The other day, in an Oxfam shop in Newcastle upon Tyne, I spotted an old book that amused me. You’d never get away with a title like Gimlet’s Oriental Quest today, which is probably for the best.
Still, there’s a part of me – a small part, mind – that’s nostalgic for boys’ tales that hark back to the British Empire. I don’t know why. As a boy in the 1970s, I recoiled from the casual racism of Battle Picture Weekly comics, in which British soldiers used to hurl grenades at the enemy while quipping: “Have a pineapple, Jap.”
I’d heard of the book’s author, Captain WE Johns, best known for the adventures of Biggles, the World War One flying ace. I’ve read none of the almost 100 Biggles children’s books, admittedly, but I have seen Peter Cushing’s last film, Biggles: Adventures in Time, made in 1986.
Gimlet, a friend on Twitter informed me, was Johns’ other franchise. A glance at Wikipedia confirmed that the hero of these 10 novels “is the dashing British commando Captain Lorrington ‘Gimlet’ King”.
Anyway, here’s the punchline. Johns wasn’t a captain at all, but did see action in the RAF in 1918. Earlier that year, while working as a flying instructor at Marske-by-the-Sea on Teesside, he almost crashed into the cliffs at Hartlepool. By my reckoning, that means he was probably within walking distance of my house. Small world!