If he is lucky, and he had better be, there will be someone else at the table who has read the four books written by Geoffrey Willans and illustrated by Ronald Searle, about the life and trials of an English public schoolboy of the 1950s, nigel molesworth. Not, if you please, Nigel Molesworth. Down with Skool! (1953) contains a long reverie whose starting point is the familiar old double entendre embedded in the word "revolting". The school prunes, weary of the disdain they encounter among all schoolboys, stage a revolt. ("The chief prune was a regular soldier and the moment the Revolt broke out he did what all generals do. He burrowed underground and established his headquarters. He had a lot of relations and made them all staff prunes.") It is not, it may strike you, the most sophisticated of satires. But if you read it at the right age, the Revolt of the Prunes - and just about every other flight of fancy in Down with Skool!, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms, and Back in the Jug Agane - will stay with you until your deathbed.
When I started reading them, barely two decades separated me from their publication dates. "Barely" doesn't sound right - two decades was, after all, roughly twice as long as I had spent on the planet then - but in some places, time moved slowly. I was not in St Custard's, but I was in a place which was part of that universe. Latin was still taught, and by an ancient Latin master; our French teacher was, until his replacement by a proper French woman, a little bit underprepared in the language (come to think of it, he was also the Latin teacher); and we had the odd rogue who would teach us colourfully for a term or two and then disappear. As described in the Headmaster's beginning-of-term speech in Down with Skool!: "I should like to introduce a new master who hav joined us in place of mr blenkinsop who left sudenly." A footnote directs us to the comment: "who would hav thort it he semed so nice." No one said "cave" any more at the approach of a master, nor did they wear mortar-boards - but one or two of the older ones wore academic gowns and we still used the word "bish" from time to time to mean a mistake. As for the technique of interrupting lessons by laughing immoderately at a master's feeble jokes ("Caesar adsum jam forte"), or asking him how many Germans he had slaughtered in the war, it turned out molesworth had got there first.
The molesworth universe held many attractions for children. But the most important was that whoever was behind the works, they knew what was going on inside the mind of a 10 to 12-year-old schoolboy. The world within the books' pages had a consistency and authenticity to which the young male mind quickly gave its automatic and enduring assent. The prose, as you might have noticed by now, was almost chaotically misspelled. But not quite chaotically. A great deal of care was taken by Geoffrey Willans - himself a retired schoolmaster - to maximise the visual impact of the mistakes on the page. It is not, as so many people who try to imitate molesworth imagine it is, a matter of spelling everything wrong.
Often quite complex or arcane words survive unscathed. Words like "strawberries", though, or "toffee" come out as "strubres" and "tooffe". "Football", almost miraculously, becomes "foopball" - and it is only by a grate act of heroism that I am able, when talking about the likes of Brett Lee or Steven Harmison, not to refer to them as "fast blowers". ("Fast blower retreat with the ball mutering and cursing. He stamp on the grass with his grate hary feet he beat his chest and give grate cry. Then with trumpet of rage he charge towards you.") As for the style, it was a stream-of-consciousness ramble which eschews punctuation except in emergencies and for all the world looks like e e cummings with slightly longer lines. (Modern poetry, when it used to experiment with typographical form, held few terrors for those who had been brought up on molesworth.) Re-reading it lately, I wondered which long-dead author it reminded me of until, by pure chance, I picked up a selection from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.
"And for those other faults of barbarism, Doric dialect, extemporanean style, tautologies, apish imitation, a rhapsody of rags gathered together from several dung-hills, excrements of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out, without art, invention, judgement, wit, learning, harsh, raw, indigested, vain, scurrile, idle, dull, and dry; I confess all ('tis partly affected), thou canst not think worse of me than I do myself."
That is from Burton; but the freewheeling sentences, the artful scorn for his own material, the staggeringly wide frame of reference (auden, proust - "a grate fr. writer" - t s eliot, christopfer fry), the audacity which keeps the writer one step ahead of the reader - that is molesworth too. (Searle, incidentally, drew an almost disturbingly funny cartoon of a cadaverous-looking bookseller handling a copy of The Anatomy of Melancholy. With an expression from the grave, he asks the unseen purchaser if he wants the book wrapped, "or will you read it now?") Clear-headed and undeceivable, except perhaps by the promises of the turf and the Goliath body-building club, molesworth articulates a consistent philosophical position: that of seeing things as they really are. And as they are is not good enough.
