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Friday, February 5, 2010

4. Down With Skool! by Geoffrey Willans (illustrations by Ronald Searle)

Ha ha ha bet you weren’t expecting that, but after reading three hefty tomes by contemporary women authors in a row, I needed a palate cleanser before embarking on the next one, which is another chunky read.

I have owned my copy of this book since 1968 (fifteen years after it was published) and have no idea how many times I’ve read it and all the brilliant sequels since. It never fails to make me shout with laughter.

I was prompted to re-read this time as one of my favourite Tweeters is @reelmolesworth, who posts hilarious comments on current events in the unique voice (and spelling…) of the book’s anti-hero, Nigel Molesworth.

Laughing at his postings made me eager for another look at the original. If you’re not familiar – something I find quite hard to imagine, as this book feels like part of my DNA – it’s 1950s boarding school life, through the eyes of young Molesworth, by his own description ‘the Curse of St Custards’.

Of course it’s really the whole of life through the eyes of a very witty and clever man, who worked at the BBC, wrote for Punch, and one successful screenplay, before dying far too young, at 47. So sad. What other joys might he have given us?

It’s actually hard to find much more out about Willans. Even on the Penguin website and his Wikepedia entry, there is very little background, but I have a very vivid picture of him in my head, as a cool 1950s dude in corduroy. (I am rather inspired to find out more about him now and will report back on here, if I turn anything up.)

But back to the book. It’s allegedly written for children, but it’s absolutely anarchic and as a schoolgirl I thrilled to its outrageous statements and deliberate misspellings.

It actually caused a bit of a hoo hah at the time, seen as a bad influence on real kids chiz chiz. For e.g. the section ‘How To Avoid Botany’ starts with the sentence, ‘Suply yourself with a paket of cigs.’ (sic.).

Sorry? What’s a chiz? It’s a classic bit of Molesworth-ese (synonymous with ‘swiz’…) which has become part of the British vocabulary, along with his oft-shared opinion that certain people are wets and weeds. Or, worst of all, big gurlies. Enuf said.

The chapter which always renders me insensible is ‘A Tour of the Cages – or Masters One By One’, particularly the Latin section. Molesworth felt exactly as I did about Romans and Gauls constantly attacking ditches. Why?

I’ve been looking for a bit from it to quote – consequently can hardly type for tears of laughter – but it doesn’t really work out of context. And the reason for that is very interesting. And has only just occurred to me chiz chiz because I am a wet and a weed as any fule no.

The humour of Molesworth lies in the style as much as the content and the style is all about rhythm and - this has been my revelation on this reading of the book - it’s actually a masterpiece of the ‘skaz’ style.

Skaz is the jazzed-up, lawless, stream of consciousness, first-person prose style, most famously used by JD Salinger in The Catcher In The Rye, although Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac laid the earlier foundations. Martin Amis is the post-modern master, writing as John Self in Money.

It breaks all rules of grammar and punctuation, yet is still immediately comprehensible to the reader. It gives a particularly vivid impression of the narrator, who is generally a bit cross with the world. It’s a young voice, very fast-paced and moved along by the staccato jazzy rhythm. You could snap your fingers to good skaz. Commas are rarely used if it all. Short sentences are.

The link to Salinger seems poignant, with his death just last week (27th January, 2010), but I must confess a more immediate personal interest: the novel I have just finished is written partly in the skaz style.

Randomly re-reading marvellous Molesworth, I have suddenly realised just how deeply influenced I have been in all my work by Geoffrey Willans’ writing. To the point of discovering that a short sentence I particulary love to use – ‘Next question.’ – is actually his.

I posthumously award him the Mrs Joyful Prize for Raffia Work.

Reading satisfaction: 9
Un-put-downable-ness: 7
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9
Recommend to mother: 3
Recommend to niece: 9
Recomend to gay best friend: 9
Recommend to man pal: 10
Recommend to Helen Razer: 7
Read on public transport: 7


  1. Oh, this was one of my favourites! I adored Molesworth and other anarchic characters ie. the girls of St Trinian's,Eloise and Pippi Longstocking also spring to mind! Must re-read them all (to my boys!). xxEmma

  2. The latest addition to the cannon is Clarice Bean.... Will blog on her in future posting. x

  3. Don't forget your lozenges darling! xx

  4. Fantastic! My mother gave me the Molesworth collection when I was in my early teens. I suspect she bought it as much for herself as she did for me. I haven't read them for years but I am going to hunt them down next time I am at mum's.

  5. Molesworth had me in hysterics as a schoolboy in the 1980's, and doubtless still would if I read the books again. But I'm surprised that a woman would appreciate it, particularly nowadays. Even as I was reading it, I wondered if anybody who had not been educated in stodgily traditional private boys schools (as I was) would understand the jokes. I even thought that being educated in an Australian day school in the 1980s put me at a disadvantage.