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Comic Heros – Scottish Review of Books
by Owen Dudley Edwards

Comic Heros

October 21, 2009 | by Owen Dudley Edwards

BRITISH CHILDREN’S FICTION in the Second World War is my book in Edinburgh University Press’s ‘Societies at War’ series, edited by my colleagues Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang. And the title is total. I wrote about books brought out by British publishers as a whole (Scottish publishing was stronger then than now, what with Blackie, Chambers, Nelson as well as those still with us in Scotland such as D C Thomson of Dundee). I wrote about their readers whether in British and Irish homes, or evacuated elsewhere in the archipelago. I wrote about what writers said of Scotland and the Scots whether or not they were Scots or part-Scots themselves. But the whole experience of the Blitz, in particular, was a British experience, Britain here including Northern Ireland. My heroes were the British children who suffered so much mentally and in some cases physically, and who showed so much strength of mind in weathering the storms of bombing, deprivation, dislocation, bereavement and so on. My other heroes were the authors and artists, who kept them sane.

It was a ‘British’ experience, this impact of the Second World War on the children. Britishness at that moment loomed larger than Scottishness in many Scottish minds. But it’s valuable to ask what contribution did Scottish writers make, and what images of Scots and Scotland did children get from their books and comics in World War II?

First of all, writing for children in Britain had stronger Scottish roots than any. Scot-land was a poorer country than England, and to think of yourself as Scottish gave you an investment in realism, iconoclasm, ridicule against pretension, qualities which children recognise and usually welcome. A poet finding topics in a mouse or a louse, as Burns does, is a natural inspiration for child derision at opulent ostentation. The student of D C Thomson’s Beano, Dandy, Magic, Adventure, Rover,Wizard, Hotspur, Skipper in these years will see the connection at once. Say what you like about Thomson’s comics, they were roaringly anti-snob.

Walter Scott wrote for adults, perhaps, but he laid the foundations for historical thrillers to become a staple of British children’s fiction. Scott taught how to make history fun, above all in tying it to almost tangible historical surroundings in speech, dress, environment, attitudes. He also taught the importance of reader appeal: show events through the eyes of a character more observant than consistent through whom the reader can apprehend the past and its otherwise remote great persons. His disciple Robert Louis Stevenson translated that into children’s terms by providing a child narrator, like Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island or David Balfour in Kidnapped, not necessarily for reader identification – perhaps, sometimes, for readers to displace (as Sandy Stranger replaces David in fantasising her own participation in Kidnapped, in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).

The Stevenson boy narrator operated in one context of major importance for World War II: learning to survive in a hostile environment. Here he had been preceded by R M Ballantyne in The Coral Island and elsewhere, and would be followed by the cleverest of all fantasies, J M Barrie’s Peter Pan where the book or theatre audience is virtually invited to admire the architecture of fantasy as it realises itself, again very useful for the scarce resources of wartime.

John Buchan added another dimension: urban insecurity. No doubt it was assisted by Buchan’s own half-conscious fears as he rose in English society that his hosts might yet prove smiling assassins of the prospects they apparently enhanced. Scott’s Rob Roy and Stevenson’s Catriona had both featured potentially treacherous cities (Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively) but Buchan actually anticipated the impact of Quisling and Blitz, in The Power-House where an entire London street is controlled by enemy agents, and in Mr Standfast where a World War I air-raid because of its relative rarity gets deeper scrutiny than World War II could afford time for. After Buchan died, Graham Greene in 1941 “gratefully” admitted that he “prepared us in his thrillers better than he knew for the death that may come to any of us…by the railings of the Park of the doorway of the mews. For certainly we can all see now ‘how thin is the protection of civilization’.” Storybook fears had become realities.

Naomi Mitchison in Siren Night (1940) recognised the same phenomenon:

Whoohoo go the goblins, coming back at nightfall,

Whoohoo go the witches, reaching out their hands for us,

Whoohoo goes the big bad wolf and bang go his teeth.

Are we sure that we shall be the lucky ones, the princess, the youngest son,

The third pig evading the jaws? Can we afford to laugh?

They have come back, we always knew they would, after the story ended.

