HOW W.E. JOHNS WROTE BIGGLES BOOKS

 

On Friday 11th July 2003 I actually had the pleasure of seeing some of W.E. Johns' hand-written manuscripts for the original Biggles books. This is what he actually sat down and wrote before he had them typed up and sent to his publishers. The manuscripts are currently in the possession of the RAF museum having been donated, I believe, by Johns' family. The one I studied in depth was the hand-written manuscript for BIGGLES AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA (published in 1968). I chose this particular one, as it is the rarest original Biggles book, having only been printed in a first hardback edition. It was never reprinted and it never came out in paperback.

 

Also in the possession of the RAF museum is a short article entitled "My Week" which sets out Johns' writing routine while he was living in Scotland in the 1950's and 1960's. Basically he would get up about 4.00 a.m., put on his dressing gown and go to his study and write out one or two chapters that he had thought out the previous day. At 8.30 a.m. he would take a cup of tea to his wife, Doris. He would spend his mornings fishing and thinking out story lines and dialogue. They would then lunch together at the riverbank and he would finally pack up about 6.00 p.m. After dinner, he would jot down ideas thought out that day. He would then go to bed any time between 10.30 p.m. and 1.00 a.m. and the routine would continue. This was usually from February to June. On 1st July a typist would arrive to type the hand-written manuscripts. In August Johns would shoot from 12th August (the "glorious 12th") until the first week in November. In November, they usually went to London on business and then go off round Europe on tour, returning in February to Scotland for more fishing and writing.

 

An examination of the original manuscripts for BIGGLES AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA is quite revealing. Johns wrote in blue fountain pen on lined paper 8 inches by roughly 10 inches (20.5 cms x 25.5 cms). The paper contained 26 lines and he averaged 12 words a line, I calculated. He wrote on one side of the paper only before moving on to a new page. What is astonishing is how few alterations and errors there were. Many pages were perfect, with no changes whatsoever. I analysed Chapter 1 (A Talk on Islands) in depth and compared it to the text printed in the book. I will give some examples of amendments. On the first page Johns has inserted a "he said" after a speech. The only substantive amendment appears on the first page when Biggles says "with all respect to Robinson Crusoe". This originally read "with all respect to Robinson Crusoe and the Swiss Family Robinson". Johns has then deleted the reference to the Swiss Family Robinson, probably because he refers to them later in the same chapter. "They can have them" is deliberately amended to read "They can have 'em". A reference to 500 miles from the coast of South America becomes 600 miles - presumably after he has checked a map! A reference is made to an island called "Clipperton" and Johns has then inserted "so called after a pirate of that name". "Are you interested to know what happened?" is amended to read "would you be interested to know what happened?". "When no ship came" is changed to "When no ship arrived". "It's volcanic rock" has the word "mostly" inserted into it. Amendments continue in this vein. Johns wrote the first chapter in 16 pages (by far the longest chapter in the book). Page 6 has an ink blot on it and this has left a clear fingerprint - presumably from Johns himself.

 

With regard to chapter names, each chapter is headed "Chapter 1" and "Chapter 2" etc. Then at a later stage, Johns has gone back and named the chapters. What I found of great interest is that "Chapter 8" and "Chapter 15" had not been titled by Johns! There are 17 chapters in the printed book and I set out the titles below with a note of how many pages Johns actually wrote it in

Chapter Name

1. A Talk on Island

2. The Lonely Isle

3. Clarence Robinson Crusoe

4. Night Alarm

5. More Problems

6. Mystery after Mystery

7. Worry for Algy

8. Food for Thought

9. Heavy Weather Ahead

10. Collingwood Talks

11. Collingwood ends his tale

12. Plans and Speculations

13. Murder Most Foul

14. Death Strikes Again

15. And Again

16. Stranger than Fiction

17 Bonney has the last word

Manuscript Pages written by Johns

16

12

11

11

11

11

10

11

11

10

9

12

12

10

13

11

?

