WEJ & The Power of Description

About the forum, Captain W.E. Johns and Biggles. Including samples of WEJ writing

WEJ & The Power of Description

Postby OzBiggles1963 » 10 Feb 2014, 07:40

I first read this article [written by Jim Mackenzie] in the Encyclopedia of Children's Literature [EOCL] CD from 2002, which I have found recently in a drawer & 'resurrected' on my new pc. It wouldn't 'auto-start' or open at 1st, but plays ok now...lots of info about many popular children's authors were put on this CD by Steve Holland in 2002.

One of the things I enjoy about WEJ's writing myself in many of his books is his descriptive ability, imagery & knack of transporting us to places when we close our eyes, very well explained here by Jim:

[[W.E. Johns and the power of description

By Jim Mackenzie

At the end of their book By Jove, Biggles! The Life of Captain W. E.Johns, Peter Beresford Ellis and Jennifer Schofield quote the following review from The Guardian:
“The writing is so vivid that it sticks in your mind and years after you remember it….”
The truth of this statement can easily be illustrated by running your eyes along a self of Biggles titles and letting your mind wander back to those moments of high drama that stay with you long after the story has been finished. Even some of the more undistinguished stories have scenes that are masterpieces of economical description.

Take Biggles Follows On for example, for who can forget the journey across the rooftop of Prague made by Ginger and Biggles as the Communist Police and von Stalhein close in on them.

Out through the skylight goes Ginger, “A pull and he was through, lying flat, groping desperately for a hold on the sloping roof, aghast at what he saw. A few feet below him the roof ended in a black void. From other, similar holes of darkness rose the misshapen gables of ancient roofs, with here and there a gaunt chimney pointing like a black finger at the murky sky.”
Within five lines W. E.Johns has crammed in four impressions of darkness and two sensations of there being nothing beneath Ginger to hold him up. Thin and distorted shapes are suggested by the use of “misshapen,” “sloping,” “gaunt” and “like a black finger.” The reader is now in the dark, on a slope, with weird half-seen formations looming around him. And below—nothing !
Then into this perilous world the author introduces the new element which then tightens the knot of excitement a further few turns. The tiles of the roof have been soaked by the rain and to Ginger seemed like “they might have been smeared with grease.” As he moves along inch by inch the inevitable slide begins….
Naturally Johns’ ability to describe aerial combat was what made the Biggles stories a success in the first place. However, let us take a look at one of the more unusual methods by which Biggles sends his enemy to destruction.

20 lb. CORNED BEEF
STOW AWAY FROM ENGINES

In Biggles Flies North Ginger reflects on what he is about to do.
“He had a feeling that he was mad, hoping to knock down an armed adversary with a weapon so prosaic as a box of corned beef.”
Eventually he climbs out on to the roof and launches the unusual missile into space. We too lurch forward as the box flies from his hands and we too claw frantically at the smooth fabric. In our mind’s eye we can see the square shape flying through space. With the tips of our fingers we can scrabble desperately for safety. W. E. Johns has successfully engaged both our visual and tactile senses. The master touch is the way in which he describes Ginger, as though in a trance,  re-reading the mundane words “20lb CORNED BEEF” as the deadly cube of destruction hurtles towards the enemy plane.

The images he uses to describe the impact of the box are very ordinary but have a savage clarity that belies their simplicity.
“The whole wing-tip seemed to crumple up like a piece of tissue paper, twisting back on itself like a worm under a clumsy gardener’s heel.”
Notice how he suggests the flimsiness of the materials and creates a vivid picture of the movements with  “crumple” and “twisting back” bringing out a feeling of a body contorting in pain. Very often in other stories the crashing aeroplane is like a swatted butterfly or moth whose beautiful fabric has been rent or smashed to painful destruction. Later the author depicts the falling aircraft by again suggesting both shape and movement as the canvas “balloons” and the fuselage spins. The last image is of one of the enemy “clutching vainly at the air” as he falls thousands of feet to his death.

A critic would point out that the tissue paper image is repeated to the point of cliché in many of the later stories. A severe critic would say that the downing of the enemy by means of the corned beef in Biggles Flies North is merely a repetition of the throwing of the oil drum by Algy in similar circumstances in The Cruise of the Condor. In the same way villains after being shot on more than one occasion fall to the ground like clothes slipping from coat pegs or swimmers into deep water. Such critics are missing the point. W. E. Johns’ main aim would seem to be clarity rather than variety. Remember that the cliché, if used sparingly, is often the quickest means of communication and that, in adventure stories, pace is everything. Besides, the examples quoted are really few and far between and that old ideas, reworked in new contexts, are often very effective. Ginger’s corned beef is a definite step forward from Algy’s oil drum.

So far it easy to prove that Johns can create memorable moments by economical and vivid description. Just have a quick think about the colours, shapes and sizes suggested in the WW1 stories (even the first story ever is called ‘The White Fokker’ and everyone knows about the Red Baron) and you will realise that the artist’s eye which enabled him to draw and paint so effectively has been matched by his choice of the right word or the striking image. However, to finish at this point would be to underestimate just how well this author can deploy appeals to one of the other senses.

