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

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The Independent Culture
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.