 

I concluded, erroneously as it happened, that the title of chapter 8 and the rather lame title given to chapter 15 must have been done by the publisher rather than by Johns himself. I discovered that I was wrong. I found that Johns had written out by hand a list of chapter names and he had clearly named chapter 8 as "Food for thought" and chapter 15 "and again" in that list of names, although he never actually wrote this on those actual chapters.

 

The RAF museum only had chapters 1 to 13 in their "Deep Blue Sea" file. I am pleased to say that I found chapter 14 to 16 mis-filed elsewhere, with other items. Not having the time to view all the files (you can only view things one at a time), I hope and pray that chapter 17 is elsewhere in the Johns archive.

The missing final chapter prevents me from comparing the number of pages written with the total pages in the published book. Up to the end of chapter 16 Johns actually wrote 181 pages. The actual book starts on page 7 and chapter 16 ends on page 181 strangely enough!

The final chapter is only about two pages long. So Johns wrote roughly page by page with what was published! No wonder he was able to get the book length just right! With regard to the condition of the paper - most of the pages are in excellent condition - as if Johns has just put them down. However, each chapter is held together by a paperclip. The paperclips have long since gone rusty and left red rush marks over the first and last pages of each chapter. Some of the corners are knocked and bent over.

 

I then went on to look at other items in the RAF archive. They hold either in full or in part, the manuscripts for 20 Biggles books

ANOTHER JOB FOR BIGGLES

BIGGLES WORKS IT OUT

BIGGLES TAKES THE CASE

BIGGLES FOLLOWS ON

BIGGLES - AIR DETECTIVE

BIGGLES AND THE BLACK RAIDER (ORIGINALLY "BIGGLES AND THE BLACK DICTATOR")

BIGGLES IN THE BLUE

BIGGLES IN THE GOBI (ORIGINALLY "BIGGLES BACK OF BEYOND")

BIGGLES CUTS IT FINE

BIGGLES CHINESE PUZZLE

BIGGLES AND THE PLANE THAT DISAPPEARED

BIGGLES FLIES TO WORK

BIGGLES INVESTIGATES

BIGGLES AND THE BLUE MOON

BIGGLES AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA

THE BOY BIGGLES

BIGGLES IN THE UNDERWORLD

BIGGLES AND THE LITTLE GREEN GOD

BIGGLES AND THE NOBLE LORD

BIGGLES SEES TOO MUCH

 

Of these, time constraints only allowed me to look at one further complete book, Biggles in the Blue. This was written in the same style but on smaller paper - almost like an old school exercise book. What was of particular interest was a quick hand sketch of a possible book cover with "Biggles in the Blue" written on it - presumably done by Johns. It is not that dissimilar from the cover actually used.

I then went on to look at other Johns articles in some depth, whether they had previously been published or not it is hard to say. I know that the article called "My Week" was used in the Johns biography "By Jove Biggles" and quoted fairly extensively.

 

The most interesting article I found was a hand-written list by Johns of stories for THE BEST OF BIGGLES (selected by the author) - each to have an introductory note by Johns.

This must have been written late in life as it refers to one of his later books, The Boy Biggles.

The stories he has chosen are of great interest because, I can only assume, that the complete books he has chosen are what he thinks are his best ones. These are his suggestions.

Part 1 Biggles the boy in India. 2 stories from the Boy Biggles

Part 2 BIGGLES SCHOOLDAYS. 2 stories from Biggles goes to School

Part 3 BIGGLES IN WORLD WAR 1. Foreword on Air Combat. 2 stories from Biggles learns to Fly.

Part 4 BIGGLES COMBAT PILOT. First War. Full length book BIGGLES FLIES EAST.

Part 5 Between the wars. Freelance pilot. 2 stories from Biggles CHARTER PILOT or, full length book 'Biggles Flies West'

Part 6 WORLD WAR II. 2 stories from SPITFIRE PARADE (or full length book. Biggles Sweeps the Desert.)

Part 7 AFTER THE WAR. AIR DETECTIVE. Sergt. Bigglesworth C.I.D. (part of) then enough detective stories to make up required length.

 

 

Roger Harris, 12th July 2003

 

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