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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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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 letter sent to Westerman’s widow at an address supplied by his main publisher, Blackie, I was contacted by Westerman’s son, Major J. F. C. Westerman. After apologizing for his (near-faultless) typing, he wrote me a long and detailed letter about his father, and invited me to visit him at his home in Dorset. Recently widowed, he lived on his own in a classically picturesque thatched cottage, with a stream running by, in the village of Winterborne Zelstone. He would have been in his late sixties when I first met him, and hale and hearty in manner and appearance. When I wrote later, saying that I hoped my visit had not tired him, he replied: ‘Although nearer 70 than 60, I can assure you that I feel far from getting on . . . and I feel that my yachting keeps me fit, active and relatively “tough”.’ Major Westerman was a delightful person and, blessed with a sympathetic manner and a good memory, also a gifted raconteur. Although my main interest at that time was in his father, Major Westerman told me quite a lot about himself. He was an only child, and after leaving school had served at various times in the army, the newly established Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. He had travelled all over the world in the services, and had also written quite a few boys’ adventure stories in the style of his father. He told me his father had failed in his ambition to join the Royal Navy because of poor eyesight, and so, after leaving school, he had obtained a post as a clerk in the dockyards. Then, in order to supplement his salary, he had begun writing magazine articles about his two great hobbies, cycling and sailing. He wrote his first fulllength book as the result of a bet. At the age of 8, J. F. C. Westerman – ‘Jack’, as he was always known in the family – had chickenpox, and his father, Percy, was reading him a boys’ book of the time. Eventually Percy said, ‘What tosh!’ His wife overheard him and bet him sixpence that he couldn’t do better. So Westerman, who was by now an experienced journalist but not yet a novelist, sat down and wrote A Lad of Grit, which was published by Blackie in 1909. This story about the adventures on land and sea in Restoration days of young Aubrey Wentworth, including his exploits in the West Indies among Algerian pirates, did well, and from then on he never looked back. Sometimes, his son told me, Westerman wrote three or four books a year, varying them between historical novels in the tradition of Walter Scott and G. A. Henty, and modern, more realistic stories about wars and criminal activities, usually involving aeroplanes or ships. All his life he enjoyed sailing, although, apart from one trip to the Channel Islands, he never actually went abroad. His descriptions of foreign lands were always based upon research, and he believed in good grammar and historical accuracy. He was ‘a stickler for the things that are right’. According to Jack, his father was a strict disciplinarian but with a sympathetic manner. During the Second World War he became a member of the local Home Guard, and when his son, now a lieutenantin the army, arrived home on leave, Percy always insisted on saluting him. He was methodical and worked to a strict regime, writing in longhand and using a relief nib and an ink-bottle, never a fountain pen. He generally wrote after his evening meal from 6 p.m. till 3 in the morning. He never worked from a synopsis but wrote at great speed in a beautiful copperplate hand, and the manuscripts were typed up by a professional typist. Usually a book took him six weeks to write, and then he knocked off for a fortnight before starting a new one. Although Jack himself published no fewer than thirty books between 1929 and 1953 – adventure stories, such as The Ocean Bandits (1934), which are very like his father’s, so that collectors are often confused – he told me very little about them. My impression was that he didn’t take them very seriously. There were very few of either his or his father’s books in the cottage. Major Westerman and I met and corresponded several times during the spring and summer of 1968, and he was always welcoming and generous. Despite his age, he had recently bought a converted motor-torpedo boat, and was planning to sail away to the Mediterranean. ‘I want to see the Greek islands again before I die,’ he told me. So he was clearing his cottage and insisted on presenting me with numerous souvenirs of his father. I protested that they were probably of financial as well as literary value. ‘I can’t be bothered, old boy,’ he said. ‘If you don’t take them, they’re going in the dustbin.’ I’m sure he meant what he said. So he piled on me the typescripts of some of his father’s unpublished novels, his scrapbooks, and various other miscellaneous items such as his parents’ ration books from the Second World War. These I have subsequently lodged in the Library at the University of Worcester. Looking back now, one can see that Percy F. Westerman was a figure of his times, an interesting but not a great writer. None of his books are still in print, although they can often be found secondhand. They are still worth looking at for the (sometimes accidentally amusing) light they throw on our ideas of air and sea technology in the early twentieth century, such as Winning His Wings (1918), a very readable account of how a young cadet learns to fly at a training school and eventually graduates to wartime combat in France. The historical novels, such as The Young Cavalier (1911), will find readers, too, among those who still admire the works of Henty. But it is perhaps the stories of the First World War, such as The Dispatch-Riders (1915) and To the Fore with the Tanks! (1918), with their very revealing contemporary attitudes towards battle, courage and patriotism, which may prove to be of more enduring historical interest. Westerman’s story-telling, too, despite its obvious limitations, has its own kind of competence and professional integrity, which is not to be despised. I wish now that I had spent more time talking to the Major about his own remarkable career. After our last meeting in the summer of 1968 we stayed in touch for a few more months, but then I heard no more; and when I returned to Winterborne Zelstone the following year, he had gone. New owners had moved into his cottage. They knew about the Major. ‘Yes, he reached the Mediterranean,’ they said – he had sent a postcard to their neighbours. But they had heard nothing since. More recent research has revealed that he sailed the Mediterranean very happily for several years, until his boat sank in a severe gale in Gibraltar Harbour in 1982, after which he moved to the Costa del Sol, where he died in 1991 at the age of 90. What a man!

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 37 © Dennis Butts 2013


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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