A Modest Superhero

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I can’t remember the moment when I decided to allow Biggles some space in my new novel, but I imagine he just turned up one day, demanding attention. An ingrained loyalty to past escapism meant that I had to take him seriously. There’s an inner store in my mind, a bag of glittery details that I’ve accumulated over the years. Biggles was probably sitting waiting for the opportunity and jumped out when I was rummaging around for something else.

His presence in the novel has been the subject of intense debate with everyone who has read it in its embryonic state. How prominent a role should he have, or should he be there at all? Every time we discuss this in my writing group, we end up laughing. So, because I believe in humour, because I think it opens your mind, sets you up for suspension of disbelief, heightens your emotions, Biggles still has a walk-on part.

In fact, more people become excited by references to Biggles than I had anticipated. He evokes a nostalgia for a childhood world of heroes, goodies and baddies, right and wrong, that is immensely reassuring in these troubled times. Times were troubled then as well, of course, but you knew who the enemy was. He had a name, a nationality and a language – usually German.

The first Biggles book – The Camels Are Coming – was written by Captain W. E. Johns in 1932. It was a collection of short stories based on the author’s own experiences as a pilot during the First World War. He wasn’t really a Captain, only a Flying Officer, but he thought the title would appeal to children. He and his protagonist, James Bigglesworth, were members of the Royal Flying Corps, which amalgamated with the Royal Naval Air Service in 1918 to become the Royal Air Force. Apparently, Biggles was the inspiration for hundreds of young men who applied to train as pilots during the Second World War, and many of the books were updated for that purpose. Camels became Spitfires. After that war, Biggles joined the Air Police and embarked on a whole new career as a detective. The scene was set for dozens of books with that heady combination of aeroplanes and adventure.

I’m not sure how the Biggles books

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About the contributor

Clare Morrell’s next novel, Natural Flights of the Human Mind, is due out in January 2006. Her main success (until now her only success) has been Astonishing Splashes of Colour, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003.

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