WHEN BRITISH FOREIGN Secretary Boris Johnson quoted the poem ‘Mandalay’ during a visit to Myanmar in early 2017, to the obvious discomfort of the British ambassador, it was a stark reminder that popular culture can sometimes intrude on worldly affairs. Johnson’s reference to Rudyard Kipling’s well-known but rather patronising colonial-era ballad may have simply been a diplomatic gaffe, with no lasting consequences. However, there has long been a lively debate in academic circles about the possible subliminal effects of movies, television programs, songs and books. It has been argued, for example, that young children exposed to certain kinds of public entertainment can form indelible impressions of people and places that will affect their attitudes in later life.
In this regard, George Orwell’s views are pertinent. In his essay ‘Boys’ Weeklies’, first published in 1940, he wrote that:
…most people are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth, and that from this point of view the worst books are often the most important, because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life. It is probable that many people who would consider themselves extremely sophisticated and ‘advanced’ are actually carrying through life an imaginative background which they acquired in childhood…
Orwell was writing about children’s story papers like the Gem (1907–39) and the Magnet (1908–40). However, his comments could apply equally to juvenile literature of the kind that was read by Boris Johnson and his generation. With regard to Myanmar – still commonly known as Burma – one example stands out above all others.
Like many young Australians in the 1950s and 1960s, I spent countless hours reading the books written by Captain WE Johns about the fictional British hero Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth, known simply as ‘Biggles’. Between 1932 and 1970, a hundred and two Biggles books were published, including six omnibuses, in which the multi-talented fighter pilot and ‘air detective’, accompanied by his loyal comrades Algy, Ginger and Bertie, crisscrossed the globe having all sorts of adventures. Biggles had a female counterpart called ‘Worrals’, who appeared in her own series of books. Johns’s stable of rugged characters also included ‘Gimlet’ the Commando and ‘Steeley’ the crime-fighter.
It was Biggles, however, who captured the public imagination. Johns’s books about the intrepid aviator were enormously popular, particularly in Australia, where their sales exceeded even those in the UK. There was also an Australian radio program featuring Biggles and his companions that ran to over two hundred episodes, and was syndicated to New Zealand and South Africa. Johns’s books did not sell well in the United States because, according to one American publisher, they were ‘too God-damned British’. Even so, in 1964, the first UNESCO Statistical Yearbook reported that the Biggles books placed twenty-ninth on a list of the most translated books in the world and that Biggles was the world’s most popular juvenile literary figure.
FOR REASONS THAT are yet to be explored, WE Johns seemed to take a special interest in Burma. Seven of his books describe Biggles as being based nearby, there on assignment, or passing through the country. Johns was particularly fascinated by the Mergui (now Myeik) Archipelago, which consists of eight hundred and four islands stretching some four hundred kilometres down the coast of Tenasserim (Tanintharyi) Division from Tavoy (modern Dawei) in the north to Victoria Point (now Kawthaung) in the south. This twenty-six thousand square kilometre area has always been off the main trade routes and lightly populated. Indeed, most islands are still uninhabited, although a few host small communities of Moken ‘sea gypsies’. It was an ideal setting for adventure stories.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the town of Mergui on the mainland was a busy entrepôt port, where goods were offloaded from ships and sent across the Kra Isthmus to Thailand. However, the region’s isolation and many scattered islands made it an ideal hunting ground for pirates. By the mid-nineteenth century, the security situation had improved but the overland route was not enough to maintain interest in the area. In 1905, a British observer wrote:
There is probably no part of the lands bordering the Bay of Bengal which today is so seldom visited and remains so little explored as extreme lower Burma and the Mergui Archipelago. Lower Tenasserim lies apart from the travel routes of the East, while its own productions are too small to bring it into prominence.
During the Second World War, Mergui’s harbour offered a safe anchorage for Japanese warships, but the archipelago did not feature prominently in the conflict. After it regained its independence from Britain in 1948, the new Union of Burma had neither the interest nor the resources to pay the area much attention. In fact, after General Ne Win’s military coup in 1962, travel there was severely restricted and the archipelago became known as ‘the forbidden islands’. As late as the 1980s, dacoits (bandits), smugglers and fish poachers roamed the area. Refugees fleeing Burma’s authoritarian government feared these gangs as much as the few small military units based there.