Look again at this passage from Biggles in Africa:

“Suddenly he stiffened and his mouth grew dry with horror as a dreadful uproar broke out somewhere below him. It began with a ferocious, snarling roar that was instantly drowned in a shrill scream of mortal terror. Then came a frenzied drumming of hoofs on hard earth, punctuated with blood-curling growls. Another scream, ending in a pathetic, choking sob; then a silence that was quickly followed by a ghastly purring sound.”

You can list them for yourself—all the different noises that are evoked during the course of these few lines. Nothing is to be seen but the reader is invited to supply the pictures that go with the sounds. The context of the passage is night by a waterhole—out in the darkness are both the predators and the hunted. W.E.Johns doesn’t have to supply the details of how the lion chases the antelope, the terror of the victim and all the other grisly moments before the signs of contentment—your imagination does the work.. This is but one of the occasions when the author conjures menace out of his story by referring only to what can be heard.

The different illustrators of the stories such as Howard Leigh and Leslie Stead more often than not do a splendid job of bringing to life the author’s creations. However, how many times has a picture come to my mind of a scene from a Biggles book that seems to clear and so memorable and yet, when I return to my copy, I find that no such picture exists. It was only there in the author’s words and yet I saw it so clearly. I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to an author than that.]]
They've been working together for so long that each seems to know by a sort of telepathy when another is in trouble. One never seems to get them together. Get one & the others come after him. To give the devil his due they make a formidable team.
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Re: WEJ & The Power of Description

Postby Spitfire666 » 10 Feb 2014, 08:12

OzBiggles1963 wrote:I first read this article [written by Jim Mackenzie] in the Encyclopedia of Children's Literature [EOCL] CD from 2002, which I have found recently in a drawer & 'resurrected' on my new pc. It wouldn't 'auto-start' or open at 1st, but plays ok now...lots of info about many popular children's authors were put on this CD by Steve Holland in 2002.
...
"The different illustrators of the stories such as Howard Leigh and Leslie Stead more often than not do a splendid job of bringing to life the author’s creations. However, how many times has a picture come to my mind of a scene from a Biggles book that seems to clear and so memorable and yet, when I return to my copy, I find that no such picture exists. It was only there in the author’s words and yet I saw it so clearly. I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to an author than that."

Really good article, OzB. When I looked again at my Biggles books after maybe 10 years, I was astonished to find they did not have pictures. I had bought them out of my pocket money, some from Woolworths, I remember. The pictures in my mind were so vivid, but almost all came from WEJ's writing. The exceptions were the iconic Oxford green cover, the cover of Fails to Return where we see through an archway Ginger leading a donkey, and McConnell's lovely dustjackets for the old Regent Classics.
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Re: WEJ & The Power of Description

Postby OzBiggles1963 » 10 Feb 2014, 08:25

Spitfire666 wrote:...Really good article, OzB. When I looked again at my Biggles books after maybe 10 years, I was astonished to find they did not have pictures. I had bought them out of my pocket money, some from Woolworths, I remember. The pictures in my mind were so vivid, and they came entirely from WEJ's writing."


Absolutely! To give just one example, I have not read Flies South [1st Biggles' book for me] in nearly 40 yrs, but I can still picture many indelible images in my mind even today, for example:

1. The desolation & heat of the desert & the strange & shapes of the 'petrified forest' when Ginger gets lost [oh no, not again! :o ]

2. The amazing description of the haboob approaching in the distance from the air.

3. The fearful & terrifying account of the enormous crocodile in the 'sacrificial' pool.

4. And even the prose in the prelude, evoking the march of Cambysses' army into the desert thousands of yrs ago, never to be seen again.
They've been working together for so long that each seems to know by a sort of telepathy when another is in trouble. One never seems to get them together. Get one & the others come after him. To give the devil his due they make a formidable team.
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Re: WEJ & The Power of Description

Postby SaintedAunt » 10 Feb 2014, 10:54

What I like about WEJ's descriptions is that they are evocative but not too long! He knew when to stop :D
The corners of Biggles' mouth twitched. "It's a sad thing to grow old without learning a thing or two." [Biggles Hunts Big Game]
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Re: WEJ & The Power of Description

Postby Kismet » 10 Feb 2014, 11:50

SaintedAunt wrote:What I like about WEJ's descriptions is that they are evocative but not too long! He knew when to stop :D



Agreed. He was a phenomenal story teller.
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Re: WEJ & The Power of Description

Postby Fairblue » 10 Feb 2014, 13:36

Kismet wrote:
SaintedAunt wrote:What I like about WEJ's descriptions is that they are evocative but not too long! He knew when to stop :D



Agreed. He was a phenomenal story teller.

Yes, this goes for me, too.
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Re: WEJ & The Power of Description

Postby Inactive User 149 » 11 Feb 2014, 11:21

Yes I totally agree with these comments. It is quite noticeable in the much later books that WEJ does not write in quite the same way. I also find that some of the passages which are told from Ginger's point of view draw the reader in. Sometimes when he standing alert and tense with his eyes straining the darkness to see the enemy you just feel that you are there with him and his desperation when a situation is getting out of hand and Biggles is in danger is told with great feeling.
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