Mitchison published no stories for children between 1930 and 1950. The only Scottish writer of comparable stature to hers who did was Eric Linklater. Why a writer writes a great book is often hard to determine, but in the case of Linklater’s The Wind on the Moon (1944) we can be precise: it owes its existence to the birth of his son Magnus. Linklater on leave from his War Office duties had to entertain his small daughters, and desperately spun a story. (Other major work for children had similar origins – the ‘Alice’ tales of Lewis Carroll began like that – and in World War II the Welsh writer Richard Hughes found himself creating a splendid series of short stories for the evacuees he had failed to billet elsewhere.) Linklater, like Carroll, linked his audience to his characters, the two little girls in the story becoming kangaroos at one stage, and ultimately rescuing their father from what is clearly a metaphor for Hitler, Count Hulagu Bloot, the terror of whose totalitarian rule is chillingly convincing. Hitler’s supposed liking for sweetmeats is echoed in the Count: “He likes to see people being killed, and he likes peppermint creams. He is a strange man.” The most impressive quality in the story is Linklater’s obvious self-indictment (in the self-portrait as Major Palfrey) for his excessive parental severity:

“Except for the worry you have caused your poor mother, and the waste of so much time that you might have spent with Miss Serendip [their governess], I find it difficult to blame you.”

“It would be very foolish indeed to blame them for coming to save you from Count Hulagu’s dungeon,” said Mr Corvo.

“When I was a boy,” said Major Palfrey, “I had to obey my parents in everything.”

Hitler was an openly direct target in largely tabloid comics, notably the Thomsons’ Beano, where he was perpetually worsted week after week in ludicrous duels with Lord Snooty, the firmly proletarianised aristocrat. The Beano first appeared on 30 July 1938, the Dandy on 4 December 1937, hence they grew up as war products, above all in their hard strength to endure pressures of paper shortages, wood famine, distribution crisis, bombing disruption, etc, which would kill two of the Thomson eight, the Skipper and the Magic. Dudley D Watkins’s work came into its own in the war, which rounded his characters Oor Wullie and the Broons whom he had created for the Sunday Post in 1936 as well as Snooty and (in the Dandy) Desperate Dan (whose improbably American identity was conscripted for service as a ferociously pro-British neutral until Pearl Harbor could make an honest Dan of him).

Watkins was English and it seems hardly coincidental that his Post comic strips bore names akin to the most famous English scapegrace in fiction for children, Richmal Crompton’s William Brown. The Browns were as middle-class as the Broons are working-class, William as English as Wullie is Scots, but Thomson’s may have been the most skilful manipulators of class in the entire media, well judging what class characteristics might be most popular with readers of their own class, and readers of another class. The war greatly sharpened such skills, especially as Thomsons’ print-dominated comics began to reflect the new, fierce egalitarianism growing after Dunkirk. D C Thomson’s were popularly known as the most Right-wing publishing firm in Scotland, perhaps in Britain, in the early 1970s: they may have been the most Left-wing in the early 1940s. Thomson’s were notoriously hostile to trades unions, but as early as 1940 their comics’ revolutionary content might have made organised labour fear an excess of thunder on the Left.

The Hotspur had the highest upmarket appeal among the Thomson ‘Big Five’ print comics, but by early 1940 its ‘The Schoolboy Who Condemns’ ran in serial instalments in which eleven headmasters – advocates of corporal punishment in theory and practice (‘the only way to rule boys [is] to rule them by fear’) – are lured to a ducal castle on Dart-moor whence they cannot escape or find the persecutor who flogs them, imprisons them, threatens them with Poe-like deaths and so on, Even the perennial serial story about Red Circle public school was now dominated by working-class evacuees defying the snobbish boys and masters, and defending elderly temporary teachers from persecution, such as one whose son is apparently killed in action, removing his only means of support:

“Without a job, Mr Sloop would have an awful time.”

Eggy had told his special pals and they had wondered whether they should tell the other fellows what they had discovered, but they decided against doing so.

“Most of these chaps have never been poor”, said Eggy. “They wouldn’t understand what unemployment means. They would probably still go on trying to get Mr Sloop the sack.”

After this it was hardly surprising that Thomson’s most working-class comic, the Rover, featured brave Russian Communists (after Summer 1941) running life-and-death risks in commando warfare against the Nazis in Romania. Yet none of this was as alien to the ethos of D C Thomson’s as their anti-union record might suggest. They were the best of paternalists, paying for the education and upkeep of children of journalists invalided in their employ (including victims of the journalists’ occupational hazard, alcoholism). They denounced bullying of all kinds, and their anti-snobbery themes were constant. They were not, on the whole, so unlikely a reflection of the new spirit sweeping Britain in 1940-41: in some ways they understood it better than anyone else.