For all these reasons, the archipelago developed a reputation from an early date for remoteness, mystery and violence. It became synonymous with pirates, black marketeers and other disreputable characters. Its unusual flora and fauna evoked wonder. For those able to appreciate its unexplored beauty, it was truly a ‘lost world’. For more than a century, this popular image was reinforced by occasional references to the area in memoirs and travelogues. It also inspired pulp fiction writers like SBH Hurst, who wrote short stories for magazines like Oriental Stories (1930-34). Unlike Hurst, WE Johns never visited Burma, but the archipelago seems to have cast a spell over him too.
JOHNS’S FIRST REFERENCE to Burma was in a short piece called ‘The Oriental touch’. It was included in Biggles Flies Again (John Hamilton, 1934), a collection of stories describing Biggles’s adventures between the wars as a freelance civilian pilot. In this story, Biggles flies over the Mergui Archipelago on his way from Penang to Rangoon (now Yangon). He takes his seaplane down to rescue a man seen floating on a makeshift raft. Unbeknown to Biggles, the man is Li Chi, ‘the worst character that ever sailed these seas, a pirate, a smuggler, and a thief’. After inadvertently helping Li Chi wreak a terrible vengeance on his rivals, Biggles is rewarded with two of the pink pearls for which the region is still renowned.
In Biggles – Air Commodore (Oxford University Press, 1937), Biggles returns to the Mergui Archipelago to track down a pirate submarine that is preying on ships carrying military stores from Britain to Singapore and Australia. As Biggles observes, the area is ‘conveniently situated for the interception of ships bound for the Far East’.
Hundreds of islands – thousands if you count islets – lying at a nice convenient distance from the mainland – thirty or forty miles on an average – and spread along the coast for a distance of nearly three hundred miles. The islands are rocky, well wooded, with magnificent natural harbours. What more could a mystery ship ask for?
When Ginger states that he has never heard of the Mergui Archipelago, Biggles replies: ‘Very few people have…Africa is civilised compared with this place’. It is, he adds, a ‘Queer spot. Sort of place where anything could happen.’ In Johns’s books, it usually does.
The Mergui Archipelago also featured in a rather far-fetched tale entitled ‘The adventure of the golden shirts’, which was included in a collection of short stories published as Biggles – Charter Pilot (Oxford University Press, 1943). In this adventure, Biggles and his crew are based for a month in Rangoon while they search for a mysterious race of white men who wear tunics made out of small discs of beaten gold. This quest ends up in Indonesian waters. Before then, however, Biggles and his crew make numerous sorties over the islands of the Mergui Archipelago, where it is suspected the lost race (descendants, it turns out, of Dutch East India Company sailors shipwrecked with a golden treasure) might be found.
Biggles encounters the pirate chief Li Chi again in Biggles Delivers the Goods (Hodder & Stoughton, 1946). In this novel, set during the Second World War, the ‘elusive, enigmatic…Chinaman’ helps Biggles recover a stockpile of rubber that was hidden when the Japanese invaded Burma in December 1941. Most of the action takes place in and around Li Chi’s old base on ‘Elephant Island’, which is described as being across the strait from, and in sight of, Victoria Point. The area is described by Johns in familiar terms:
Below the aircraft, like a string of green beads dropped carelessly on blue velvet, were the islands of the archipelago, lonely, untouched by civilisation, each hiding beneath its tangle of jungle a wealth of animal, bird and reptile life, which a stranger to the tropics would not from a distance have suspected. But Biggles knew…
Add an eccentric English rubber planter, an Indian princess, a cache of rubies, a gang of pirates, treacherous ‘natives’ and marauding Japanese, and the book has all the elements of a typical Johns adventure.
JOHNS HAD A tendency to return to favourite locations in his novels and short stories, and the Mergui Archipelago was clearly one of them. It featured again in Biggles and the Lost Sovereigns (Brockhampton, 1964), which even included a three-page ‘geographical note’ at the beginning of the book to explain where the islands were and what made the region so special. Johns described ‘a primitive tribe of seafaring natives, called Salones’ – a ‘harmless, simple people’, with ‘stinking boats’, addicted to alcohol. He also explained how many of the islands in the archipelago (and elsewhere) had been named, to educate his young readers and presumably to justify the rather improbable names given to some of the islands in his story.
