Forgotten authors: No 2: Geoffrey Willans

Christopher Fowler
Sunday 17 August 2008 00:00
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Here's an example of an author who is not quite forgotten, so much as placed on the wrong shelf. The best of his charming adult books is 'My Uncle Harry', a Pooterish study of the British Clubman. Harry prides himself on his club tie, his stiff white collar, his rolled umbrella and his complete lack of imagination.

However, it was Willans's collaboration with the rococo artist Ronald Searle that was to propel him into the blazer pocket of every British schoolboy. Nigel Molesworth, the Curse of St Custard's (pictured below), rocketed to fame in four lunatic children's books, starting with 'Down With Skool!' With chapters on how to avoid lessons and how to torture parents, it mainly caused outrage because of its deliberately awful spelling, and was regarded as a bad example to set before children.

The second diary, 'How To Be Topp', scales the heights of the surreal. A new term begins; "No more dolies of William the bear to cuddle and hug, no more fairy stories at nanny's knee it is all aboard the fairy bus for the dungeons." New boy Eustace is trussed to a chair and gagged with socks. His mother rings up and is reassured. "Eustace mater ring off very relieved cheers cheers and telephone all the other lades about it. An owl hoot and Eustace is insensible. St Custards hav begun another term." The roster of pupils includes the "uterly wet" Fotheringtom-Thomas, "skipping like a girlie", and Grabber, "skool captane and winer of the mrs joyful prize for rafia work".

Willans's catchphrases such as "chiz", "enuff said" and "as any fule kno" have passed into the English language, but the books were designed to be enjoyed by generations of kids rather than preserved as adult classics – as any fule kno.

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