The Illustrated London News, 7th March, 1959
JOHN F. C. WESTERMAN
|bc||JOHN F. C. WESTERMAN was a popular and well-known
boys' author who wrote for BOP and Chums in the 1920s and
1930s. He also edited a number of omnibus editions for
Oxford University Press and wrote at least thirty full
length stories for boys, mostly about flying but some in
a school series. His most famous character was
undoubtedly John Wentley, the intrepid airman and
PERCY F WESTERMAN was born in Portsmouth in 1876 and died on the 22nd February, 1959. Between those two dates he wrote at least 174 books, most of them about adventures on land, sea and in the air. Amongst his series heroes were Standish of the Air Police, Cadet Alan Carr of the Merchant Navy , and Lieutenant John Cloche. During the First World War Percy Westerman it was believed served in the Navy and in the Royal Flying Corps. The Second World War saw him "do his bit" as a member of the Dorset Home Guard..
The exact relationship between these two writers has proved to be a matter of some dispute among various experts. In "The Men Behind Boys' Fiction" Lofts and Adley do not make any connection between the two Westermans. In Peter Hunt's "Children's Literature: An Illustrated History" he says that John F.C. Westerman is Percy's brother. Most convincingly, however, a reply to a reader's inquiry in "Book and Magazine Collector" declares that John Francis Cyril Westerman was the son of Percy F. Westerman and he was born in 1901. The compilers of this page would welcome any further biographical detail that could be supplied on either of these two writers.
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Percys writing career began as a result of a sixpenny bet with his wife that he could write something better than the story he was reading to his son (John) whilst that other future young author was confined to bed with chicken-pox. Percy won his bet when his first book A Lad of Grit was published in 1907. He later signed a life-time contract with Blackie, the publishers. John comments that his father had a frame on the bulkhead of his barge, where the majority of his near 200 books were written, announcing that he was Blackies Bondman. During the 1939-45 War, still aboard the barge, he commanded a Company of the Home Guard.
Intriguingly the letter ends with J.F.C. Westermans signature and the address is Yacht Rose Marie care of the General Post Office, Gibraltar. Further details about John F.C. Westerman would be welcomed.
John Wentley An
Alternative Biggles ?
The secret invention is that of "unlimited power" and, of course, the writer of this article is not going to reveal it, so you can enjoy reading about the consequences yourself. In spite of the rather fantastical nature of the plot, there are many episodes to intrigue you in this first book. John undertakes a special journey to Cape Town in South Africa carrying a consignment of jewels. As you might expect, nothing quite goes as planned, though the main thrill of the storyline actually comes in Westerman's description of John's attempt to land on the Planet of Orion's flight deck in the middle of a thunderstorm rather than from the details of his antics to outwit the potential robbers.
Earlier in the book there is a superb comic touch when the author allows Bill Wentley to indulge in a piece of wish-fulfillment. Denied the right to build a garage by a petty bureaucrat, Bill uses his "unlimited power" at a Council meeting, packed with a bunch of the local pompous big-wigs. He not only gets his way he gets a signed apology. Older readers will know that this climb down by politicians and officials is actually a treasure rarer than rubies !
Foiling the local council may seem an unusual topic for a boy's adventure book but this doesn't mean that Westerman neglects the more conventional episodes. There are plenty of cockpit battles, aerial combats and mid-air tricks with parachutes. The picture on the accompanying dust-jacket does a good job of representing the flavour of the novel.
John has all the qualities of a hero. He is brave, determined, capable of remarkable feats of endurance and is totally incorruptible. Most important of all, he has a side-kick with whom he can share the perils and discuss the options. John's friend and later partner is George Teuter. He is a man of independent means who can talk quite casually of buying an aeroplane. Suspected at first of being a spy, George proves to be a valuable ally in an emergency. John himself shows his capacity for disguise and working undercover and, like Biggles, he has the same scruples about deceiving people. A true summary of this first adventure would have to point out how the plot creaks with many implausibilities but how the action moves along at a cracking pace.
"John Wentley Investigates" opens with our hero and George Teuter now in business for themselves as independent aeroplane consultants, ready to fly anywhere and do anything. To a certain extent they appear to be operating along the same lines as Biggles and Co. Their first investigation takes John back to the Star and Planet Line company because of the disappearance of three of the planes of that airline and the near wrecking of two of their mailboats. As soon as he begins to investigate the opposition begin their attacks on him.
