Biggles Works It Out

Sometimes the reasons you read a book are complicated.

Sometime in 2009, my friend Harry Lonergan showed up with this book. Not really my type of book. For reasons I forget, he asked me to read it. It was a slim book, and it was hard to refuse a dying man.

Harry and I talked about books a lot, a way of gathering knowledge by osmosis. We very rarely read the same books. I mostly read science fiction and dabbled in history. He did the opposite. We’d discuss World War One when he came over — and he almost never let anybody into his messy, not quite hoarder apartment even when we lived in adjacent buildings — and he’d look through my science fiction reference books.  (He was, for instance, the only person I know who actually read the very early alien invasion novel The Germ Growers by Robert Potter.)

He had the true soul of an academic even though he only had a bachelor’s degree. (One of his prized possessions was a t-shirt from Macalester College’s history department which had a picture of Karl Marx saying, “Earn big money! Become an historian!”) He somehow managed to con several librarians into letting him take out several “reference only” titles. He’d read things like the complete Congressional inquiry into Pearl Harbor. Once, when we were discussing the Schlieffen Plan, he said, “Which one? There were about seventeen.”

Early on, this struck me as pedantry, a snobbish insistence on reading mostly primary sources. I remember one time, when I asked him in a bookstore about Robert Massie’s Dreadnought, he picked it up, scanned the bibliography, and said he’d probably read all the books in it. At the time, I thought it bragging, but, over the years and seeing the titles he would check out from the library or owned, I think he was telling the truth.

But, one day in 2003, he came over with the news he had non-Hodgkins lymphoma. We discussed, if things went badly, what to do with his library.

At first things didn’t go badly.

In fact, in 2006, it looked like he was cured. My wife and I, fulfilling a promise we had made to him, joined him on one of his expensive trips to England. (His annual vacations were paid for by a modest salary and the frugality of no car, no computer, no significant other and the occasional stunt — just to see how much it would reduce his bill — of not using any electricity for a month.)

UK readers may appreciate learning that most of that near two week vacation was spent in Worthing, the usual vacation base Harry used when visiting England.

One particularly memorable day in September 2006 involved a trip to the artillery museum at Fort Nelson in Portsmouth. That was the intended destination. But my wife and I found out that, however obsessive Harry was about many things, planning trips was not one. He had no idea where the fort was, and we just followed him on foot to where he thought it was.

Eventually, we ended up at Portchester Castle. A happy accident, interesting, glad we went … but on the other side of town. In the afternoon, we stopped at a pub, got directions, and took a cab to the fort.

We rushed through the exhibits in a couple of hours and then were kicked out of the place at closing time. Being stupid American tourists with no working cellphones, we made our way back to Portsmouth on the Portsdown Hill Road (so memory and a map lead me to label it) during rush hour. At one point, Harry, stumbling due to chemotherapy-induced neuropathy in his feet, fell in the road.

Somehow, without being killed, we made it to a local Ministry of Defence installation — which we thought had a local bus stop.

We were wrong.

While Harry and I kept our hands ostentatiously at our sides and camera pointed down and staying well back from the security fence, my wife asked the guard to call us a cab to get us back to the train station.

Portsmouth was not done giving us stories. On another day, at the Historic Dockyard,  Harry  had a bizarre encounter with a clerk in the bookstore who took offense at some question Harry asked.  Said exchange ended with, “I’m not just some bloke in a bookstore. I have a master’s degree in naval architecture!” Another employee let us know this was not the first of surly behavior from that employee.

That was vacation with Harry — the one and only time we did it because his cancer wasn’t cured. Harry was, as an oncologist told him, “one tough bastard”. He never — except when hospitalized for blood clots, missed a day of work during his chemotherapy. But the usual armamentarium  did no good in his case.

In the end, in a move that amused us both, they revived an old treatment derived from mustard gas to treat his cancer.

That didn’t work either.

2009 found him forced out of his job — mere days from qualifying for a pension. Our celebration of Edgar Allan Poe’s 200th birthday was cut short by effects of his cancer.

August of 2009 found me tending to him one night during a momentary bout of delirium. My wife and I were the main ones to watch out for him. He was alienated from his family for painful reasons, and, never the most easy person to get along with, he’d alienated other friends through final, angry letters.

We helped him clean his stuff out and gather bundles of books together for those who might want them — co-workers and doctors he had seen in his long illness.

On September 9, 2009, around 5:22 PM, we walked into his hospital room as we had for several afternoons before. Seconds before or after we entered, he died. The lines on his monitor were flat, the nurse had not yet arrived.

Nobody ever came for those books he separated out. I kept most of the World War One titles. (“You’ll have to carry the study on without me,” he once said.) Today, I sold the last ones, a massive seven volume history of the Prussian Empire and the three volume memoirs of Gideon Welles.

His estranged sister asked if Harry had ever been married having heard this from one of his ex co-workers. Perhaps it was a mischievous story Harry told once that, unexpectedly believed, he didn’t refute. Perhaps it was a blatant lie. I wasn’t there, but I’d been around when he’d done similar things. I can only assume that the good will his co-workers and acquaintances had for him in life left after these untruths were revealed.

But, he was my oldest friend, the best man at my wedding, and I miss him most every day.

Call it pity, courtesy, an attempt to find something more to share even in something as frivolous as Biggles. Those were the complicated reasons I read this book.

And I suppose, in a way, this will have to serve as a bit of a memorial to my friend until I can come up with something better.

From February 24, 2009 …

Review: Biggles Works It Out, W. E. Johns, 1951.Biggles Works It Out

Before I read this, my first Biggles book, I thought he was just something out of Jethro Tull’s album Thick as a Brick and Monty Python made up.

Biggles’ adventures started in the early 1930s and continued for 96 books. This one is from 1951, a time when the world contains a large number of abandoned airfields left over from the war. Special Air Police Captain Bigglesworth and his comrades “Ginger” Hebblethwaite and Algy Lacey are called in to investigate the robbery of gold shipment in Australia and soon find themselves on the trail of an international ring of thieves, murderers, and gold smugglers operating out of France and Algeria. One of the villains seems to be a recurring enemy of Biggles.

This is a boy’s book. The sole woman is a briefly seen waitress. There’s no sex, no explicit violence though people do get killed. Johns isn’t afraid of coincidence to drive his story nor is exposition the most gracefully handled – and there surprisingly isn’t that much aviation tech talk.

It’s a fun, quick read for kids and adults, an interesting, globehopping adventure from a time when the map of the world wasn’t as filled in and communication not as easy. And there is a nice framing metaphor about how the expansion of civilization is causing beasts and criminals to retreat to the most inaccessible parts of the world.

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