Jennings Goes To School (1950) / Jennings Follows A Clue (1951) / Jennings’ Little Hut (1951) / Jennings and Darbishire (1952)
The Jennings stories originally came to life in 1948 as a series of radio plays on Children’s Hour. Buckeridge wrote twenty-five Jennings books, and this title collects the first four of his adventures. Like Molesworth, Jennings and his friends attend a prep school, but Linbury Court, in Sussex, is more recognisable as a real school than St Custard’s. Buckeridge’s style tends towards the farcical, but his books are laugh-out-loud funny – when reading these to myself I had to break off frequently and read the choicer passages aloud to my husband!
The first book describes the first term of Jennings and his soon-to-be best friend Darbishire. Jennings is full of ideas, and Darbishire follows, but neither of them are inclined too much to think through the consequences of their actions. Also involved are their classmates, Atkinson, Venables, Temple and Bromwich major, amongst others, and the long-suffering masters: Mr Wilkins is relatively young, prone to losing his temper and is easily confused by his pupils’ logic (or lack thereof); Mr Carter is older and more experienced, also calmer and more even-tempered; Mr Pemberton-Oakes is the rather distant headmaster.
Jennings Goes to School is rather episodic in nature, lacking the overall theme and plot of the other three books, but contains some very funny set-pieces. For example, when Jennings and Darbishire decide to run away from school in very inadequate disguises, and are spotted by Mr Carter; or the sustained farce of the fire practice where anything which can go wrong does; or how the discovery of a possibly poisonous spider helps Form Three avoid a detention.
Jennings Follows a Clue puts together Jennings’ enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes, the attempted sale of a cine camera, mysterious lights in the San, and a burglary, which all culminate at the school’s Sports’ Day. In Jennings’ Little Hut, the headmaster decides that the huts near the pond in the school grounds which the boys have constructed with diligence and care, are unsafe; as a result Jennings and Darbishire are in rather bad odour with their schoolmates. Playing cricket together, a superb shot by Jennings causes the glass in the the headmaster’s cucumber cold frame to break, and much effort is then expended by the boys to repair it, involving photographs of Old Boys and much running back and forth. Of course, nothing is ever simple in Jennings and Darbishire’s world, and they manage to lose Bromwich major’s goldfish during an epidemic of mumps, and Darbishire – who is not good at sport – is picked of desperation for the cricket Second Eleven.
Here he, unused to the etiquette of matches, has just gone out to the middle as last man with two runs to get; he’s forgotten to take off his blazer and has left his cricket gloves on:
“[Jennings] seized the hem of the blazer and heaved it over his friend’s head, but again they were baffled by the tight cuffs. The batsman’s head and neck were shrouded in blazer, and soon calls for help came from within.
“Hey, whoa, stop! I’m stuck and I can’t breathe.” He floundered helplessly about like the back legs of a pantomime horse looking for its partner.
“What’s the matter?” asked Jennings, popping his head into the flannelly tunnel from the open end.
“This is ghastly,” said Darbishire. “My cap’s got stuck in the armhole and my glasses have come off. I think they’ve slipped down inside my shirt.”
“Keep still – I’ll see if I can get them out for you.”
There were queer movements inside the blazer, as though two old-fashioned photographers were sharing one head-covering between them. Then one of the headless bodies backed out of the tunnel and stood breathing lungfuls of fresh air.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake get a move on!” called Venables from the bowlers’ end, while the rest of the fielders hopped up and down and waved their arms in wild gestures of frustration …
The two friends are able, at length, to persuade the headmaster to rescind the ban on hut-building, and inadvertently show the daughter-in-law of a distinguished Old Boy, General Merridew, that the school is just the right place to send her young son.
In Jennings and Darbishire, the driving force of the plot is the acquisition by Jennings of a printing set, with which he and Darbishire produce the Form Three Times, and for which they go out searching for stories worthy of inclusion in that august journal. Somehow this leads to trying to extract a parcel of fish from the chimney of Mr Wilkins’ study using a fishing line from the rooftop, the staging of a handwriting competition – for winning which Venables is given rather less than the promised double layer sponge cake – and the discovery of an astonishing fact about Mr Wilkins.
The Jennings books were written for children, but there’s a lot in them – particularly Buckeridge’s delight in language – which is entertaining to an adult. And they are funny. Unfortunately, in general, the build-up to the pay-off is rather too long to quote in this review, but the cricket match description of poor Darbishire’s struggles has to be one of my favourites. Buckeridge’s humour is not malicious, and is rather farcical than sophisticated, though he makes good linguistic jokes, such as Darbishire’s Flixton Slick detective story:
“So Flixton Slick left Scotland Yard with three uniformed constables and went to the warehouse. He burst in. The Silent Shadow was hiding in a corner with the portfolio belonging to the Minister without Portfolio on a table in front of him. When he saw Flixton Slick he whipped out a revolver. Crack! Crack! Crack! Three shots rang out. Two policemen fell dead and the third whistled through his hat–”
Although the milieu of his setting – an English public school in the 1950s – may seem impossibly distant even to adults, the charm of the stories is in the boys’ behaviour: their vivid imaginations, their invention, and their capacity to be absorbed in what adults might consider trivial matters. If you’d like to be amused for a few hours, you couldn’t do better than spend it in the company of Jennings and his friends.