First of all his property is set on fire and then there is a parachute attack by night on his home aerodrome. As you can see, John F.C.Westerman certainly believes in making his plots accelerate quickly. Once again, however, the main planks of the plot depend upon elements that are more science fiction than realistic possibilities.
Both "Biggles Sweeps the Desert" and "No Rest for Biggles" depend upon magnetic rays being thrown into the air to capture or divert overflying aeroplanes. The same device pops up in T.C.Bridges' "Wings of Adventure". Who can blame Westerman, then, when John Wentley ends up captured by the same method ? On the other hand we can certainly blame Bill Wentley, the inventor elder brother, when, for the second story running, one of his ideas is stolen and then put to criminal use by unscrupulous crooks ! On the other hand, there are marvellous crashes and interesting aerial scraps to read about. Even the fact that the enemy organisation is called the "Hovering Eagle" and the way it issues preposterous and ominous threats is compensated for by its agents popping everywhere along John's escape route, rather like a Kafka nightmare. It is interesting to remember "Biggles Works it Out" has Algy and Bertie trapped at the crook's African base in much the same way that John and George are cornered in a remote part of the Cape.
Without doubt "John Wentley Wins Through", the third and final story in the series, is the best of the trilogy.
Secret agents are always called Smith and you can never be quite sure which side they are working for. Flights to the centre of Europe, particularly towards rather unfriendly countries that border Germany, are always fraught with peril. Even with John and George on full alert, they keep meeting more than they bargained for.
This time the science fiction element drops out and the production of a monoplane with a special (and concealed) supercharged system of engine power is the furthest that the reader has to strain his imagination. Getting to their destination proves straightforward; getting back to England turns into an ordeal. For the third time the two heroes have to fight their way out of many tricky situations, encounter many characters who aren't what they might seem and use every last trick in their conjuring book to come through. A crash on the side of the Swiss mountains is just the first of many disasters that overtake them. It may be just one long chase but it is an enjoyable one.
Overall, then, the strength of the John Wentley books lies in the writer's ability to describe interesting action sequences. Neither the villains nor the heroes develop much as individual personalities and there is no sense of anything other than black and white in the morality that is portrayed. It would also be impossible to say what John or George ("a cheery-looking fellow of about his own age") looked like. The plots won't stand up to close scrutiny and the scientific elements, though interesting, look all the more ludicrous some 60 to 70 years after they were written. At his best J.F.C. Westerman, however, generates a frenetic pace that makes you forget about all the above mentioned flaws.
More Air Adventures of J.F.C. Westerman
Have you ever considered the possibility of an invisible aeroplane ? What would be the advantages ? What would be the disadvantages ? Even today in the 21st century, it is not likely to cross most people's minds that such a thing could exist. Imagine approaching the artist who is to illustrate John F.C. Westerman's latest book with his instructions. "By the way, Terence, you have to draw an invisible aeroplane." Yes, the artist is Terence Cuneo, the famous creator of posters on the London Underground and the illustrator of "Biggles in the Jungle".
Ah, but it's not quite as straightforward as that. The fuselage, wings, and tail of the aeroplane may be made of the invisible material but the engine, landing wheel tyres and the pilots are not. Take a look at the frontispiece of "The Invisible 'Plane" and you will see what I mean. Seeing men in lounge suits, sitting in chairs in mid-air must have had Mr. Cuneo chuckling even as he drew it. Now, visualise being the pilot of such a plane. Your first problem is to find your way into it. How do you manage to climb up when you have no idea where to put your feet ? Next, how do you know where the ends of your wings are so you can manipulate it out of the hangar where you keep it ? The solution, of course, is simple. Don't tell me you didn't think of it you just tie coloured ribbons to the ends of the wings.
The rest of the book is simply an adventure story woven around this extraordinary concept. The enemy are smugglers who see the invisible aeroplane as an ideal way of getting contraband into Britain from France. The heroes are called Billy and George and John and Peter. There are dog-fights over the south coast and the Channel and the crooks are controlled by a mysterious chief. Best of all is every schoolboy's dream the confrontation between the awful boss and the young hero is something they can replicate in the comfort of their own home or try out on their teacher in the classroom. Yes it is a "who can stare the other out" competition.
"He steeled his nerves and waited calmly. He would not be the one to tire first; instead he looked straight into the eyes of a man who was sitting at a table right ahead of him, determined that he would cause those eyes to waver first."
