John Leeming seems to have been a remarkable man. Born in 1895 into a middle-class Mancunian family, Leeming was an accomplished glider pilot by the age of fifteen. Some sixteen years later, and already a successful businessman, he founded the Lancashire Aero Club, the UK’s first-ever aero club for enthusiastic amateur pilots.
In the 1930s, he had created a 2-acre garden at his new home, writing in 1932 a definitive – and best-selling – work on Delphiniums and later a second work in 1935, How the Garden Grows.
In 1939, at the age of 44, he enlisted in the RAF, becoming ADC to Air Marshal Boyd (Ed: No relation – we were naval). When the Air Marshal’s plane was forced down over Sicily, Leeming became a prisoner. Imprisoned with many senior British officers in a special prison camp he ran the mess, while also advising on escape strategies. For his own escape, he convinced the guards and later the Red Cross, that he had suffered a severe nervous breakdown and was repatriated. The moment he landed, he returned to duty and after the war, wrote of his time in a POW camp, as well as several novels and books about flying. He died in1965.
Between Delphiniums, gardening, flying and work, Leeming also wrote in 1936, a children’s book Claudius the Bee one of my all-time favourite books.
Sitting here in lockdown, I have reread my mother’s copy, given to her for Christmas in 1937, by her great aunt. I have done so at least thirty times since I was aged 11. Not unsurprisingly, it does not take long to read but remains, like all great children’s’ books, a cracking tale for grown-ups too.
The plot is simple. A small boy saves Claudius The Bee from certain death. He is rewarded by being a guest of honour in their nest, having been shrunk a la Alice. There then follows a dastardly act of treason by the nasty bee, who wishes to usurp Claudius and become king. He intends selling out to the wasps and the day is, inevitably, saved by an act of bravery by the small boy.
Oh but there is so much more than that, all packed into 165 pages. The characters in the nest (they are bumblebees) are beautifully sketched (by Richard Bertram Ogle) from the Blimp figure who commands the Guards to the mad professor who provides the shrinking potion; from the sergeant of the guards always telling of his service in the Second Heather War to Black Michael (the traitor) whose full title is Black Michael of Wormwood Master of the Wood and Garlic (so one knows immediately that he is a baddie); from the heroic, but ageing, Claudius leader of Free Bees to the horrible captain of wasps who hates humans and stings them whenever possible.
The bees wear clothes set at the height of the nineteenth century. The guards wear a sort of dragoon hat, and their commander is fitted out in the full Wellington kit. The wasps, however, wear tin hats from the First World War. You might imagine the confusion, no horror, I felt aged 11, brought up on the Victor Comic’s Sergeant Trelawney of the Guards, as well as taking The Hornet every week, when I first saw those pictures of the evil, sly wasps in those tin hats. Those very Hats were worn by OUR SIDE!
Therapy has beckoned ever since.
The book is highly moral as well as genuinely exciting. Of course, the goodies win, but then it is a children’s book and anyway, why shouldn’t they win every now again? The final celebration of the victory and the return of the boy to full size is charming and heartwarming with the last line as thought-provoking as any CS Lewis novel.
I commend it to you all, whatever your age.