Elsewhere the old public school story might seem doomed, but if World War II had less place for it, 1940 produced one of the best wartime public school stories ever written. It was the work of a master in Havilton, Glasgow Academy, B G Aston, writing as Jeffrey Havilton. Aston had been preceded in this pseudonymous life by his superior, Walter Barradell-Smith, the Senior English Teacher (as which Aston succeeded him after return from war service in October 1945). Barradell-Smith wrote 23 school novels between 1911 and 1934 as ‘Richard Bird’. Aston was born in 1902, produced his first Jeffrey Havilton book in 1928 followed by ten more up to his masterpiece, School vs Spy (1940). Blackie of Glasgow published both authors. Both of them wrote good run-of-the-mill school stories, with exceptional insights into the varying psychologies of schoolmasters. School vs Spy used the same group of schoolboys carrying the plots of Havilton’s last six, which were dominated by the adventurous, egotistical capitalist boy George, a shrewd mix of some of Frank Richard’s characters in the Greyfriars School series, but in the end George (to his fury) is sidelined in favour of the much more original Adolphus (‘Fussy’) Wilkes.

School vs Spy has memorable passages, notably a profoundly contrasting analysis of the beginnings of the First and Second World Wars, but is unmatched in its climax, where Fussy is kidnapped by a schoolmaster turned Quisling and therefore murderer, and shanghaied on a Nazi aircraft. The boy retains the moral ascendancy, and actually pities the master who has entrapped himself in dreams of a new Nazi world order, but the master’s pitiless revelation of his certainty of killing the boy in any effort to escape is a perfect parody of dry exposition of geometrical alternatives and their demolition. Fussy sees his captor kill a blackmailer, is physically sick, and subsequently little match for the master from whom he is only rescued by the classical deus ex machina when the plane is shot down and the master killed. When the author had finished his book, he went into the army. He never published another school story, retired from Glasgow Academy in 1967, and died in Glasgow in 1991.

Havilton’s identity remained a mystery for many years. Another magnificent achievement in World War II children’s fiction, Jan Maclure’s Escape to Chunking (1942), baffles pursuit to this day. The publisher, Oxford, pulped its records in the 1960s (a disgraceful action in a seat of higher learning) and we know neither sex nor age of the author, save the ghost of a Scottish origin in real surname or choice of pseudonym. Whoever s/he was, s/he knew a great deal about Japan, probably from personal experience: the book is dedicated to “S.H. who has not escaped – yet”, which sounds like a friend or lover still in Japan and possibly Japanese. It is a thriller, in which a British schoolboy with a White Russian mother and a Japanese upbringing, has to get a crucial message to the British forces in China, and in the best tradition of The Thirty-Nine Steps he becomes a series of different people, having been instructed and inspired by the Kabuki star Mazino Sozaemon III, who is opposed to the new Japanese militarism and will go to jail, and perhaps death, as the story progresses. Christopher Maddison’s adventures and identities in the repressive Japan after Pearl Harbor and in the journey across hostile lines to Chunking give him insights and affection for many different peoples, even parting with respect from the Japanese Major who nearly kills him at journey’s end. In brief, a book that knows how to love the enemy while doing all possible to defeat him.

The cutting edge of Scots-English encounter would be English child evacuation to Scotland where in reality there were enough of the usual abrasive hostilities between urban bourgeois evacuees and rural hard boys. Enid Mary Blyton was not Scots (she was part Irish, which accounts for her casual use of Irish surnames in English contexts) but her first husband, Hugh Pollock, was, and The Children of Kidillin (1940) first published as by Mary Pol-lock, turned on Scots children resenting the English cousins quartered on them during the war. It is clear that Blyton, as a Scot by marriage, bitterly resented the habitual bad English jokes about stingy Scots. Our first sight of the Scottish children is of their purchase off “bulls-eye peppermints” for the expected evacuees. Their major row producing Sandy’s “I wish you’d never come!” is answered by Tom’s bitter “When the war is over we’ll go back home. Sandy and Jeanie will be glad to be rid of us then” which actually horrifies Sandy at the thought that he was violating the laws of hospitality:

Sandy wanted to say a lot of things but he couldn’t say a word. He was ashamed of himself. After all, his cousins were his guests. How could he have said to them that he wished they had never come? What would his mother and father say if they knew? Scottish people were famous for the welcome they gave to friends.