A few minutes later the boss is ready to crack. "He was realising that the other was beginning to dominate his will. Unless something happened quickly to break the spell, he would be finished as leader and organizer of the vast international gang under him."
You always wondered what it took to be an international mastermind, didn't you ?
Never trust your relations would seem to be a good motto for the heroes in John F.C. Westerman stories. Either they let the crooks get hold of your inventions like Bill Wentley in the John Wentley stories, or like Jill Merston, the hero's sister in "The Invisible 'Plane", they end up kidnapped. On the other hand perhaps Jill is better off away from her brother for life for her seems to be an endless round of cooking meals and waiting for him to come home. "A Mystery of the Air" ends up with an even more surprising relative mystery which, if revealed here, would spoil the story. Once again a form of secret ray that disables engines is at the back of the puzzle to be probed. When you discover that one of the characters is called Sir John Weston you are forced to wonder if the John and the W. part of Westerman's initials appearing in many of the stories was an unconscious slip or part of a running joke. In "The Looted Gold" the central character is called Hugh Francis and you are left wondering when Cyril will join the role call of honour taken by the different parts of his name.
To discuss the plots of "The Looted Gold" or "A Mystery of the Air" would take up too much space. Sufficient to say they are widely differing stories in many ways. The action in the former moves from South Africa to Antarctica whereas the latter stays strictly within the English and French region. The villain and his twisted motivation in the gold robbery story is developed in some detail whereas the antagonist in the air mystery story is a concealed surprise. Both contain descriptions of extraordinary aeroplane technology, including gas-filled aircraft and almost atomic weaponry. Both deploy action sequences which are really quite gripping and John F.C. Westerman handles combat in the air material with impressive style and verve.
It would be fair to conclude that this author is not really a rival for W.E.Johns in terms of aeroplane adventures. He strays too often into the area of impossible technology and appears to have little concern for the human element. He is certainly interesting to read, if only to take note of the many different ways it is possible to approach the "air adventure".
The Aero-Contract by John F C Westerman
The story revolves around a race to build a "superplane" and most of the action consists of the heroes attempts to foil all kinds of industrial espionage carried out by their rivals. The good guys are Peter Welvern, his cousin Don Welvern, and an old schoolfriend - Flight Commander John Fuller, R.N.
The early chapters take place aboard a boat and these are really good, the next few take place at the aeroworks factory and are equally intriguing in a detective fiction kind of way. The last chapters consist of the air race from England to Sydney, Australia, (flying at 95,000 feet and at 1,200 miles per hour!) and bring this fast paced yarn to a fitting climax.
On the evidence of this novel, it must be said that Westerman Jr. was a better writer than old Percy, certainly in terms of packing far more into his stories and creating at least moderately convincing characters. He does strain coincidences to near breaking point, but that is forgivable in a children's story, and he has inherited his dad's habit of creating wonderful but not very believable new aeroplanes that can land on a sixpence.
On the other hand, the dialogue in this book is far more natural and plausible than any that I have read in his father's books. In 'The Aero-Contract' there is a pleasant absence of "he's not playing the game", "let's have tiffin now, old boy", " that's top-hole, old chum!" and numerous similar Woosterisms that tend to permeate Westerman Sr.'s books.
All in all, I found this an enjoyable read and it was interesting to trace where John F.C. Westerman emulated his more famous father and where he cut his own path and ended up surpassing the senior writer. #
Percy F.Westerman was born in Portsmouth in 1876 and died on the 22nd February, 1959. Between those two dates he wrote at least 174 books, most of them about adventures on land, sea and in the air. During the First World War he served in the Navy and in the Royal Flying Corps. The Second World War saw him do his bit as a member of the Dorset Home Guard.
In his early days his prodigious output kept several publishers ticking over at once : Pearsons, A.C. Black, Nisbet, Jarrolds, Pilgrim Press, Chapman and Hall, Partridge, the Religious Trust Society, Oxford University Press, Seeley, and Ward Lock. His first book A Lad of Grit was published by Blackie in 1908 and with that firm he maintained a career-long relationship. Eventually all the other publishers fell away and from 1929 onwards all his creations seem to be channeled through the Blackie publishing house, ending with Mistaken Identity in 1959.
