Dennis Butts on the novels of Percy F. Westerman

Talking to the Major

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Percy F. Westerman (1876–1959) was one of the most popular writers of boys’ adventure stories from the 1920s to the 1950s. In their brightly coloured dust-jackets his historical tales – books about the Great War or the early days of aviation – sold in their thousands, and in the Thirties he was acclaimed as the most popular boys’ author in a referendum run by the Daily Sketch. By the time he died he had written nearly 200 books, which had been translated into many languages, and achieved sales of one and a half million copies. Many readers of Slightly Foxed will remember the excitement they felt when they first encountered the exploits of Standish, the flying detective, in such tales as The Amir’s Ruby (1932) or Standish Gets His Man (1938).

Yet when, in the 1960s, having written a little book about Robert Louis Stevenson, I became increasingly interested in the evolution of the adventure story, one name kept coming up that no one seemed to know anything about – that of Percy F. Westerman. So I decided to investigate. I sent off shoals of letters – to publishers, to libraries, to illustrators and to his old school – but without much success. Terence Cuneo, one of Westerman’s most distinguished illustrators, for example, wrote me a charming reply, saying how much he had always enjoyed illustrating Westerman’s stories but that he had never actually met the author. The publisher would send him a book, he would decide what scenes he wanted to depict, and he’d simply get on with it. A retired master from Portsmouth Grammar School, Westerman’s alma mater, reported: ‘I have consulted the Portmuthian [the school magazine] for the years Percy Westerman could have been at the school, but the search was in vain: he does not seem to have done anything spectacular enough to get his name in the magazine.’ I was getting nowhere.

I finally struck lucky in 1967 when, in response to a let

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About the contributor

After National Service in the RAF, Dennis Butts read English at St Catherine’s Society, Oxford, after which he taught in various parts of the country for many years. His most recent book, Children’s Literature and Social Change, was published in 2010.

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