They bury their differences in the thrill of defeating German agents, complete with submarine: Blyton, for one, knew that the ‘phoney war’ from September 1939 to April 1940 was anything but phoney in the North Atlantic. The Adventurous Four (1940), turning on Nazi penetration of remote Scottish islands, places the inevitable English bourgeois children under the leadership of a much less literate older Scots fisher-boy to whom they are devoted. (Leadership by an older, more country-wise boy, from a poorer background, makes several epiphanies in Blyton, who had read her Huckleberry Finn to some purpose.) Ethnicity makes no rivalry here, but surfaces in defiance of the Nazis:

Tom was glad to see that neither Jill nor Mary cried. Good! That would show the enemy how brave British children could be… Andy shook his fist at the disappearing ship, with the small boat bobbing behind it. “You think you can beat a Scots boy, but you can’t!”, he cried. “I’ll beat you yet! You and your submarines!”

This was a breach of the spirit of the captive Jim Hawkins defying the pirates in Treasure Island (which had about twenty editions between 1929 and 1939). In passing, the hard evidence shows that Blyton was neither racist nor snobbish, and charges that she was merely show that her critics have not read her, or read enough of her. The snobbery in fact abounds among her enemies.

English evacuees ill-at-ease in an unknown Scotland also launch Visitors from England (1941), the first book for children by the Ayrshire-born Agnes M R Dunlop, who wrote as Elisabeth Kyle. Matters begin on Blytonian lines of national conflict (“ ‘He’s Scots, so he’s likely to be an awful tough’, Peter said gloomily”), with social pretension prematurely held against the English (“La-de-da English with their fine clothes and fine manners. I wouldn’t be seen dead with such.”) and Scots concern for appearances (“they’ll see the room in the morning, she told herself as she led Margot past the sitting-room she had scrubbed and polished that morning so as to give them a good impression of Scots house-wifery”).

This is scene-setting, less dramatic than Blyton’s, but picking up as the gradations in Scots society and their consequent rivalries are brought into play. Anglo-Scots prickles are better flaunted when young Scots characters visit Peter and Margot in London, and make rather more of the impact of war, in The Seven Sapphires (1944):

“No doubt the English are as kindhearted as anyone else, once you get behind their faces…”

Its story necessitates reader inspection of bomb damage, particularly among stained-glass windows, some of which have survived:

“Who’s yon man wearin’ a crown?” Walter demanded. “And why’s he egging on thae fellies wi’ the swords in their hands?’

“Don’t you remember the story of Herod and the Innocents?” Margot said. “You know, when King Herod was told that a greater king than himself was born, and he ordered all the Jewish babies to be killed – ”

“Like Hitler”, Walter said, awed.

The analogy might recur to anyone today since to us the first thing we should think of regarding World War II is the holocaust, the martyrdom of Jews, gays, gypsies, Slavs, etc. In fact, when Kyle wrote that it was a rare allusion in British children’s fiction, which said less and less about the sufferings of the Jews as the war continued.

School stories for girls survived into the war in more robust abundance than those for boys, and here we might expect Scottish penetration of England’s green and pleasant land. Since Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series was published by Chambers of Edinburgh (though she herself was from Durham and Yorkshire roots), it was likely to recruit Scots pupils once the Nazis had driven the Chaletians (to Wales, in fact) from the continent (in very fine, realistic books, savagely describing and indicting anti-Semitic brutality). The Highland Twins at the Chalet School (1942) produced what English children’s fiction conventions regarded as Scots at their Scotmost: island girls (laird class, naturally) hitherto unacquainted with the mainland, let alone England, Gaelic their first language, with much multiplication of ‘s’ sounds in English. Brent-Dyer was a Roman Catholic convert, and quite exceptionally ecumenical for her time, but she neither suggested a Catholic island nor hinted at Wee Free Presbyterianism, the most likely sectarian candidates for the little girls’ religious allegiance. They fit into the Protestantism of the school majority, but the story makes it very clear that their deepest instincts were pagan: Flora (and her brother in the RAF) are implacable avengers of family wrongs, and Fiona has visions – or attacks – of the second sight. In one of these she sees the death of a brother in the navy:

“It wass Hugh”, sobbed Fiona. “He iss dead, Flora, dead! He wass in a little boat with sefen others, and a big ship came above the water and shot them with a gun that went rat-tat-tat-tat! The boat filled with water and she was gone, too. Oh, Flora – Flora!”

