HUMOUR / Whizz for Willans: Molesworth is back] Kevin Jackson doffs a grubby school cap to the genius of his creators

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ONE OF the best Christmas treats offered by BBC television in recent years was a panel game called simply, if memory serves, The Book Quiz, in which one could enjoy the sublimely sadistic pleasure of watching some leading literary types being read unidentified passages from works of literature and attempting to spot the source. Ah, the furtive pleasure of seeing our most eminent novelists failing to spot an easy bit from Dubliners, or confidently attributing a swoony passage from Barbara Cartland to Conrad]

Well, if they ever have the good sense to revive the show, here are a couple of passages, both slightly edited, which Robert Robinson might like to think about parading before his victims under the general heading of 'Books About Other Books'. In the first, two characters are about to embark on a literary conversation which is abruptly cut short:

'What have you read?'

'Proust. The book in question was 'Swann's Way'.'

'What did you think of it?'

'The style was exquisite, and the characterisation superb. The long evocative passages -'

Stumped? Well, here's a second passage from the same work; it comes just a few pages later:

'What is your opinion of Colin Wilson, the new philosopher?'

'Advanced, forthright, significant.'

'He takes, I think, the place of T S Eliot in speaking for the younger generation . . . '

Hmm, still baffled, eh? Well, the reference to Colin Wilson as a 'new philosopher' dates it to the late Fifties; it's definitely British, and the literary judgements passed by these characters sound rather precious, so it is probably a satire of some kind. Let's see: could it be Kingsley Amis? No? John Wain? No? Surely not Iris Murdoch? Let us end the suspense by giving the first of those passages in full:

He grin horibly.

'What hav you read, molesworth?

gulp gulp a rat in a trap.

'Proust, sir.'

'Come agane?'

'Proust, sir. A grate fr. writer. The book in question was swan's way.

'Gorblimey. Wot did you think of it, eh?'

'The style was exquisite, sir, and the characterisation superb. The long evocative passages - '

'SILENCE]' thunder GRIMES. There is no such book, impertinent boy. I shall hav to teach you culture the hard way. Report for the kane after prayers.'

And the original version of the latter extract runs like this:

'Wot is yore opinion of colin wilson, the new philosopher?' sa fotherington-tomas, hanging by his weedy heels from the crossbar.

'Advanced, forthright, signifficant,' i repli, kicking off the mud from my footer boots . . .

Yes, both of these erudite discourses on contemporary literature have been modified from the pages of Back in the Jug Agane (1959), which, as any fule kno, is the last volume of the immortal Molesworth tetralogy written by Geoffrey Willans and illustrated by Ronald Searle. Pavilion Books has just published it and its three predecessors, Down With Skool] (1953), How to be Topp (1954) and Whizz for Atomms (1956), in a '40th Anniversary Edition', and though even the curse of st custards might query the mathematics here ('subtrakt 1953 from 1992'?), the reissue of these works should cause rejoicing throughout the land.

The point in quoting those allusions to Proust and T S Eliot is not simply to show that Willans and Searle were pulling off the gag of incongruous erudition a good couple of decades ahead of Monty Python's knockabout routines with Sartre and Kierkegaard, but to emphasise that (a) Molesworthian humour tends to be much more suitable for adults than for children and therefore that (b) there is nothing remotely twee, camp or otherwise wet about enjoying them as a grown-up.

True, most loyalists of the Molesworth canon will first have encountered the books when they were tinies, and there are in fact quite a few utter weeds (eg Tim Rice in his introduction to the reissued Compleet Molesworth) who seem inclined to treat these inspired creations as if they were just another fusty prop in the English nostalgia cult of cricket, blazers and Ovaltine by the wireless chiz chiz chiz. I diskard them. The Willans /Searle oeuvre is much less cosy than this faction believes: to quote one of the beaks who appears in the pictorial catalogue 'Know the Enemy', 'You may think I'm soft but I'm hard, damned hard.'

Take this episode from Whizz for Atomms, in which the Molesworth family have been watching a romantic film - possibly Casablanca? - on their recently acquired television:

'How beautiful,' sa your mum to your pater who is sitting despondently behind her. 'If only you could be noble like that ocasionaly.'