If his publishers were many then his illustrators were legion at least 43 can be identified from the long list of his books ! Some lasted up to periods of 20 to 30 years and some illustrated only one book. The three whose names occur the most often are E.S.Hodgson, who illustrated some of the very first and who was still going in 1933, W.E.Wigfull and Rowland Hilder. It is fascinating to find that Terence Cuneo, responsible for illustrations on Biggles in the Jungle, also illustrated some of Percy F.Westermans mid-career efforts.
Phew ! Just imagine if you decided to collect them all ! Somebody out there will be trying. Somebody may have succeeded.
As you can detect from the above titles there are several threads running through Percy F.Westermans output. One of these concerns the Merchant Navy, and, in particular, the firm of Whatmough and Duvant who own and run the Golden line of ships. Golden Gain, Golden Gleaner, Golden Hope, Golden Dawn and Golden Vanity are just some of the vessels that feature in this series. Let us take a closer look at one story in this series and identify some of the typical features of Westermans sea yarns.
Chums of the Golden Vanity was first published in 1927 and is the story of two teenage lads and their misadventures at sea. Geoff Ensor and Bernard Woodward were due to go on a sailing holiday on a twelve ton yawl, the Norna. Unfortunately, as they wait on the Greenbank Steps in Falmouth, news comes through that the owner of the Norna has met with a motoring accident and so the trip has to be called off. Desperately disappointed at this unexpected change in their plans, the two lads leap at the chance of sailing the Arran Dhu round to the Solent. The owner of the Arran Dhu has urgent business in London and so he is prepared to let the boys make the voyage to Cowes on their own. As the lads brace themselves for the challenge, Percy F. Westerman lets the reader know just exactly the sort of difficulties they are getting themselves into.
As usual troubles come in threes. Firstly, Mr. Gordon, the apparently kindly owner who appears to have rescued their holiday, is a shady financial operator who would be just as glad if he never saw the Arran Dhu again. In fact he would make a packet out of the insurance. Secondly, none of the normal hardy Falmouth sailors would take a risk by sailing in such a stiff and uncooperative ship. Thirdly, and perhaps fatally, the weather in the offing is not as calm and placid as it seems. Having set his scene effectively, the author then storms into a series of vivid action sequences, gradually increasing the pace as things get worse and worse for the two would-be sailors. Without doubt the main tension lies with the plight of the two boys, sailing in the Channel in a night full of summer squalls. A hard easterly begins to blow and the dinghy, their only lifeline to safety, is carried away. Even more dramatic news is to follow.
Whats that ? asked Bernard. Before his chum could reply, the whole yacht quivered. She seemed to leap bodily in a vertical direction for at least six inches.
The yacht had dropped its keel. It lies there flat on its beam ends and the whole world of Geoff and Bernard is not so much turned upside down as smashed on to its side. The scenes in the cabin as the water seeps through the portholes and the scenes on deck as the two lads struggle to cut away the mainmast with a flimsy hacksaw and pair of knives are amongst the best that Westerman ever wrote. Things get increasingly perilous and then the Golden Vanity arrives !
Already the strengths and weaknesses of the authors writing have been laid before us. He has an intimate knowledge of the sea and can describe with total credibility the conditions to be faced and the tasks that must be done. Unfortunately a lot of his characters appear to have been developed from the world of cliché. The villain in particular is a shifty Russo-Polish immigrant to England and the boys are stock British types for example , Geoff was typically Anglo-Saxon in appearance, with fair complexion and straight, close-cropped flaxen hair.
Once aboard the Golden Vanity the pace of the story shifts drastically and the number of characters expands to take in the ships officers, the cadets of the cuddy and the men of the forecastle. Now Westerman also begins to paint on a broader canvas as he engages in another storytellers trick. The narrative splits to follow both the progress of the chums on the Golden Vanity and the doings of the rascally owner,Mr. Gordon, and the newspaper reporter who finally brings him to justice.
As the full-rigged ship reaches and tacks its way across the Atlantic Ocean, it gradually turns into a more normal Whatmough and Duvant Golden line adventure. The plot line is simple a boy leaves home (usually a middle-class one) joins a Golden ship, sails on a voyage where he encounters a series of adventures, and then returns home, grown both in stature and in character. Golden Gleaner, (Blackie 1948) for instance , follows this development precisely.