The twins are also given to telling stories of their ‘McDonald’ ancestors’ revenge on Campbells so we are ready for:

Archie McDonald, filled with the fire that had inflamed his young ancestor three centuries before, showed such reckless daring during the night raids over Germany, that he was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, when all he was thinking about was revenge for the cowardly slaying of his brother.

That was an old theme in battle fiction, so much so that Captain W E Johns satirically featured pilots transformed into dare-devils when the Germans bomb their flowers, goldfish, or pet pigs, and mixed comedy successfully with pathos, at least in the pig plot. But the ethnicity of vengeance is rare among whites in the fiction of World War II (Johns applies it to Chinese whose fathers are killed in Biggles Delivers the Goods (1946) and to Malays whose families are butchered in Biggles in Borneo (1943), the latter case highlighting a spectacular suicide to ensure massive sabotage of Japanese troop movements).

Fiona McDonald’s use of the supernatural is another matter, and takes a dangerous turn when the series heroine Jo fears her husband has been killed: instead of the second sight happening involuntarily, it is induced. Roman Catholic doctrine is hostile to spirit experiments (for fear of their unleashing diabolic forces) and in the story the Catholic Miss Wilson is absolutely against it but it over-ruled by her headmistress, who is Anglican. Fiona reports that Jo’s husband is alive, and so he proves to be. Children’s fiction in the Second World War made little use of the supernatural (unless one wants to include Dennis Wheatley, who is in fact not a children’s author so much as a childish one). But the implication is clear. Scottish paganism throws its weight into the Allied scales. It is linked with Christian phenomena (the Head seeks to console Jo by reading St John’s gospel account of the raising of Lazarus) but Miss Wilson’s hostility to use of the second sight shows that Brent-Dyer felt no doubt about what was being invoked, and intended none. Scots belong in part to an older world.

Angela Brazil was near the end of her life in World War II, but she gallantly continued to pour out schoolgirl fiction, and while she did not make much use of Scotland, The School in the Forest (1944) had the headmistress, Miss Elliott, tell a horrific tale of the Marquis of Huntly avenging the slaying of one of his Gordon clansmen by massacring the Far-quharsons responsible and making their orphaned children live like pigs (citing Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather for comparable anecdotes). But it is not irrelevant to the war:

“Oh, how dreadful! Do these things happen now in the occupied countries and Russian villages?” asked Maud. “Something of the sort, I’m afraid, especially to Jewish children. We must send all we can to help them, through the Red Cross.”

Brazil certainly deserves credit for even a glancing reference to the sufferings of the Jews, albeit an early seventeenth-century Scottish precedent for Nazi atrocities is a hard sermon to thole. The headmistress’s name is well-chosen: Elliotts of the Border country were unlikely to think too kindly of Gordons, whether on the Borders or among the Grampians.

Brazil and Brent-Dyer necessarily wrote about a story-book Scotland. Dorita Fairlie Bruce passionately identified with the land of her ancestry, ultimately migrating to Ayr-shire, and domiciling two heroines from different series in Scotland for their final, wartime, and adult, appearances. Dimsie Carries On (1942) mainly uses Scotland for landscape, with comic Kailyard effects, eg a landlady’s profiteering from telephone:

“The ludgers aye like tae ken they hae a holt on the ootside world, so to speak”, she explained, “and they never grudge the wee bittie extry for their ca’s. Forbye, there’s no mony hooses in Lochside wi’ a tellyphone, and it kin’ o’ gies me a standin’ amang the neebours.”

The German spies prove comparatively easy to pick off after the wear and tear to which they are subjected by this sort of thing. But Nancy Calls the Tune (1944) entered much more thoroughly into the social pressures of wartime Scotland, in this case via the organist who realises that the Church of Scot-land minister into love with whom she is rapidly falling, is imperilled professionally by a pacifist brother:

“…You have trained me, during the last few months while I have been working for you, to put the church before most things; if the minister’s brother is caught by the military police lurking in the organ-loft to escape service, it will do more harm to the South Kirk than a stick of incendiaries through the roof. For any sort of scandal to touch a church – “

“I know! I know!” groaned Angus. “What do you suppose I had [have?] had at the back of my mind for the last three weeks? It’s the selfish outlook, of course, but – if Gordon gets taken, it means resigning my charge, and going away heaven knows where! How could I stand up in that pulpit and preach to a congregation who knew I couldn’t save my brother from being a renegade, and that I had used church premises to conceal him?”