'It is only a world of makebelieve,' he repli. 'You must face up to reality.'

'Reality,' sa molesworth 2, 'is so unspeakably sordid it make me shudder.'

Indeed; and other such shudders at the sordid nature of the world - the venality of headmaster GRIMES (A monster of calous cruelty), the incompetence and alcoholism of the skool staff and even boy's pitiless inhumanity to boy (An owl hoot and Eustace is insensible) - make Molesworth's world all too familiar to those well past puberty, and in most respects nostalgia-proof. Your true Molesworthian will generally jeer at Jennings, wince at William and blaspheme against the very name of Blyton.

Despite his odd lapses into tenderness (all the same they touch my hart poor weak fule that i am), Molesworth is a hard case. Sardonic, shrewd, deflationary - not to mention advanced, forthright, signifficant - these books are classics of humour in the English language. To classify them simply as schoolboy yarns is to confuse setting for theme; it would make about as much sense as saying that the essential subject of Diary of a Nobody is 19th-century petit-bourgeois matrimony. Come to think of it, many of Molesworth's points of reference are now almost as remote from the children of the 1990s as Mr Pooter's Islington.

Davy Crockett can be seen on that thrilling new product of technology (Whizz for Atomms]), the television, sputniks are in orbit, Marilyn Monroe-oh-ho is at the cinema, the H-Bomb looms in the distance and CND is thriving: All rude drawings and propaganda down with the warmongers meeting at dalston friday are wiped off blackboards. And young Nigel - whose politics are decidedly Incorrect, especially when it comes to GURLS - is sceptical about the ways in which the 1944 Education Act has affected those of his contemporaries who are hem hem less fortunate, as witness his revision of Oliver Twist:

TWIST: Another sossage, fatty.

BEEDLE: Eh, wot. You have had yore allocation as prescribed in the skool leaving act A/cD/10L.

TWIST: Come on come on. This is the welfare state. Give us a couple also some free milk and orange juice, a corset, some false teeth, old age pension, forecast for the pools, 20 peoms by w auden, six beetles, a pencil sharpner and anything else you hav in yore poket.

BEEDLE: No, no.

TWIST: Garn, or we'll rip yer.

Vicious snobbery? Probably, and Gulliver's Travels isn't the quintessence of generous democratic feeling, either. But you'd have to be a monster of priggishness not to find something at least mildly droll about the surrealism and satirical bite of that list, especially the incomparable detail 20 peoms by w auden.

Unbelievers may claim that Willans's technique is simply a matter of mashing up syntax and spelling, but this is palpably untrue; only someone keenly alive to the effects of punctation and typography could have contrived such a sentence as My face is as red as a tomato i shake with rage my eyes are those of a MANIAK.

When Punch, RIP, reprinted some of Willans's earliest Molesworth pieces a few years ago, most readers were bitterly disappointed - they were rather dull, hard to read, and lacked the superb timing of the four main books. Similarly, when Simon Brett attempted a sequel in which Nigel had grown up but his spelling had remained at the 3B stage, the results had to be filed, at best, under 'Nice Try'.

Nothing is really quite like Willans's st custard's prose. To find anything even close you will have to go not to Adrian Mole (hmm . . . ) nor to Daisy Ashford, but to much weirder places. When the film of William Burroughs' The Naked Lunch opened earlier this year, I pointed out in a review the curious affinities of William Seward and Nigel: both favour the present tense and have an odd way with the third person singular, both ignore the conventions of capitalisation, both sprinkle their recits with classical allusions, both spiral away from grimy reality into wildly apocalyptic fantasies . . .

What I was too cowardly to add at the time is that Willans is by far the more gifted writer of the two. He died in 1958, shortly before the publication of Back in the Jug Agane. He was just 47. One can only hope that he had some inkling before he died that his writings - and the Searle cartoons which are linked to them as indissolubly as Tenniel's drawings are to Lewis Carroll's - would live on into that future which Molesworth thought would be inhabited by thinking eggs; and that they would still have the power to reduce their readers (yes, even if they were yanks, even if they were GURLS) to fits of helpless laughter - cheers cheers cheers.

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