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Rumpeties and Flaming Coffins

I took yesterday off so I could go to the National Army Museum for a lunchtime lecture entitled 'The Sky Rained Camels: The Parallel Careers of Biggles and W. E. Johns'.

I found the museum's Art Gallery packed with a largely male and post-retirement aged audience. From a brief chat with the guy next to me, I imagine many of the attendees come every week. And why not, if you've got time on your hands and live near enough? It's free, and you'll probably learn something interesting.

Actor and Biggles fan Dr Geoff Hales took us through the boyhood, wartime service and postwar activities of William Earl Johns and James Bigglesworth, alternating between creator and creation. And, er, their careers aren't really very parallel. Biggles was brought up in India then sent to an English boarding-school; Johns grew up in Hertfordshire and was apprenticed to a surveyor before becoming a sanitary inspector. Although they both remained in the world of aviation after the First World War, Biggles was an active participant while Johns mostly confined his involvement to writing.

Biggles flew Camels during the war, but Johns was a soldier before transferring to the RFC to pilot bombers. Many of the author's experiences, however, were just as hair-raising and improbably, if not more so, than anything that happened to fighter ace Biggles. Towards the end of the war, his DH4 - a plane nicknamed the 'Flaming Coffin' due to the petrol tank handily situated between pilot and observer - made a forced landing near a German village it had just bombed. Johns spent the night in a barn with his dead observer for company while German children chanted "Englische Schweinhund!" outside, only to face a court martial and death sentence which turned out to be an elaborate fake designed to get information out of him. You couldn't make this stuff up; well, you could, but W. E. didn't need to.

I felt rather sorry for the speaker during the Q&A session at the end, since there were people in the audience who obviously knew more about Biggles, and much more about the military, than he did: "So, I don't understand how Johns went from being [rank x] to being [rank y]?"

I'm now considering taking another day off for the Royal Aeronautical Society's Aerospace and Aviation Book Fair. Free entry, but I suspect I would be parting with some cash before I left...
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