Fairlie Bruce may have been impressively recording local attitudes including complete indifference to the possibility that the pacifist brother may be reflecting an unquestionable although not unanimous Christian tradition. But it is clear that these are above all her own views, and as such are noteworthy. The crisis is resolved when the degenerate brother sees the effects of a blitz, which turns him into an enthusiastic belligerent, for all of the evidence it might felt to offer for the pacifist cause. It marks one break with the previous war, in which Buchan in Mr Standfast made a pacifist a secondary hero, thus very cleverly conscripting him for the Allied cause however non-violently he serves it. Above all, Buchan made his pacifist utterly contemptuous of any attempts to recruit his beliefs inthe enemy interest, where Fairlie Bruce could hardly have been ruder about her pacifist if he had actually been a Nazi agent.

Series held their public: Victor Watson’s Reading Series Fiction (2000), the indispensable introduction to the subject, takes off on his memory of a child telling him that “reading the latest book in a series which you already know is like going into a room full of friends”. A Scottish theme hardly asserts itself if it has not come naturally from the tried and tested author – through marriage (like Bly-ton), or ancestry (like Fairlie Bruce), or publishers’ location (like Brent-Dyer), or nationality (like Elisabeth Kyle). But in a war like World War II where morale on the Home Front was vital, since so much of the war was happening there, some series writers felt the need to make sure as many kinds of British children as possible should find representative figures with whom to identify. Thus Captain W E Johns staffed Biggles’s squadron with Welsh and Scots, Cockney and Scouse. His short stories about them often cannibalised earlier tales of Biggles himself, as for instance in his story of the Scot whose plane is crashed by a bull, and whose very name, Angus Mack-ail, literally means Cabbageson, suggests Johns laughing at his own artificiality.

Dudley D Watkins, as an Englishman living and working in Dundee, was on much safer ground when transforming Richmal Cromp-ton’s William’s “Crumbs!” into Oor Wullie’s “Crivvens!” But Johns knew his Scotland, and his World War II work ultimately found a Scotsman where he was needed. Johns had long been an enthusiast for women’s success in the air, and shared women pilots’ contempt for male dislike of their rivalry or fears for their safety. Ultimately he met the wartime demand for stories of a woman pilot by serialising in the Girl’s Own Paper and then bringing out in hard covers his Worrals of the W.A.A.F. (1941). The Worrals series was forcefully feminist, openly scorning the pusillanimity of the higher command when it came to defying male prejudice and asserting female equality. But apart from the obvious butt in Worrals’s young man who is perpetually reminded of his inferiority and refused any substantial gratification, Worrals’s early adventures are initially inhibited by the authoritarian patriarchy of her station commander, whose accent becomes increasingly ‘Scotch’ when “something serious is afoot”. Johns could now graduate from the habitual opening of Biggles stories in which the Higher Command is telling him to do something at the risk of his life: patriarchy begins Worrals Flies Again (1942), for instance, by trying to prevent her undertaking the crucial mission.

“Now listen, my gal”, growled the C.O., in what Worrals knew was intended to be a confidential whisper. “I shouldn’t have come over here, but I wanted to give ye a spot of advice. There’s a feller in my office wantin’ to see ye – one of those Intelligence people from the Ministry. He’s got a scheme which, no doot, he thinks is clever, but which to me sounds completely daft. Don’t ye take it on. Let him work his own schemes.”

“What is this scheme, sir?” enquired Worrals smoothly.

“He’ll tell ye that himself. I can’t refuse to let him put it up to you, but dinna do it. Mebbe I shoudna say it, but a wise soldier never volunteers for anything. He gets nothing if things go right, and all the kicks if they go wrong.”

“Perhaps I’d better hear what this Officer has to say, Sir,” returned Worrals noncommittally.

“Of course – of course. But dinna take anything on. Tell him ye’ve got a sick grandmother – “

“But I haven’t got a grandmother”, interrupted Worrals reproachfully.

“Make it an aunt, then – an uncle – anybody, if ye must be so particular. Who do these confounded people think they are, coming down here and upsetting my establishment?”