"'Reality,' sa molesworth 2, 'is so unspeakably sordid it make me shudder.'"
"He take a bullseye and pater lite his pipe. The matter is closed."
(This cri-de-coeur of the embittered aesthete occurs earlier, when molesworth describes the characters in a French language textbook: "There is also another character called papa rat. He is always eating cheese. He loves cheese. Mama rat loves cheese too. They hav ten little rats who love cheese. In fact, the whole business is unspeakably sordid." I think we can forgive the repetition of the phrase.)
Molesworth, then, is part of the cultural continuum of the times, an element of the great flowering of irreverence, linguistic and formal, which began to flourish in 1950s Britain. (BBC4 is profiling Searle this Saturday as part of its season about the Fifties, The Lost Decade.) It is, I think, no accident that at the same time as the molesworth books appeared, The Goon Show was going strong on the radio, doing for that medium what Willans and Searle were doing for the printed page. Nor is it exactly an accident that also around the same time Samuel Beckett was working on his last novel, How It Is, a punctuation-free examination of the human condition that looks, fleetingly and at a distance, a little like molesworth's prose. Nor is molesworth's world view much less apocalyptic, comically resigned to the worst, than Beckett's: "roll on thou grate and restless ocean roll over the LOT", says molesworth in Whizz for Atomms (1956). In 1957, Beckett's Endgame describes a world "corpsed".
But I don't want to push this too far. There is richness and incident in molesworth's world, rather more than in Beckett's. This is not just a matter of what molesworth gets up to, or his reverie-sustained inner life ("adventures" are, in fact, the precise opposite of what molesworth gets up to; as his diary records: "Jan 1. Did nothing. Jan 2. Mucked about. Jan 3. Went to a party."), but also because of the illustrations. I can think of no work, except perhaps Alice in Wonderland, where illustration and content are on such good terms with each other. And even then Tenniel's drawings, iconic and unerasable though they undoubtedly are, are obliged to follow the text. The combination of Willans and Searle, on the other hand, is like two children on different sides of the street, calling out to each other but heading for the same destination.
That this is a collaboration is evident from the first page: "This is me e.g. nigel molesworth" begins Down with Skool!, underneath a portrait of the narrator. Searle's ability to set down a character is striking from the word go. molesworth looks at us askance, his lips set in an enigmatic half-frown, the eyes infinitely knowing behind their glasses. He is unblessed by beauty but has all the rotund integrity of Dr Johnson. By the time I first reached the end of the portrait section ("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 had accepted that Searle knew exactly what was my preferred style of draughtsmanship. The spindly lines, the blots, the pitiless execution of caricature, made his younger readers feel that they had found a new ally in the war against education. The targets in "Know the Enemy, or Masters at a Glance" might no longer be the same - after 50 years of educational reform, how could they be - but the psychological types the drawings depict are still all around us. ("No. The spirit of tolerance, you fool," barks an intolerant-looking master. What is remarkable is that Searle does not overdo the intolerance - the master looks as though he has lost his good temper only after years of attrition.)
As in so much of childhood, molesworth escapes into reverie and dream; and the drawings substantiate that reverie, making the internal graphic fantasy of the schoolboy mind visible and real. "Nearer and nearer crept the ghastly THING" runs the caption underneath a nightmare vision of molesworth's head on a giant spider's body; the drawing has no textual referent, but just pops up in the way images do to the idling mind. At which point I realise I am beginning to use the kind of language that Willans skewers so deftly whenever intellectual matters are discussed.