Each book offers both security and a measure of the unknown. In some ways it is like the public school story gone to sea. First there is the world of the boys or the cadets in the cuddy. They are divided into Port and Starboard watches just like houses in a public school. The chief cadet stands in the position of the prefect. Amongst the cadets there are the usual bullies and jokers, cowards, thieves, heroes and new boys. Belonging and being accepted are vitally important. A code of honour prevents slackers and cheats from being reported to higher authority. The ships officers are the teachers and the dispensers of punishment and reward. Their characters vary as much as the cadets beneath them, though they are united by a common background and a sense of belonging to an elite class. Crusty old captains often turn a blind eye when they remember their high jinks when they were cadets. The deck hands represent both the domestic staff of the school or the working class people of the local town or village where the school is situated.
extend the comparison further is valuable for it opens up
one of the qualities of Percy F.Westermans writing
that surely made him a success from year to year. The
same characters keep coming back from book to book,
though sometimes the main character in one story plays a
lesser role in another. More importantly they move up the
hierarchy from cadet to fourth officer and so on until
they make captain. It really is like an elaborate old
boys network that the reader is part of. As he
moves to the next story in the series he is conscious of
a continuity, of a settled system that works with
fairness and justice. It is possible to track the
progress of old friends even without reading the books.
Take a look at Alan Carr in the titles of the lists
Another public school feature is the proliferation of nicknames with the ordinary time-honoured Dusty Miller and Chalky White supplemented by such new creations as Fiery Cross, Uncle Pledge and Aussie Carr.
There is even a rival shipping line (which is like a rival school), The Bluebird with which cadets and deckhands regularly are in dispute and sometimes enjoy friendly rivalry. In fact, to rejoin the Golden Vanity for a moment, there is a race between that ship and the Bluebird into the harbour at Rio. To his credit, Westerman allows the Golden Vanity to lose and then the crew give their opposition three rousing cheers. (Just like the end of school rugger match.)
Incidents on board ship range from the trivial to the life-threatening. Two cadets skylarking end up spread-eagled one under and one across a table. They each hold the other by the stocking feet and the situation seems deadlocked. Then Davis, the cheeky Welshman, tries tickling the seniors cadets feet. As Westerman remarked it was like tickling a slab of leather. However, Davis himself proves vulnerable and has to concede. All is dissolved into good humour and the camaraderie of the cadets quarters. Shortly afterwards, aloft in the rigging of the mizzen mast, it is Davis who, with lightning reflexes, catches the youngest cadet, Merrifield, as he loses his grip and plummets towards his certain death on the deck far below. By good teamwork the situation is recovered.
An interesting psychological ploy is then put to work, for Captain Corbold orders the cadets to get back to their stations and complete the required sail adjustments. The cadets curse him for a cold, unfeeling brute. However, he later explains about how he did for it their sake. If they had come down so soon after a big scare like that, then they would have lost their nerve for working on high for good. They know he is right. In short, Westerman on this occasion gives convincing action, simply described and a character observation that rings true.
Life in Percy F. Westermans Mercantile Marine can never be dull for no sooner are they ashore in Rio than they run foul of an irate mob at a restaurant where Geoff Ensor assaults the proprietor of a dog act for animal cruelty. A pitched battle on the harbourside gives the impression that the city is filled with vicious thugs ready to pounce on the unwary sailor. The voyage home is punctuated by an unexpected hurricane in the West Indies, a fire on board ship, third officer Peter Kelso falling overboard and the rescue of an American millionaires luxury cruise ship. No wonder Bernard and Geoff decide to make their careers in the Merchant Navy when the life is so action-packed.
Joseph Conrad, the supreme novelist of the sea, who wrote the classic Nostromo, Lord Jim and Typhoon, dealt with serious themes of loyalty and trust, betrayal and duty, love and loss. In particular he liked to discuss the shadow line between youth and manhood and the ways in which his characters cross the invisible line. Percy F.Westerman more modestly takes boys from their homes and shows the experiences that made them into men. His knowledge of ship routines, sailing in small and large boats, and the landfalls and harbours of the world seems faultless. His views of character, particularly his opinion of foreigners, is at times simplistic, occasionally offensive and very often reactionary. However, it would be a shame to neglect such a good storyteller for his sometimes limited appreciation of other peoples and their ways of life.
