(Penguin Modern Classics 2000)
Down With Skool! (1953) / How to be Topp (1954) / Whizz for Atomms (1956) / Back in the Jug Agane (1959)
The four Molesworth books have been much imitated and often quoted, mainly because the world-weary narrator and protagonist – Nigel Molesworth, self-proclaimed “goriller of 3B”, and reluctant pupil of St Custard’s prep school – has an idiosyncratic approach to spelling (and indeed punctuation). He inhabits a vanished world, a post-war Britain where he can talk without irony of ‘Young Elizabethans’ and discuss the technological achievements in transport, but where grandmothers terrorise shop assistants and parents are only too happy to send their dear offspring to boarding school. School life and lessons are sent up beautifully, with an array of “swots snekes cads prigs bulies … and various other chizzes”, particularly in Down With Skool! and How to be Topp, but Willans and Searle’s satirical targets are more than academic life.
Molesworth has a great friend, Peason, and an annoying younger brother (known only as Molesworth 2). There is Basil Fotherington-Thomas, who is wet and weedy, liking to say hello to clouds and sky and sun (but who plays a mean game of tennis); there is Grabber, head boy and “winner of the mrs joyful prize for rafia work”; Ian Gillibrand, a general’s son; not to mention the masters – Grimes, the headmaster, more interested in money than education, and Sigismond, the mad maths master.
The books are a perfect marriage of words and pictures, with Searle’s dense angular style both commenting on and sometimes only alluding to the text: the illustrations often work the delayed gag very well (the gloomy and morose Gaul and Roman passing each other as they each cross from one place to another, or Gabbitas and Thring trapping a young man to be a master). Molesworth’s absurd commentaries on life rarely approach anything like plot, ranging from a dream about revolting prunes to travelling by train, conversations with Fotherington-Thomas about Colin Wilson or T. S. Eliot, or being forced by one’s mother to attend a party. Without the illustrations it’s difficult to give the full flavour of the delight of the Molesworth books, but here goes:
Being a baby is alright but soon all the boys who hav been wearing peticoats chiz chiz chiz begin to get bigger. they start zooming about like jet fighters climb drane pipes squirt water pistols make aple pie beds set booby traps leave tools about the garden refuse to be polite to visiting aunts run on the flower beds make space rockets out of pop’s golf bag and many other japes and pranks.
It is at this time that parents look thortfully at their dere chicks and sa
IT IS TIME WE SENT NIGEL TO SKOOL.
Parents then search for a skool and dream of the day when the bath will not be full of plastic tugs speedboats queen marys etc. They look on the map until they find a place that is millions and trillions of miles away from home, and send for a prospectus.
One of my favourite bits is Searle’s illustration of the ‘private life of the gerund’, which he shows to be an oddly shaped, pointy-nosed beast, attacking some peaceful pronouns, or cutting a gerundive in an act of social snobbery. But there are many delights to be had, such as in the illustrations of the different types of master; or of parents; or of the headmaster’s canes. School food is uniformly terrible – and indeed St Custards appears to have very poor facilities, given the terrible condition of the school piano and the lack of a school plutonium plant. Much of the humour comes from the high-flown commentary in appallingly-spelled English, but there are certain instances, such as Molesworth’s description of having to play in a cricket match and getting out first ball, which are both funny and cringingly realistic.
Once you get into the swing of reading, the spelling becomes less of a distraction, since it tends to be only the obvious easily translated words which are misspelled, and the phrasing often delights. These are very funny books about childhood experiences written (and drawn) for an adult audience – though children will derive a great deal of enjoyment from them – with many references which a modern child simply would not get, and are thoroughly recommended.