"Advanced, forthright, signifficant", is molesworth's snap estimation of Colin Wilson, and the words often spring to my own lips when I read something which is rather obviously trying too hard. Or this dialogue from the lunch table between molesworth and his grate friend peason: "i think aldous huxley is rather off form in point counterpoint, peason. And he repli i simply couldn't agree with you more rat face but peason is very 4th rate and hav not got beyond bulldog drummond." As to whether I would sacrifice the entire works of Aldous Huxley, never mind just Point Counterpoint, in order to preserve the molesworth books, that is a question that answers itself as soon as it is posed.
I wonder, though, whether they will survive in children's minds for another 50 years. A very unamused piece in the London Review of Books about the Penguin Modern Classics edition asserted that "people who did read it at school probably think I'm missing the point, and of course I am - in fact, I can't fail to, because I didn't read it at school - but I'd say that those who ... think Molesworth is 'sublime' are missing a different point: and they're bound to, because they did read it at school." And St Custard's is now impossibly distant from the present state of education.
But then I only have to remember that, of the half-dozen or so men and women of letters who I know revere the molesworth books, only one - myself - was privately educated. I think there is hope.
Molesworth on criket
There is only one thing in criket and that is the STRATE BAT. Keep yore bat strate boy and all will be all right in life as in criket. So headmasters sa, but when my bat is strate i still get bowled is that an omen chiz. Aktually i usually prefer to hav a slosh: i get bowled just the same but it is more satisfactory.
For the reason that it is extremely dificult to hit the ball with a STRATE BAT or not criket matches are a bit of a strane. When you are a new bug or a junior in the 3rd game it is all right becos then you can sit around the boundary and keep the score in a notebook. When you get tired with that which is about 3 minits you can begin to tuough up your frendes and neighbours who look so sweet and angelic in their clean white criket shirts hem-hem. This is super. You look up enuff to sa Good shot, grabber or Couldn't hit a squashed tomato, and then back to the fray.
But it is a funy thing when you grow biger you always get into a criket team you canot avoid it chiz. Tremble tremble you arive and see the pitch which is 2388 miles approx from the pavilion. Captain win toss and choose to bat chiz chiz chiz chiz. Moan drone tremble tremble you sit with white face and with everybode's knees knocking together it sound like a coconut shy. Wot is the pleasure of it eh i would like to kno. Give me a thumbscrew or slo fire every time.
When your turn come the folowing things can hapen
(A) You loose your bat.
(B) You fante dead away.
(C) Your trousis fall down.
(D) You trip over your shoe laces.
Captain then come up to you and sa BLOCK EVERYTHING molesworth and do not slosh we need 6 to win. When he sa this all the things above hapen all at once. They revive you with a buket of water and drive you out to the wicket. This is not as you guessed 2398 miles away it is 6000 now and they hav men with gats covering all the exits so you canot run away.
At the wicket
Of course it is the fast blower you hav to face he is waiting there at the other end of the pitch looking very ferce. Umpire is v. kind he can aford to be he hav not got to bat. He sa
We are very pleesed to see you do make yourself at home. Of course you would like guard what guard would you like us to give you?
i will give you centre hold your bat up strate to you a trifle now away again. That is centre. Your position is 120 miles NNE of beachy head you may come in and land. There are 5 balls to come. At the 5th pip it will be 4.2 precisely. Able Baker Out.
Fast blower retreat with the ball mutering and cursing. He stamp on the grass with his grate hary feet he beat his chest and give grate cry. Then with a trumpet of rage he charge towards you. Quake quake ground tremble birdseed fly in all directions if only you can run away but it is not done. Grit teeth close eyes. Ball hit your pads and everyone go mad.
OWSATSIR OW WASIT EHOUT!!
Umpire look for a long time he is bent double at last he lift one finger.
He is a difrent man now from the kindly old gentleman who made you feel at home. His voice is harsh.
Out. No arguments. Get cracking. Take that xpression off your face. On course at 20000 feet return to base. Out.
Distance back to pavilion is now 120000 miles and all the juniors sa yar boo sucks couldn't hit a squashed tomato. It is no use saing you were not out by a mile team give you the treatment behind the pav just the same. There is only one consolation you can give it up when you grow up. Then you rustle the paper and sa Wot a shocking show by m.c.c. most deplorable a lot of rabits ect. ect. Well, you kno how they go on. Enuff.