Storytellers who write a long series of novels about the same character or characters often frustrate or annoy you by the varying quality of their productions. Take W.E. Johns for instance a reader who first encounters Biggles in a classic 1930s adventure story such as Biggles Flies North is likely to return for more but one who picks up a humdrum Air Police story of the late 1950s or early 1960s such as Biggles sets a trap may be put off permanently and wonder what all the fuss was about.. It is true with adult recreational fiction as well the first ten Alistair MacLean novels are amongst the best adventure thrillers ever written; the last ten look like they have been produced by another inferior practitioner who has assembled them for the purpose of selling film scripts. When an author such as Percy F. Westerman produces 174 known works you can expect a certain unevenness. The two titles at the head of this article exemplify well both the frustrations and the rewards of reading junior fiction.
At first sight they have a lot in common. They both concern young men on the threshold of adulthood, put to the test in the most trying of circumstances and winning through in the end. They both concern shipwreck and the perils and pleasures of a South Pacific island. And yet whilst one draws you in and becomes totally engrossing, the other presents you with a chore that you wish were over. One proclaims the classic and the other shrieks pot-boiler !
There is no doubt that King of Kilba is a shocker and yet it starts with an interesting premise. Kenneth Kilsyth, the young hero, wins a thousand pounds in a football pools type of competition. It is a fortune that allows him to take his freedom from a life destined to be spent as a junior clerk in a counting house. Sportingly he offers to Gerald Hayes, his friend, the same chance of liberty. The reader is expected to cheer at young men who throw off the shackles of office work and leave behind half a dozen pale-faced, weedy-looking men and youths in order to pursue a new life in New Zealand.
But then Westerman makes his first mistake for he calls the firm that the two lads are leaving Grabaul and Gett. This silly name immediately destroys any semblance of reality. He follows that by calling the head clerk Mr. Gurgle. Instead of making him just a boring petty dictator, Westerman further undermines the plausibility of his narrative by an unnecessary (never followed up) suggestion that the man was a thief.
Not only was he a bully by virtue of his position; he was involved in more than one shady transaction. It wont have escaped your notice that the hero is called or should that be kalled Kenneth Kilsyth or that he is to become King of Kilba. This fun with alliteration militates strongly against any one taking any part of the story with anything other than a gigantic pinch of salt. If the author himself is so lacking in conviction, how can he expect anyone else to believe in his characters or his plot?
Life soon moves aboard ship where Westerman is usually so secure. The S.S. Mumtaz crosses without incident from Vancouver to Honolulu and then, within three pages, all the officers and most of the men are wiped out by a mysterious illness which leaves Kenneth and Gerald miraculously alive. (By the way its never explained) Only Bridges, the quartermaster of the original crew, survives for a few more pages in fact conveniently long enough to dispose of all the rotting dead bodies and to show the lads how to rig a sail on to the wallowing freighter. Under the influence of the North-East trade winds and the North Equatorial current the Mumtaz eventually drifts over a coral reef and lodges on the leeward side.
The boys are near an island but theres no time for rest and recuperation. Flying out the darkness comes a poisoned-tipped arrow. Arming themselves with guns from the captains cabin they blaze away into the darkness and hear a cry of pain. The next day brings exploration of a small coral island and the two lads race to the top of the central hill. No sooner do they get there than they notice a number of short holes in the turf. They havent time to work out what made them for advancing up towards the hill come a couple of hundred almost stark-naked savages.
Either they must fight and win, or fight and be slain; and slain, they would then serve as a delicacy at a cannibal feast.
Two against more than two hundred seems pretty hopeless odds. A rifle and a 12-bore shotgun are surely inadequate. The boys are doomed. But wait, whats this, the author is riding to the rescue ! These savages decide that they must mount their attack on stilts ! Of course, we should have realised that the hilltop was taboo territory that could not be touched by any part of the natives bodies. Remember those holes in the turf. Naturally, as the would-be man-eaters have to peck their way slowly uphill, the boys can massacre them at their ease.
There is little point in telling much more of the story. Kenneth and Gerald meet the white man who is the King of Kilba and learn about the tribal warfare between the two islands of Kilba and Neka. They take part in some mighty battles in which hundred of warriors are killed by the young Britons blasting holes in the war canoes with the shotgun. Eventually the old king dies and Kenneth is forced to accept the title and conduct the continuing war against the neighbouring island. Amongst his first acts as king is to introduce them to certain aspects of British civilisation including football and cricket. The latter proves so attractive that the natives become obsessed and relax their vigilance as watchmen. The Nekas swarm in and carry off Gerald as a captive. The climax of the book comes when he is lowered into the abyss to fight the traditional horror of the islands, the Bonga Te Akka ! This proves to be the largest crab imaginable with a shell six foot across and claws over eight feet long. British pluck wins through and the story ends with the two heroes being carried off in an aeroplane. Oh, they also find the biggest cache of ambergris yet discovered by man and become partners in a wealthy firm in Auckland. Worn out no doubt by their adventures and the constant strain of calling each other old son and my old festive all the way through the 183 pages, let us leave them there in that world of fantasy and turn to All hands to the boats.