Biggles and the Lost Sovereigns describes how Biggles and his crew recover twenty thousand gold sovereigns that had been lost on their way to Singapore before the Second World War. They cover a lot of old ground, returning for example to Victoria Point, which is described as ‘a somewhat decrepit little port at the southern tip of Burma and opposite the south end of the islands forming the Mergui Archipelago’. Biggles is advised by a European sea captain familiar with the area to hire a local guide and provide him with opium, as ‘They all eat opium. That’s understood… You can get it here, at any store’. In addition to the usual steaming jungle and ravenous wildlife, Biggles encounters an unhelpful Burmese Customs Department official and a marooned Japanese pilot who had been shot down during the war.
In these and a few of his other books, such as Biggles’ Chinese Puzzle (Brockhampton, 1955), Johns occasionally refers to other parts of Burma. For example, Biggles often stages through Rangoon on his way to destinations east and west, staying at the Hotel Mandalay. Once, he visits Tavoy. Akyab also gets a mention. In a short story entitled ‘Down in the forest’, from Biggles Flies Again, Biggles is forced to land his amphibian aircraft on a lake in dense jungle near the Arakan Yoma mountains. In an episode that could have been cribbed from a Somerset Maugham story, he unexpectedly encounters a British planter in immaculate evening dress who has a pet python called Penelope. Also, during the war Biggles is based for a time near Calcutta, and makes several sorties over Burma. As described in Biggles in the Orient (Hodder & Stoughton, 1944), he parachutes into the jungle ‘somewhere north-west of Mandalay’ to inspect a crashed aircraft.
Johns was known to consult maps to add local colour to his stories, but his geography is not always to be trusted. For example, in Biggles Flies Again, he has Biggles’s amphibian aircraft taxiing into position ‘outside Rangoon harbour’ and then taking off over ‘the sparkling blue waters of the Gulf of Martaban’. Johns seems unaware that Rangoon is not on the coast, but thirty kilometres up a twisting, muddy estuary usually teeming with small boats and cargo vessels. Also, in Burma-related Biggles books many of the islands named, like ‘Raffa’, ‘Chang’, ‘Kampong’ and ‘Shark’ Islands, are fictitious. However, some of those identified are real, such as St Luke’s, St Matthew’s and Elphinstone Islands, though they are now better known by their Burmese names.
All Johns’s books about Burma mention the country’s natural beauty. To cite one recurring image of the Mergui Archipelago, from Biggles’s aircraft the islands looked ‘like a necklace of emeralds dropped carelessly on a turquoise robe’. Their pristine sandy beaches are described as ‘palm-fringed, surf-washed’. In ‘Down in the forest’, Biggles flies over the Irrawaddy Delta, prompting Johns to write: ‘A dozen meandering streams lay like a carelessly draped skein of silver ribbons across the inevitable paddy fields’. More often, however, he emphasises the Mergui Archipelago’s remoteness, its violent history and exotic wildlife, usually in extravagant terms. Indeed, in his descriptions of Burma’s natural environment Johns’s language is at its most colourful.
For example, in Biggles and the Lost Sovereigns, Johns describes the mangrove swamps found in the Mergui Archipelago:
If the stench of slime and putrefying vegetable matter, with its oily scum and the bubbles of gas it discharges, is nauseating, the reptiles and insects that make it their home, preying on each other, are creatures of a nightmare.
Such places are invariably accompanied by the ‘noisome stench of corruption’, ‘an atmosphere of sinister foreboding’, ‘spectral wraiths of mist’ and other intimations of unseen menace. The tropical climate is always ‘sticky’ and ‘oppressive’ and the annual monsoon full of ‘seething fury’. Purple prose is not uncommon in other books by Johns, but when he describes Burma he gives his imagination free rein.
To read Johns’s books, a reader could be forgiven for thinking that Burma was little else but jungles and swamps swarming with blood-sucking leeches, enormous centipedes and ‘insects in countless myriads, fever-carrying mosquitos and sand flies being perhaps the most to be feared’. His stories are also populated with man-eating tigers, venomous snakes and fierce crocodiles. Although alligators are native only to America and China, Johns manages to find one in Burma. Added to which, not all the country’s dangerous animals are to be found on land:
In the turquoise water that separated the islands from the mainland, seeming from above so innocent of danger, lurked marine monsters of unbelievable size and horror – shark, octopus and the giant decapod.
The latter was described as ‘the most loathsome living thing in all creation’ which, as seen in Biggles – Air Commodore, could even wreak devastation on land. It is no wonder that Burma was a country where, according to Biggles, ‘sickness and accident are the rule rather than the exception’.