This is a good-humoured way of showing the first pitfall in a woman pilot’s path, viz some man trying to stop her being a woman pilot, an obstacle bound to produce its variations at every stage. But there is another layer to John’s meaning. In World War I he himself was sent out on missions which were illegal under international law, punishable by firing squad, and he never forgot or forgave the Higher Command’s readiness to pronounce him and so many others like him, expendable. Squadron-leader McNavish is male chauvinist: but he clearly wants to preserve Worrals’s life, thus showing a more human heart beneath the required gruff exterior than Johns had known. The very absurdity as well as applicability of his truisms make his meaning obvious. Johns is proclaiming feminism, but he is also making it clear that his supposed embodiment of masculine prejudice is what English writers often saluted in the Scots – honesty and humanity.

Hence the notion of a deceitful, cruel Scot becomes a kind of blasphemy. Kathleen Fidler’s radio play, Fingal’s Ghost, subsequently novelised (1945) climaxed on the minister’s housekeeper denouncing Nazi agents who had tried to kill the customary interfering children:

Elspeth stood up with dignity and advanced with a threatening mien towards Peter McQueen, who backed a step or two till he was gripped by the strong hands of the bluejackets.

“It is jist this, Peter McQueen. If anything had happened to my little lassie, I woudna’ hae rested, neither here nor in my grave, till I’d brocht punishment on ye. Traitor and coward that ye are, ye’re no fit tae be called a man, when ye mak’ war on helpless bairns. ’Tis no Scotsman ye are, tae dae the like, nay, nor nodecent Englishman either! ’Tis mair like the German devils ye herd wi’. And it gies me the greatest pleasure to pluck at your glaring red beard and ca’ ye a German!”

With that Elspeth tweaked at McQueen’s red beard. McQueen put up his hands to his face, but Elspeth tweaked again. Suddenly the beard came away in her hand! Startled she fell back and McQueen clapped his hand to his rough black chin.

“Good heavens! Hans Danckner!” cried the Commander. “The man the Navy have been hunting for in every port!”

“Do you mean a German?” asked Elspeth sharply.

“He is, madam. And a dangerous one, for he has lived many years in this country as a spy.”

“Then, thank Heaven, he’s a German. I was richt! It went tae ma soul tae think yon image o’ a man was a Scotsman! I micht hae known he was ower vile!” declared Elspeth in triumph. “Lurking in Ulva and ca’ing himself an Islander. The shame o’ it!”

Fidler was English by birth, a Headmistress by profession, and by now on the authors’ panel for Schools Broadcasting in Scotland since 1938. (Scottish broadcasting during the dark days of World War II seems Eldorado by comparison with what has been left us since it was reserved to Westminster after devolution.)

These are some clues to the image of Scot-land given to British children in World War II. It was overall largely English-made. Its writer of greatest genius, Eric Linklater, produced a fine novel for children in The Wind on the Moon, but not one likely to suggest Scotland to its readers for all of the success he had had in adult work in bringing Scotland to vigorous and hilarious fictional life, notably in Magnus Merriman. The Wind on the Moon is Ruritanian at its climax when rescuing Father from Count Hulagu Bloot, although it is clear that Germany is intended: but in general the novel is fantasy with the reader being left to make what earthly analogies he or she may.

In general, writers for children born or resident for many years in Scotland seem to have been more at ease with England as the stage for their action. Scotland was in some ways too dangerous to write about: in a smaller literary world, too many people knew each other to prevent suspicions as to the real-life bases of many portraits. Great Scottish writers such as Fred Urquhart and Bruce Marshall were producing stories about children but not for them. When the war was ten years over, Allan Campbell McLean would begin to publish some of the best stories about Scotland for children since Conan Doyle and Stevenson, followed by Joan Lingard a few years later. But at the moment it was primarily England’s Scotland that the children were given – more primitive, more outspoken, more bloodthirsty, more historically conscious than England – and, as Enid Blyton pointed out, capable of providing the English with courageous and careful leaders.

But Scots writers, readers and subjects (as far as children’s fiction in World War II are concerned) shared with the English the prevailing insistence on comedy and courage. They were going to win. And they were going to find it fun, whatever happened.

Owen Dudley Edwards
Edinburgh University Press: £150. 00
ISBN: 0748616519

From this Issue

Man of the Folk

by Ray Burnett

Blog / Discussion

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