In the 1950s Blackie reissued some of Percy F.Westermans Golden Line stories in new editions. Such works as East in the Golden Gain and Chums of the Golden Vanity and The Quest of the Golden Hope were launched once again on a new generation of boy readers. All hands to the boats was amongst this selection and it seems as if Westerman and his editors knew which was the best amongst his writing for All hands to the boats possesses all of the virtues which King of Kilba lacks.
For a start Percy F.Westerman makes a tremendous effort to be authentic. Exciting events take place in the story but they are not crammed in as one damn thing after another as they are in King of Kilba. In the second place, he casts as the central character Norman Mansell, a young man who possesses the qualities you need as a hero but who also makes mistakes. The suffering he undergoes and the doubts that he entertains all add to the enjoyment of the book. Certainly he still epitomises all that is best about the British Mercantile Marine but the struggle to maintain the standards is presented against a more realistic background and by the interaction with more plausible characters. Westerman clearly knew all that there was to know about small boat sailing and this time the knowledge is well-integrated into a full length story rather than passed over quickly as a brief episode.
Once again the story begins with an interesting idea. Fourth Officer Norman Mansell is loaned by Whatmough and Duvant of the Golden Line to their rival Bluebird Line and the liner Ringdove. With some enjoyment we see Westerman taking his time over introducing the hierarchy of characters that run the ship. The Ringdove may sink and Normans ordeal may begin as he faces the empty South Pacific but the author shows his expertise in the way in which he fleshes out the martinet of a captain who believes that the world is ruled by fear, the helpful radio officer and the Scandinavian bosun, Nilsson.
Two episodes illustrate this more mature and measured approach. One concerns an engine-room stoker who falls overboard, overcome by the heat of the tropical night. The drama of the event comes this time not from the rescue and recovery but from the actions of the second officer, Paulsgrove. A rich passenger taking a photograph risks destroying the night-sight of the men who are about to enter the life-boat. In the struggle to prevent this the camera flashlight falls overboard and Paulsgrove knows that he is likely to get into trouble with the fearsome captain. The reader is made to identify with the man who is doing his duty with an act of moral courage rather than with the more normal physical bravery of the ships officer.
Each lifeboat aboard the Ringdove is equipped with two painters (ropes attached the boat and used for mooring). The technical explanation for this doubling of ropes is turned into an amusing episode about how Nilsson, the wily bosun, outwitted the Board of Trade inspector at his own game. Later, however, the need for a second rope becomes all too apparent to Normal Mansell, facing disaster in the small boat in the empty Pacific.
Unlike King of Kilba, to tell the rest of this story would be to spoil it. Sufficient to say Westerman makes the dangers arise this time not just from the traditional perils of the deep and the extreme weather conditions but also from the inner tensions of the surviving crew. The villain in this story is not an exotic cannibal chief, a desperate Malayan pirate or a failed South American Revolutionary, but an ordinary stoker whose anger and selfishness nearly confound the best efforts of Norman and the more worthy members of the crew of lifeboat number B4.
Prospectors used to pan through thousands of grains of mud before they came across the little streak of gold that made all the difference. Readers of Percy F.Westerman must be prepared to see the occasional clusters of yellow in some of the 174 named novels, to see nothing but worthless dross in others, but sometimes they will strike it rich and get the riches of an All hands to the boats. Thats what makes the search worthwhile.
