Planes, trains and literary loves

I still laugh about the wintry morning when I headed into the library so distracted by thoughts about trains, or rather, about stories with trains -- Anna Karenina throwing herself under a train, Coral Musker aboard the Orient Express with the guard calling "Budapest!" as a fellow passenger presses a folded note into her hand -- that I walked right into a big green loden coat. To my delight, the person inside the big coat was Paul Reynolds, the visionary who developed our first website, but also, and in this case more importantly, a keen reader, who in fact had earned his living as a book reviewer when he first arrived from the UK.

Just the person to consult about the question which had me racking my brain: I could think of many books in which trains feature as elements of mystery, excitement, danger -- of romance, in short; but were there not any where aeroplanes play a similar role? Paul was on to it in a flash. "What about Biggles?", he said.

The story came to mind because I've been reading The Pleasure of Reading, a collection of pieces by noted writers about their literary loves, in which John Carey, Merton Professor of English at Oxford University, also for many years the book reviewer for the Sunday Times, a literature lover who won my heart at an Auckland Writers Festival a few years back, when in a debate inspired by his book What good are the arts? he opined that it's not actually clear that reading books makes anyone a better person, and more generally for his erudition and wit, has his own Biggles story to tell.

Here it is:

Prof. John Carey. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images
"Contemporary writing was not represented on the shelves [of the house he grew up in], so for that I had to depend on birthday and Christmas presents, and loans from friends. My favourite modern author was Captain W.E. Johns. I must have read nearly all his Biggles books (though not the cissy Worrals-of-the-WAAF series, of course). The Biggles adventures that most gripped me were the exotic ones. Biggles in the Orient was a marvel of deft plotting about a series of inexplicable crashes among the fighter planes operating against the Japs from a certain Burmese airfield. Inspecting the wreckage of one plane, Biggles finds a scrap of peppermint-scented silver paper. Chewing gum! All at once it dawns on him. Someone must be drugging the pilots' confectionery, so that they pass out when flying over the jungle. Sure enough, back at base, a 'moonfaced' Eurasian mess steward is found injecting the squadron's chewing-gum with a hypodermic. Curtains for Moon-Face.

The scrap of pepperminty paper strikes me, even now, as a brilliant touch -- like the chocolate-paper William Golding's shipwrecked Pincher Martin finds in his pocket, with one agonizingly sweet crumb of chocolate still adhering to it. Perhaps Golding was a Biggles fan, too.

Biggles in the South Seas enthralled me even more. I forget the plot, but in one episode Biggles's friend Ginger becomes romantically attached to a young female South Sea Islander, and they have an adventure with a giant octopus, involving a lung-searing underwater swim. The girl is clad -- scantily, one gathers -- in something called a pareu. I had no idea what this garment was, but it lingered pleasantly in my mind, eventually getting mixed up with the brief costume worn by Jean Simmons in The Blue Lagoon. Like many teenagers, I felt sure, as puberty approached, that my destiny was to be a poet, and Ginger's girl's pareu figured importantly among my early inspirations, combined with the world-weary tones of T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock, whose 'Love Song' completely captivated me after a single reading. I wrote some wistful, elderly recollections of my youth in the South Seas, in free verse, and tapped out my poems one-fingered on my father's huge old Underwood, which lurked under a sort of tarpaulin shroud in the front room. This took a long time, as I had no way of correcting typing errors, and as soon as I made one my authorial pride obliged me to start the whole page again. At last I produced perfect copies, however, and sent them off to The Listener for publication. Why I chose The Listener escapes me, but I realize now that the then literary editor was J.R. Ackerley, later famous for his love affair with his Alsatian bitch Queenie, which he wrote up in My Dog Tulip. However, my tasteful blend of Biggles and T.S. Eliot must have seemed unusual, even to someone of his wide experience.

My poems were some time in coming back, as I had omitted to enclose a stamped, addressed envelope. This was pointed out (in the great Ackerley's hand?) on the rejection slip, which was decorated with the BBC's crest in pastel blue. I was not as pained as I had expected. Being a rejected poet seemed somehow even finer than being published."

Author: Karen Craig, Reading Engagement Specialist