CHILDREN'S BOOKS / In a class of his own: Jeremy Sissons on school stories

Nigel Molesworth is 40. Hard to believe that the little horror has become a big horror, or indeed grown up at all. He is preserved in print like a caveman in ice, witness to all that is (or was) primitive in the British schoolboy. In 1952 Geoffrey Willans, who had taught at a prep-school and lived, teamed up with Ronald Searle, who had finished his St Trinian's saga and was looking for fresh meat. A genial pair of Frankensteins, they created a new monster, the curse of St Custard's ('it smell of chalk latin books skool ink foopball boots and birdseed').

Molesworth lived on through four volumes, now reissued to celebrate his birthday (Pavilion Books pounds 3.99 each). Down With Skool, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms and Back in the Jug Agane comprise one of the great acts of literary ventriloquism this century, right up there with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. A whole world - unjust, ink-splashed, sunk in daydreams - evolves from his illiterate tommy-gun chatter: 'English masters hav long hair red ties and weeds like wordsworth throw them into exstatsies . . . This is the skool piano you kno the one which go WAM PLUNK BISH BASH ZUNK.' Best of all is the infantile grab at the cultured style, missing it by light years: 'Gosh chiz this is molesworth 2 my bro he is uterly wet and a weed it panes me to think I am of the same blud . . . I diskard him.'

Reading them now, one wonders whether these books were ever written for children, let alone enjoyed by them. They might have warmed to the scraggly precision of Searle's drawings, but Willans's parodies would surely have struck too close to home. These days, the problem lies elsewhere: who but ageing old boys, real Nigels crusting into middle age, will recognise the original target? School books no longer deal with eccentric institutions cut off from life, but continuations of everyday experience. Thus, in Mr Majeika and the School Play (Puffin pounds 2.99), Humphrey Carpenter can manage a wizard for a teacher; but his spells have to involve spiriting a boy inside a television and into the world of an Australian soap opera. Still, these tales push along with an impatient, likeable zest.

Two new books attempt to do a Molesworth: that is, chop up the narrative into morsels of mad information. First is the two-in-one volume, Coping with Boys and Coping with Girls by Peter Corey and Kara May (Hippo pounds 2.50). A good idea, easily won by the girls, with a number of dry asides ('Queen Victoria tried to see the funny side but she'd lost her glasses and couldn't find it'). The authors yank the topics up to date and still keep their sarcasm sharp, with the New Age Greenie chastised for 'working out your equal share of the cost of shoe leather used in walking you home'. Much worse is I Hate School (Puffin pounds 2.99), an alphabetical list of hates and (rare) loves. The style is as forced and lame as the authors' pseudonyms, Sebastian Spottly-Bott and Kylie Klunkit. Thus, under 'Games' we read: 'Our advice is never to go near the gym or sports field . . . and never to run unless you're in a school corridor or there's a Rottweiler chasing you.' Their only enthusiasm is, God help them, drama ('Yeahhh]').

I was about to recommend The Great Sandwich Racket (Puffin pounds 2.99) by Andrew Matthews, five tales set in Wyvern Copse Comprehensive School. All are knowing and inventive, good fodder for older readers who want both to recognize a milieu and see it mocked. But then I read about Courtney Bennett - vastly unpopular because 'he was addicted to 50-year-old school stories and copied the slang in them, totally oblivious to the fact that times had changed'. Courtney may be 'a spoilt little creep', but he's onto something. Times have indeed changed, yet the heightened language of Molesworth has not, and rages more angrily and brightly than anything said by his descendants. I diskard them.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam