Book of a Lifetime: Molesworth, By Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle

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The Independent Culture

Rummaging through the furthest reaches of my grandparents' bookshelves one evening in the early Eighties I discovered (among maths books, Reader's Digest guides to England and – oddly, impressively –The Female Eunuch), a slim, red hardback depicting a dishevelled schoolboy. Since this was what I was, and with The Female Eunuch arousing only bafflement, I took Whizz for Atomms for my bedtime reading – and so in a flash earned myself great joy and a new understanding of the comic possibilities of English Lit.

For those wan souls who aren't yet acquainted with Nigel Molesworth, "the curse of st custard's" and "gorila of 3B", there are four books in his mighty oeuvre, each one a coruscating survey of his vile public school, its "various swots, bulies, cissies, milksops greedy guts and oiks with whom i am forced to mingle hem-hem".

It would be possible to bore at length about his Swiftian satire, his dismantling of authority (viz parents, governors and masters who "would slit you with a broken botle for 2 pins") and his shrewd commentary on class and hierarchy (continually "tuoughing up" the new bugs, weeds and wets, Moles-worth must exercise due caution in the presence of "grabber who is head of the skool captane of everything and winer of the mrs joyful prize for rafia work"). But the real miracle of these books is stylistic and that's what hit me with all the explosive force of the Peason-Molesworth Atommic Pile. On first reading, Willans's prose seems liberated from every known constraint; grammar and spelling go by the board. And yet this anarchy is illusory.

Mirroring the elegant, black-hearted exactness of Searle's illustrations, the text is tightly controlled, precisely weighted. In his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Calvino listed attributes desirable in fiction: Quickness, Lightness, Multiplicity, Exactitude ... I forget the rest. Molesworth displays all these in abundance. With mercurial speed he leaps about between genres and literary modes; he throws in vigorous use of CAPITAL LETTERS, italics, sub-heads, sudden switches to play format, to dream sequences, annotated cartoons, footnoted lists, letters, report cards ... It is as if he is a veritable modernist, my dere, discarding the rusted shackles of linearity hem-hem.

Needless to say, I pinched Whizz for Atomms and took it home, where my dad saw it, recognised it for his own and pinched it in his turn. But for me, as for many others, it still stands as a comic lodestone, a primer of technique and something that offers more laughs per square cm than anything else in the world in space. And at its heart remains the extraordinary figure of Molesworth himself: sceptical, resilient, self-deprecating, scruffy and unbowed. He's one of us, in other words – and time hasn't diminished him. His great work still helps "explane why britain is what it is toda".

Jonathan Stroud's 'Heroes of theValley' is published by Doubleday