Sunday, November 29, 2020

Backlisted on The Compleet Molesworth

One of my favourite podcasts, Backlisted, which looks each fortnight at a book that has fallen into neglect, celebrates its fifth birthday with an episode on the four Molesworth books by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, which are published in one volume as The Compleet Molesworth.

Published between 1953 and 1959 these books are a satire on English prep schools of the period, narrated by the schoolboy Nigel Molesworth. Searle illustrations accentuate Willans' words and introduce a strange humour of their own. No one who has seen his Romans and Gauls or his gerunds will forget them.

I read these books as a boy and loved them, because you don't have to have been to a private school to appreciate their humour. Molesworth's St Custards is the universal skool (as he would write it) and its satire can be applied to all hierarchical institutions - in other words, to all institutions.

Whatever the limitations of his spelling, Molesworth has a penetrating intelligence. I like the podcast's suggestion that he grew up to be Jonathan Meades. He is particularly clear-eyed about relations between adults and children: they are natural enemies. See his advice in Back in the Jug Agane to "beware of addults, whether parents or beaks".

And yet. I have come to the conclusion that sending boys away to boarding school at the age of seven or eight is not only a form of child abuse - see the comments on my post about Nevill Holt, a local prep school that closed after a police raid - but also produces men who go on to make a dreadful hash of running the country.

So I have some sympathy with what Thomas Jones once wrote:

the great disingenuousness of the Molesworth books is that they appear to exaggerate the institutional horror when their actual effect is to condone the institution. It’s perhaps worth noting that the books have never been samizdat texts in prep schools.

Willans, indeed, is reported to have been delighted when he learnt that schoolmasters were giving out his books as prizes - not the reaction of a mordant satirist.

But then, though the awfulness of prep school life was an accepted them of English letters since at least the publication of F. Anstey's Vice Versa in 1882, fathers went on sending their sons there. Not only that: you suspect that after being shown round they had a quite word with the head to make sure the old place still had cold showers and a school leopard.

Despite this, I still like the Molesworth books: it's hard to reject anything work that helped form your own sense of humour. And I can certainly recommend the Backlisted podcast.

1 comment:

Michael said...

It's a close thing as to whether those that didn't go to prep school were better or worse than those that did.

Those in recent times that didn't, I think were:
Wilson, Callaghan, Thatcher, Major, Brown and May

Those that did, I believe were:
Blair, Cameron and Johnson

For a liberal arguably Blair (at least vaguely to the left) and Cameron (he was at least in coalition with the Lib Dems and a few good things such as Equal Marriage) were possibly the best of the bunch.