Why This Book Caused A Very English Outcry

Reading & Writing


First a bit of an explanation: Because I was born in 1953 I was a New Elizabethan, ie. born in the year of QEII’s coronation. My dates, therefore, match her reign, and I therefore have a fondness for Queen Elizabeth, despite only having ever seen her at the pictures. I mean she was at the pictures; I attended the Royal Command Performance one year. The New Elizabethans were quite a thing for a while, and much was expected of them.

At this point, the wonderfully rococo, spidery artist Ronald Searle teamed up with the writer Geoffrey Willans to produce a story about New Elizabethans. Searle had already drawn the St Trinians’ girls, of course, but this was something new.

Willans’ collaboration with the artist was to propel him into the blazer pocket of every British schoolboy. Nigel Molesworth, the Curse of St Custard’s, rocketed to fame in four lunatic children’s (or what we’d now call YA) books, starting with Down With Skool! With chapters on how to avoid lessons and how to torture parents, it caused instant outrage because of its deliberately awful spelling, much of which is phonetic and very funny. It was soon regarded as a bad example to set before children. Naturally, this cemented its success. St Custard’s is ruled with an iron fist by Headmaster Grimes (BA, Stoke-On-Trent), who is constantly in search of dosh to supplement his income and has a part-time business running a whelk stall. Other masters include Sigismund Arbuthnot, the mad maths master. The skool was ‘built by a madman in 1836’.

The second diary, How To Be Topp, scales the heights of the surreal. A new term begins; ‘No more dolies of William the bear to cuddle and hug, no more fairy stories at nanny’s knee it is all aboard the fairy bus for the dungeons’. New boy Eustace is trussed to a chair and gagged with socks. His mother rings up and is reassured. ‘Eustace mater ring off very relieved cheers cheers and telephone all the other lades about it. An owl hoot and Eustace is insensible. St Custards hav begun another term.’ The roster of pupils includes the ghastly Fotherington-Thomas, ‘skipping like a girlie’ and ‘uterly wet’, and Grabber, ‘skool captane and winer of the mrs joyful prize for rafia work’. The peculiar cadences of academic lassitude are perfectly nailed, so that a recital of ‘The Burial Of Sir John Moore At Corunna’ becomes a bored litany trotted out by an ADD-afflicted child;

‘Notadrumwasheardnotafuneralnote shut up peason larffing as his corse as his corse what is a corse sir? gosh is it to the rampart we carried’.

Two more volumes followed; ‘Whizz For Atomms’ and ‘Back In The Jug Agane’. The charming crime author Simon Brett attempted to keep this going in the 1980s by writing a pair of rather trying sequels about Nigel in middle age.

There’s currently a plan to animate the books by a wonderful artist at Uli Meyer Studios who has brought the St Trinians’ drawings to life. That labour of love stalled, (and I’m guessing here, but it seems likely to me) because Ealing Studios now hold the rights to the characters. Searle was animated before, not terribly well, but it’s still a rather charming film that uses songs by Gilbert & Sullivan (who had then just come out of copyright) called ‘Dick Deadeye’. It’s totally unavailable anywhere in the world, as far as I can see, but it’s on YouTube in a terrible copy. There’s an album and a book, too.

Willans’ catchphrases like ‘chiz’, ‘enuff said’ and ‘as any fule kno’ have passed into adult English language, but the books were meant to be enjoyed by generations of kids rather than preserved as classics. The very parents who railed against the volumes became the biggest fans in later life, as any fule kno.

8 comments on “Why This Book Caused A Very English Outcry”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    Don’t get too comfy, it’s a brief – very brief – bit. Good, but brief.

  2. Patricia Penon says:

    That’s the fate of most children’s books, they go out of print and many stay out of print. Maybe the publishers, or whoever is responsible, think they sound outdated. I confess that once in a while I sneak one of Richmal Crompton’s Just William books in between my grownup reading material and they are still as much fun as they used to be; but I wonder if a child would enjoy them as much today, I got the Asterix comic books for my sister’s kids thinking they were going to be a hit and they looked at me like I was crazy.

  3. Iain says:

    I just discovered my tattered (and much-loved) omnibus of the Molesworth books after our recent move. I must take it to a book binder.

    Molesworth has shown up on Twitter too.

  4. Jo W says:

    Thanks for that Admin. Made me go to the upstairs bookshelves to reacwaint me with theese eggslent bukes. But!! chiz,chiz! one of the fore is a gonner. Who had my copy of How to be Topp,is wot I want to noe! I suspekt the lite fingered Jo W minor,who liked that buke. Next time I’m near his bukes,I’ll do an inspekshun of his shelffs! Enuff said. 😡😡

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Lovely. We read the Asterix books over and over – my son & I, I mean. The one about Corsica was only available from the library in French, so that was how we read it with me stumbling over the words, especially the slang and localisms. What a difference if that were now and I could do it on line or order an English copy from Amazon. There was an argument among school librarians as to whether these “comic books” belonged in schools. There are times when I think some librarians are just too staid to be believed, although the pirate ones were unfortunate in the way the black pirate was drawn. They didn’t want the illustrated Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards! either because there was some joke in it that was definitely off-colour. If the kid gets the joke he’s already “harmed” and if not it’ll go over his head is how I see it.

  6. Alan Morgan says:

    Quite right, though my mum gave me them one Christmas. I’d been looking at hers, and that wasn’t right since there was territory to grubby fingerprints.

    My little girl is looking forward to going to high school next year because it’s all all girls place. She half hopes it will be St. Trinians.

  7. Mary Clarke says:

    I adored Molesworth et al (woo he?). There is someone on twitter who calls himself Molesworth and he hits the spot with his tweets about modern affairs from the bowels of St Custards.

  8. Anne Fernie says:

    Bring back the utterly wet and sissy and brilliant Basil fotherington-tomas [sic]: I am so often reminded of him by the wincingly sensitive PC brigade and their pained ‘I don’t think that’s very appropriate’ utterances. I guess ‘wet and sissy’ (and ‘gurly’) is off the agenda these days but as fotherington-tomas would have said: ‘I forgive you for those uncouth words…’ ~ quite.

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