Happy New Year – I trust everybody had a safe and pleasant Christmas break and is suitably recharged for some more spy nonsense.
Meet Simon Black was the first in a series of children’s adventure books written in the 1950’s by Ivan Southall. The fascinating thing for me, if you’ll forgive this self indulgence, is that they were an Australian series. There was also a good, healthy does of espionage thrown into the mix as well, with the heroes of the stories, the titular Simon Black and his trusted sergeant at arms, Alan Grant often seconded by the secret service to carry out a daring mission.
The Simon Black adventures are the literary equivalent of the cliff-hanger serials that used to show at the movies. Each chapter presents the heroes with a new obstacle to overcome, and generally the result is left up in the air at the end of chapter. Only by reading on, do you discover how the boys managed to extricate themselves from their latest peril.
But before I go any further, you’re probably wondering who is Simon Black? A very good question, and to put it simply, he is the Australian equivalent of Biggles or Tom Swift. He appeared in nine (possibly ten) adventures. Black is essentially a pilot and an engineer, and his greatest creation is a rocket propelled red airplane called the ‘Firefly’. The plane is not only rocket propelled, enabling it to break the sound barrier, but it also has propellers that pop out from it’s wings, enabling it to hover or land like a helicopter. Put simply it is a proto-type VTOL jet. For more information on Black and author Ivan Southall, check out the Collecting Books and Magazines website.
In this book, Simon and Alan are off to the unexplored jungles of Papua New Guinea. It appears that a valuable scientist has gone missing in the wilds (while searching for uranium, no less) and it is up to Black and Grant to rescue him.
The other character you need to be introduced to is Rex the Alsatian. Rex is Alan’s dog, but accompanies them on their adventures. He is rather loyal and protective of his masters, and can be particularly vicious to those who threaten Alan and Simon. Of course, in a jungle adventure, it is pretty handy having a dog along that can lead you to water – and Rex saves the day on more than one occasion.
Once in New Guinea, the story becomes a good old jungle adventure, and brings with it all the pratfalls of a story in that style, fighting mother nature – be it fires and monsoonal rains, or beasts such as giant killer pythons.
One of the real failings of the story is the lack of a decent villain. There is a gentleman named Richardson, who has the aid of an amphibious tank, who is set up early to be the main adversary, but half way through the story, he virtually disappears and becomes a background character. The villainy falls on the mysterious Ugambi people as a whole – but with no particular character singled out as the villain. So the threat to our hero is rather nebulous.
However, it must be said, that author Southall conjures up quite a bit of atmosphere in the Ugambi camp, richly describing the water city, with its huts and roped walkways.
One of the problems with reading a book of this vintage, is that world attitudes have changed – for the better, I’d like to think. This story features an incredibly anachronistic and extremely racist attitude towards the Australian aborigines. At one point, Simon and Alan are forced to land near Ayers Rock (now known as Uluru) due to a time bomb being in their plane.
Upon landing the native’s attack them with spears and rocks. When Alan suggests that they shoot and kill the natives, Simon balks at the idea – not because the character sees it as being wrong – but simply because he doesn’t want to waste his time being dragged through the courts for murder. At least the story has the decency to suggest that killing an aborigine would be murder. But the characters themselves view the natives as a nuisance with no value or worth as a people.
Not to condone this books racist content, but to place it in context, it must be remembered that Australia had an ‘unofficial’ White Australia policy, which limited immigration into Australia to only people of European origin. It was the official policy of all the governments and all mainstream political parties in Australia from the 1890s to the 1950s. Elements of the policy survived even into the 1970s. In fact, Aborigines did not have full voting rights in Australia until 1967. So while this book may have a very ‘screwed up’ outlook on indigenous Australians, it also, rather sadly, reflects the attitudes of the country at that time.
The Simon Black series is aimed at young boys, probably from around 7-8 years of age to mid teens, and as such the emphasis is solely on keeping the story moving. There is little characterisation beyond their hair colour and a few oft repeated phrases. For example Alan always exclaims “My Sainted Aunt!” when something unusual happens. So as genre fiction, they are rather low hanging fruit, if you know what I mean. However, this story is enjoyable in its way. It’s not a lost classic, but an interesting time capsule of days gone by.