The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 13, No 2 (2009)

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Jabberwocky


The Biggles Books Bug

Stuart Kidd


After several years working as a stay-at-home dad of five and part-time cleaner, Stuart Kidd is currently studying Education at La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus, Victoria, Australia.  His children’s literature teacher, Looking Glass editor David Beagley, is extremely jealous that Stuart has more Biggles books than he does!


I was given my first Biggles book, Biggles - Air Detective, in 1980. My mother purchased it from a local newsagent so I could take it on my grade six camp. I had never heard of or seen a Biggles book up until that time. I had no idea who Biggles was! I had hitherto been a reluctant reader, like most boys. This book was to be a turning point in my life. Through these seven short stories, I entered a world of adventure and excitement, where the hero flew aeroplanes and solved the world’s problems. Captain W.E. Johns’ inimitable Biggles would become my boyhood hero, as for so many boys before me.

Thus began a life-long passion, which some might better describe as an obsession, for collecting Biggles books. I still own that original book some twenty nine years later. Its condition is more or less as it was the day it left the shop; and while it is not an edition of particular significance or monetary value, it holds a special place in my heart and collection. Today eighty eight other titles keep it company on my bookshelves. These have been procured over the intervening years from markets, op-shops (thrift shops), second hand booksellers, and, more recently and perhaps inevitably, e-Bay. My aim has been to collect all of the one hundred or so titles officially published. This figure is often the subject of debate due to the number of edited or re-titled re-issues, omnibuses, and “unofficial” compilations produced over the years.

The immediate bonus of this  passion was an improvement in my literary ability and thus my academic record. My interest and knowledge of history and geography grew likewise as I sought to place the events portrayed, particularly those of the wartime titles, into context. Times and places became more than written facts and two dimensional details on a map. Research has shown that making learning relevant and interesting, dare I say fun, engages students in it more willingly. I can certainly attest to that fact, and Biggles made it so. These were some of the most entertaining lessons I ever had.

The earliest titles were produced in the 1930’s by John Hamilton Publishers, Boy’s Friend Library, and Oxford University Press. While Oxford published more affordable editions in the late 1940s and 50s, only edited re-issues of most of the other titles are available in the modest price range of most amateur collectors like me.

Hodder & Stoughton picked up the baton in the early 1940s, with Brockhampton Press running parallel from 1953. Hardbacks from the 1960’s are rare because, by that time with the likes of Ian Fleming’s James Bond and science fiction becoming more popular, print runs were shorter. Paperbacks printed in the late 1960s, 70s and 80s will fill the gaps on the shelves, but even some of these can be pricey due to the higher prices of their corresponding hardcover editions. As an example, Biggles and the Deep Blue Sea - one title that never saw a paperback printing - can achieve a price upwards of $1000 AUD.

During the 1990s many titles were re-issued in paperback by Red Fox. This brought them within reach of yet another generation of fans, or those whose budgets made it difficult to add earlier editions to their collections. Alas, the sad reality in Australia is that you can no longer pop in to your local newsagent or bookstore and buy a Biggles book, thanks to market share arrangements and chain store retailing.  They are not quick turnover best-sellers and, so, are not held in stock.  Then there is the echo of insane 1980s political correctness that banned Biggles books because they use 1930s language or attitudes. So, here we have to rely on the second hand market, or source from overseas. In fact, e-Bay has become my primary source of Biggles books. In recent times I have bought several from England by this method.

In many ways e-Bay and its ilk have revolutionised the second hand book market, making collecting easier. When I was no longer able to get new titles from the newsagent or bookshop, I began haunting second hand booksellers and market stalls. This proved to be a rather hit and miss exercise at a local level, because a ready supply is not possible. It would often be months before a book on my “wanted” list became available. Even then it was dependent upon my budget and how much I could justify spending on a single book. Paperbacks tend to be less expensive, but if one wants a satisfying collection the more coveted hardbacks are the way to go. A first edition with a dust jacket is the ultimate prize!

The benefit of on-line auctions like e-Bay is that you can pick and choose from sellers around the world. It also makes it easy to look at what the market is doing; what prices are being asked and, more importantly, what prices are being paid. Prices tend to be somewhat less than you would pay at your local second hand bookseller, simply because there is little or no overhead cost associated with it. Even so, it is still possible to pick up a real bargain there from time to time. The trick either way is to know the market, and keep your budget in mind. The world is then, quite literally, your oyster. As one would expect, England has the highest number of listings. This makes it a good place to start looking for that elusive title, as long as you factor in the postage cost and exchange rate when bidding – without even leaving your front door!

As the collection grows, and the more common titles have found their way onto the bookshelves, the search becomes longer and the prices higher. I have reached the point now where I have fewer than ten titles to go to get to where I will consider my collection complete. The fly in the ointment of course is that these are the most expensive ones, and prices can wander lazily into the hundreds of dollars; the odd one or two running past $1000 AUD!

The world Biggles lived in was an exciting place, but it was real. In today’s sanitised world values and morals are so fluid and relative, and convictions fleeting. Far from being the racist chauvinist some critics have made him out to be, Biggles was a man of integrity and honour, who wanted to give everyone a fair go. “While men are decent to me I try to be decent to them, regardless of race, colour, politics, creed or anything else” (Biggles Delivers the Goods, pg 12). He did what he saw as the decent thing simply because it was the decent thing to do. He put duty, his comrades, and even his country, above personal gain or safety. Our post-modern world should be so fortunate as to have such heroes for our children to aspire to emulate.

 

Stuart Kidd


Volume 13, Issue 2 The Looking Glass, May/June 2009

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"The Biggle Books Bug" © Stuart Kidd, 2009
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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