Monday, May 22, 2017

Defence Against the Dark Arts Part VIII: two school stories:

My investigation of Rudyard Kipling's early life has stirred up memories of two good books about life in boys' schools, one of them written by Kipling himself:

Stalky & Co. by Rudyard Kipling

The Compleet Molesworth by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle.

They are both very funny; they have brought great enjoyment to large numbers of people. I am very glad that I read them when I was young enough for them to make an indelible impression.

Reading in childhood
Children may read to escape, to fill gaps in their lives, to exercise their imaginations, to learn directly and indirectly and for enjoyment; whatever the cause, they may remember what they read for the rest of their lives.

For example, Ayn Rand read a story in a magazine in 1914, when she was nine years old. Barbara Brandon, her biographer, managed to locate a copy of the magazine in 1982, and discovered that Ayn, who had recounted the story at considerable length, had remembered almost every detail, both major and minor, of this work that she had not read since the age of nine.

As a small boy in Southsea, Rudyard Kipling escaped from his unbearable life by reading. He never forgot some of the stories and poems that he read in books and magazines during this time. He wrote about them and his efforts to identify some of them in Something of Myself.

I can remember most of what I read as a child very vividly. Some of it was buried for many years but it was still all there, including the two books about school life.

The Molesworth books are much lighter than the Stalky stories; they are greatly enhanced by Ronald Searle's cartoons.

Rudyard Kipling is a great writer; Ronald Searle is a great illustrator.

These books have their critics. They may seem dated, irrelevant and politically very incorrect, but they are part of my life and I feel privileged to have read them.

About Stalky & Co.
After Rudyard Kipling was taken away from the House of Desolation, he had a nine-month holiday. He was then sent to the United Services College, a boarding school for boys at the seaside village of Westward Ho! in Devon. He entered the college in January 1878, and left in July 1882 to take up a job as a journalist in India.

The Stalky stories are a fictionalised account of his life at the USC. One of the three main characters is called 'Beetle'; he is based on Kipling himself. The main attraction for me is the way these characters outwit and take revenge on their masters and other boys in story after story. I love to read about clever, mischievous schoolboys.

I find these tales witty, amusing and sometimes hysterically funny. 

They are also very informative about school life in the 1870s.

Stalky & Co. 1899 first edition

The Compleet Molesworth
This is a collection of four books:

Down with Skool! A Guide to School Life for Tiny Pupils and their Parents(1953 )

How to be Topp: A Guide to Sukcess for Tiny Pupils, Including All There is to Kno about Space (1954)

Whizz for Atomms : A Guide to Survival in the 20th Century for Fellow Pupils, their Doting Maters, Pompous Paters and Any Others who are Interested (1956)

Back in the Jug Agane (1959)

These books are written by fictional character Nigel Molesworth, a 1950s prep school boy who misspells everything and shares his opinions, insights, daydreams, wisdom and advice about life, the universe and everything, St. Custard's School in particular. One of his expressions - “as any fule kno” - has become part of the English language!

An extract of interest from Stalky & Co.
This is from the story Slaves of the Lamp. Not, in my opinion, the best and funniest of the collection – An Unsavoury Interlude wins the prize – but containing a paragraph of particular interest:

The Lower Third had set a guard upon their form-room for the space of a full hour, which to a boy is a lifetime. Now they were busy with their Saturday evening businesses--cooking sparrows over the gas with rusty nibs; brewing unholy drinks in gallipots; skinning moles with pocket-knives; attending to paper trays full of silkworms, or discussing the iniquities of their elders with a freedom, fluency, and point that would have amazed their parents.

What I like about this description of the evening activities of the younger boys is that Molesworth would feel very much at home in that environment, even though he was at school more than 70 years later.

A few pictures from the Molesworth books
One of the characters in the Molesworth books is a boy called Basil Fotherington Thomas. He is a goody-goody; he is a wet and a weed and a girly. He has curly blond locks and skips around the school saying "Hullo clouds, hullo sky".

Here we have Basil F-T, Molesworth having a classical daydream and Molesworth's depictions of the Masters at St. Custard's School:

   "Pythagoras puzzled by one of my theorems"

The two books today
Both books are still in print, with many different editions available.

Stalky & Co. can be read online on Project Gutenberg, but a real book with good illustrations is the best way to read it.

Molesworth is now a Penguin Modern Classic.

Anyone who wants to know more can find many relevant articles, reviews and images online.

I can't imagine what these books would look like to people who first encounter them as adults. Maybe they would dislike them, find them difficult to understand and wonder what the all the fuss was about. Perhaps the books would be seen as describing an alien lifestyle, as science fiction almost. The books are very British, so maybe they would not appeal very much to Americans.

As critics at the time noticed, Stalky & Co. contains some cruelty, sadism even. The bullying, brutality and savagery may put people off. The schoolboy slang, the many Latin and Biblical references and quotations from writers such as Surtees many not mean much to many people now.

Molesworth's humour may seem childish and unfunny to the new readers of today.

Even so, people who love these books always recommend them to everyone they know and parents pass them on to their children, so I hope that they will continue to entertain many generations of children in the future.