Johns’s attitude towards the Burmese people is mixed. He shows respect for some, albeit in a rather condescending manner. In Biggles Delivers the Goods, for example, Prince Lalla is accepted as a loyal friend (after he leaves Burma to join the Royal Air Force). Others, however, are shown less consideration. They are viewed as naive and easily manipulated, as suggested in this passage from Biggles in Australia (Hodder & Stoughton, 1955):
It only needs one or two people to walk about telling the natives that white men are a lot of thieves who have swindled them out of their land, and turned them into slaves, and the next thing is murder… This dirty business is all part of the Cold War. It has worked in Malaya, Kenya, Indonesia, Burma and all over the Middle East, so I don’t see why it shouldn’t happen here.
According to Johns, fifteen years after Burma regained its independence from Britain in 1948, ‘things had changed little…and what changes there had been were for the worse rather than the better’. This was because:
…the native population, without the drive of the Europeans who formerly worked in the region, lacked the initiative to exploit the natural resources of the country… Too often their place had been taken by Burmese government officials, tax collectors and the like, who were open to corruption.
The Burmese Customs Department official encountered in Biggles and the Lost Sovereigns is slovenly, corrupt and, even worse, has ‘a high opinion of himself’.
Asians in general are treated by Johns in a casually racist manner. They are called ‘chinks’, ‘niggers’, ‘wogs’ and ‘savages’. The Japanese are dismissed as ‘scum’, ‘unspeakable thugs’ and ‘dangerous vermin’. A mixed group of local seamen are described as a ‘motley collection of humanity’. After a spy is captured in Biggles – Air Commodore, Ginger felt that ‘he had never seen a worse type of the human species’:
Small, and thin to the point of emaciation, in colour he was a light brown, almost a tawny yellow, mottled by countless scars of some skin disease. His eyes were tiny, black, and elongated, with a definite upward tilt at the outer ends, while his nose, set above a mouth of discoloured teeth, was squat, with expanded nostrils. Lank black hair hung half-way down his neck.
Apart from the Oxford-educated pirate chief Li Chi, the language ability of most Asians Biggles encounters in Burma is at the ‘speakee Engleesh’ level. The ‘Oriental’ or ‘Eastern’ mind is characterised as ‘so simple, yet so subtle’.
These attitudes did not raise many eyebrows at the time, but since WE Johns’s death in 1968 he has become a controversial figure. There is now a vast literature in which critics, fans, academics and others dissect his books, and analyse their racist, sexist and jingoistic content. There have been several calls for them to be banned from public libraries. Yet, his works remain very popular. New editions are still being published and there are now several graphic novels to add to the Biggles canon. There are also a number of websites where fans and others can exchange news and views. Few of those who follow such matters, however, have examined the way Johns treats particular countries. Occasionally, travelogues about the Mergui Archipelago mention that it has been the setting for some of his stories but, until now, no one has looked carefully at Biggles in Burma.
BIGGLES IS NOT the only fictional adventure hero who has visited Burma. He is not even the only British aviator who went there. Characters like Red Randall and Hunter Hawk also feature in stories set in Burma. However, Biggles was easily the most popular. For that reason alone, WE Johns’s colourful descriptions of Burma’s geography and natural environment, and his unsympathetic portraits of the local inhabitants, are likely to have made an impression on hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of young readers all around the world. This was always Johns’s intention. As he once wrote:
…I give boys what they want, not what their elders and betters think they ought to read. I teach at the same time, under a camouflage… The brain of a boy is flexible, still able to absorb. It can be twisted in any direction. A born hero-worshipper, he adores his heroes, and what they do he will do, so upon the actions of his heroes will his own character be formed.
That is precisely what Johns’s detractors are afraid of.
Whether or not the descriptions of Burma and the Burmese people found in the Biggles books leave a lasting impression on their readers, and how much they may influence contemporary attitudes towards the country, must remain a subject for debate. Biggles fans would doubtless argue that, while they still remember their hero’s adventures in Burma’s jungles and swamps, they are innocent of any harmful side effects – even if, like Boris Johnson, their youthful enthusiasms may lead to the occasional gaffe.
Andrew Selth is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His most recent book is Burma, Kipling and Western Music: The Riff from Mandalay (Routledge, 2017).