Reviews and Ratings of the
stories of Percy F.Westerman
24. The Secret Battleplane An Air Story. The plane in question flies like a bird. Yes, it literally flaps its wings and achieves a wonderful rate of climb. It causes havoc on the Western Front. The story itself never really takes off. **
53. The Mystery of Stockmere School. Hundred-pupil school in a factory town up north is temporarily closed due to drainage problems. Occupants move to a disused flying camp. Mysterious goings-on at night and an athletics event keep the reader's interest from flagging. Smoothly flowing story, worth a read. ** John 7/07
86. The Amirs Ruby An Air Story. Is this the first Standish story ? The flying parts are interesting. The gangs who are aiming at world domination are not. A persistent villain keeps escaping but fails to enliven the plot. **
87. All hands to the boats A Sea Story. It is reviewed in detail above but it is worth mentioning twice because it is Westerman at his best. ****
103. His First Ship A Sea Story. This is the first story in which his series character Alan Carr appears. Convincing characters and convincing situations as the hero works on board a tiny tramp steamer in the wild waters of the North Sea. ***
Cadet Alan Carr A Sea Story. Carrs career moves on
when he joins Whatmough and Duvant , the Golden Line. The
story is episodic as the author merely tells what happens
as the ship sails around the world but
143. Unfettered Might A Sea Story. What starts out as a treasure hunt turns into a farce about the dropping of an atomic bomb. This is Westerman at his worst. It is hard to give it even one *
146 The Golden Gleaner A Sea Story .The tale of a cadet and of an unlucky ship from her moment of launching. Westerman is not afraid to depict the more unpleasant people on board ship or to avoid the tragedies that can happen at sea or in port. **
149 Missing, Believed Lost A Sea Story. What happens to you when your headmaster goes mad and takes you on a compulsory cruise across the Atlantic ? Westerman boys always cope. It is a pity that it ends so tamely. **
171 Held in the Frozen North A Sea Story. This is a routine story of officers and cadets, though the visit to Archangel, rather than a tropical port, and the involvement of the Communist Russians, does add a little extra life . **
172 The Mystery of the Sempione A Sea Story. This is another one of Westermans desert island stories, though better than most of the earlier ones. It starts with one of those unpredictable South American revolutions in the republic of Bolomaya and contains a splendid knock-down fight between the two young heroes ! ***
Sleuths of the Air by Percy F. Westerman
They are stationed in the Nile Valley when along comes a suspicious German called Spiekelwald who claims to be embarking on a medical research mission far up the Nile. The chums are instructed by their suspicious superior (who also happens to be in the British Secret Service) to follow the German.
What happens is that the British boys make a complete hash of it, totally wreck one of their two aeroplanes and lose the German, who then completes his mission. This turns out to be the recovery of buried German gold from the ex-German East Africa colony.
It is only because of random engine trouble that forces the German down on marshy ground that Roy and Dick ever catch up with him and temporarily capture him. If not for that chance occurrence presumably Herr Spiekelwald would have got clean away. In the end he does get away anyway: after the chums allow him to pick up a parachute in their plane they then express surprise when he actually uses it to escape!
So rather a disappointing story and made worse by the usual Percy Westerman foibles. All the characters are cliches, especially the German baddie who reverses all his sentences to the point of absurdity: "Now dot (sic) we friends are I can the explanation make". Hmmm...
And the aeroplanes are some weird and unconvincing mixture of monoplane and helicopter (Westerman seems obsessed with this imaginary combination). All in all, I award this one four out of ten, with the usual extra point for the great aviation art on the dustwrapper by Comerford Watson.#
There is a comprehensive article in the 1991 'Collectors Digest Annual': A RIVAL FOR BIGGLES? by D J O'Leary. (See CLUBS AND MAGAZINES).
The prolific Percy F. Westerman died 50 years ago today on 22nd February, 1959. He is known to have written at least 174 books and lots of stories for magazines such as BOP.
I have quite a few of these books on my shelves and have been collecting scans of his dustwrappers or earlier covers (on and off) for several years. I have met several Westerman "completists" on-line. I was even able to direct one gentleman to the shop where he was off to buy the last one he needed. (He had to go to Girvan in Scotland.)
My father introduced me to Westerman stories. He (my father) was a ship's officer out of Liverpool. He delighted in telling me where Percy strayed from reality into improbable fiction.
Everytime I go to a book fair I see a Westerman - some I have read- some I have not. Prices have climbed slowly but surely.
If you come across a copy of 'Annesley's Double' (1926) you can probably get a lot for it. I don't expect to see it in my lifetime. His best book (in my opinion) was "All Hands to the Boats" but (as I have pointed out) I have not read them all and there are lots of stinkers out there. Thanks, Percy, most of the time you gave me hours of harmless pleasure. Anyone with unusual Westerman dustjackets (i.e. not to be found already on-line) is welcome to send me a copy !