin, tries to stir up discontent by smuggling cocaine to large gatherings of the working classes somewhere near Redcar, but young Bill, the millionaire, and their planes are able 'to smash the Communist plot'.
Taken in isolation, the story could be dismissed as a literary aberration, but Johns' The Black Peril (1935) similarly describes how Biggles defeats a Russian-led conspiracy to build secret military installations along the East Coast of Britain, and Biggles and Co. actually land in Soviet Russia to foil the attempt.
J. Railton Holden's...
...Wings of Revolution 1934) is the story of how three brothers, with some adult help, foil a Red (Communist) plot to take over first Egypt and then the rest of the world. Rowland Walker's Captain McBlaid of the Air Police (1932) has similar subject-matter, beginning as a search for a mysterious submarine, and ending by describing the crushing of an international conspiracy to rule the world, led by an evil genius called Damiensk. J.F.C. Westerman's Menace from the Air (1938) unfolds a similar plan to take control of Europe by means of an airship. The young hero Tom disputes the villain's plot:
'One airship, however invulnerable, could not hope to conquer Europe. Why, England alone could finish her off somehow before long!' 'England is our greatest difficulty, came the admission. 'As a result, she is the first to be dealt with. But she will stand no chance against our weapons.'
The fear of foreign conspiracies and invasion, sometimes bordering on paranoia, found in these stories, might be interpreted as an expression of anxiety about the rise of fascism and of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. But it is worth emphasising that many of them seem to equate the threats of foreign invasion with Russia or with 'Communism', though usually in vague, unanalysed terms, rather than fascism.
The Zinoviev letter scare of 1924, when a forged letter purporting to have come from Zinoviev as Head of the Communist International, and inciting the British workers to revolt, was published in the British press, had whipped up an already existing fear of revolutionary Bolshevism at least in some quarters; and Wings of Revolution, The Black Peril and The Air Spies reflect something of that fear rather than anxiety about Hitler.
In any case the classic example of this kind of flying story is George Rochester's The Flying Beetle, which though published by Hamilton in book form in 1935, had first been serialised in the Boy's Own Paper as early as 1926, the same year, of course, as the General Strike. The Flying Beetle is an extraordinary story which owes some-thing to the influence of John Buchan and Baroness Orczy combined.
It opens with a masked chief summoning a group of leading criminals to help him destroy England and her Empire: "You boast, you English, that you have an Empire on which the sun never sets. But the day will come when the Empire shall be rent asunder. The day will come when her colonies will have broken away."
Fortunately this leader, a wealthy country gentleman, Sir Jasper Haines, employs as his secretary his apparently effete, book-reading nephew, Harry Davies, who, always disguised in black, not only manages to outwit him, but also has the courteous (and characteristically British?) habit of leaving a calling card behind after his exploits from 'The Black Beetle'.
A master of disguise and a superlative airman, Harry...
...Davies pilots a black aeroplane, and is always able to defeat Sir Jasper's endeavours - to smuggle arms to Indian rebels, for example: but, most important of all, he is the staunchest patriot, whose prayer book bears the inscription: 'For God - for King - for Country'. Aggressively patriotic, deeply conservative, racist, Rochester was almost as prolific as Johns and Westerman in the 1930s, and produced many similar books about international conspiracies such as The Despot of the World (1936) and The Scarlet Squadron (1938). The latter is another noteworthy example of the Flying Beetle's zeal in defending Britain, this time against a sinister foreigner who boasts:
'The hordes of China are about to rise,' he went on, and something in his voice told are he spoke the truth, 'and with China in arms, the whole of Asia will flock to our banner. India will become ours in a night, and we shall sweep westwards till we call a halt only in mighty London itself! What of your flag then, you spy? What of your great Empire? Pah! A shambles and we the butchers!'
Generalisations are dangerous, of course, and much more work needs to be done on the still largely neglected area of flying stories. The periodicals need a systematic search, and it would be extremely useful to have more information about the publishing history of John Hamilton and the Ace Publishing Co. during the 1930s. Even among the flying stories there are some anomalies.
Air-Commodore L.E.O. Charlton's The Bush Aerodrome (1937) in its account of the adventures the Yates family have selling autogiros to West Africa, and then training native pilots to fly them, seems to be articulating a kind of economic imperialism, while E. Malcolm Shard's Flying for Ethiopia (1936), on the other hand, is a sympathetic account of how young Pip Clayton comes to find himself flying with the Ethiopian Air Force against the Italian fascists.
It would, of course, be particularly interesting to compare the values of non-flying stories with those of the flying stories over the same period. Were they more imperialistic or not? Finally, it could prove extremely rewarding to trace the different shifts of feeling towards empire between 1910 and 1950, because even if we say that the dominant ideology running through most of the flying stories during this period can be broadly termed imperialism, we have always to remember Raymond Williams' words to the effect that 'imperialism, like any word which refers to fundamental social and political conflicts, cannot be reduced, semantically to a single, proper meaning. Its important historical and contemporary variations of meaning point to real processes which have to be studied in their own terms.']
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