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In a Class of His Own

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Books that make one laugh out loud are far rarer than one likes to think, and the subject of endless and often heated debate. P. G. Wodehouse usually comes out top, but although I loved him in my twenties, I have lost the appetite in late middle age: comicality needs to be combined with sadness, a sense of the absurd with a countervailing melancholy, and Wodehouse’s genial socialites seem too lacking in humanity, too short on Chaplinesque pathos, to engage me as much as they once did. One of my candidates for the funniest book ever written – battling it out with Mr Pooter, James Lees-Milne’s Another Self, and a great deal of Evelyn Waugh – is H. F. Ellis’s The Papers of A. J. Wentworth BA, a work that is all too redolent of familiar human frailties.

A. J. Wentworth is an old-fashioned prep-school master of the pompous, bustling, self-important variety: utterly ineffectual at controlling his pupils but much given to ferocious rhetoric and the consoling saws of his trade, he has been teaching maths at the school for most of his life, and the end of his career is in sight.

Written, like The Diary of a Nobody, in diary form, the book begins on a note of crisis. Enraged beyond endurance by a pestilential boy called Mason, Wentworth has hurled a copy of Hall & Knight at the wretched youth, but misaimed and brought down another pupil instead. ‘It has been suggested that it was intended to hit Hopgood II. This is false. I never wake up sleeping boys by throwing books at them, as hundreds of old Burgrove boys will be able to testify,’ he tells us. Unmoved by his teacher’s fury, Mason continues to distract and defy with loathsome insouciance. ‘I never overlook impertinence, and I gave Mason a talking to which he will, I think, remember as long as he lives,’ Wentworth would have us believe after he has failed to quell yet another act of defiance.

Regarded as an incompetent buffoon by pupils and colleagues alike

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Books that make one laugh out loud are far rarer than one likes to think, and the subject of endless and often heated debate. P. G. Wodehouse usually comes out top, but although I loved him in my twenties, I have lost the appetite in late middle age: comicality needs to be combined with sadness, a sense of the absurd with a countervailing melancholy, and Wodehouse’s genial socialites seem too lacking in humanity, too short on Chaplinesque pathos, to engage me as much as they once did. One of my candidates for the funniest book ever written – battling it out with Mr Pooter, James Lees-Milne’s Another Self, and a great deal of Evelyn Waugh – is H. F. Ellis’s The Papers of A. J. Wentworth BA, a work that is all too redolent of familiar human frailties.

A. J. Wentworth is an old-fashioned prep-school master of the pompous, bustling, self-important variety: utterly ineffectual at controlling his pupils but much given to ferocious rhetoric and the consoling saws of his trade, he has been teaching maths at the school for most of his life, and the end of his career is in sight. Written, like The Diary of a Nobody, in diary form, the book begins on a note of crisis. Enraged beyond endurance by a pestilential boy called Mason, Wentworth has hurled a copy of Hall & Knight at the wretched youth, but misaimed and brought down another pupil instead. ‘It has been suggested that it was intended to hit Hopgood II. This is false. I never wake up sleeping boys by throwing books at them, as hundreds of old Burgrove boys will be able to testify,’ he tells us. Unmoved by his teacher’s fury, Mason continues to distract and defy with loathsome insouciance. ‘I never overlook impertinence, and I gave Mason a talking to which he will, I think, remember as long as he lives,’ Wentworth would have us believe after he has failed to quell yet another act of defiance. Regarded as an incompetent buffoon by pupils and colleagues alike – these include Matron and the Headmaster, the Reverend Gregory Saunders MA – Wentworth blunders from one humiliation to another. A pigeon is concealed in his desk and flutters out when the lid is opened (the boy responsible ‘will soon learn, whoever he is, that it is a bad mistake to underrate your enemy’), paper pellets fly about the classroom (‘This sort of thing has to be put down with a firm hand or work becomes impossible’), and a case of mass insubordination provokes threats of terrible retribution (‘It can be imagined that I was in no mood after this to stand any nonsense from anybody, and IIIa found that they had a very different person to deal with this morning from their usual good-natured master’). He topples into a shoe basket, snagging his gown on the wickerwork, gets tangled up in a fishing-rod, and becomes wedged in a drain while out walking with the boys. A new source of irritation is provided by the arrival of Major Faggot, a Terry-Thomas lookalike with bristling moustache and yellowing teeth who maddens Wentworth by smoking his pipe in the corridor, reading to the boys with his feet on the desk and handing out the pink blotting paper reserved for Common Room use only. And yet, for all his absurdity, Wentworth is an extraordinarily lovable character: unlike Bertie Wooster, he is recognizably one of us, as endearing, absurd and touching as Mr Pickwick, another disaster-prone bachelor of advancing years. Like Mr Pooter, whom he so closely resembles, he made his first appearance in Punch, in November 1938, and was published in book form eleven years later – at about the same time that Nigel Molesworth of St Custard’s was starting his own career in Punch. Comparisons with The Diary of a Nobody were inevitable, and deeply resented by Wentworth’s amiable creator: but whereas Pooter was restricted to a single volume, the old schoolmaster resurfaced in A. J. Wentworth BA (Ret’d). Published in 1962, it describes how Wentworth, now living in retirement on the South Coast, suffers at the hands of WI ladies and jocular vicars: it has its moments, but The Swansong of A. J. Wentworth, published in 1982, is regarded by those in the know as an altogether inferior work. Wentworth’s creator, H. F. Ellis, was a veteran of both Punch and prep-school life. Born in 1907, he was educated at Tonbridge and Magdalen College, Oxford. ‘You think you’re funny,’ his fellow-undergraduate John Betjeman once told him, ‘well, you are.’ Between school and Oxford he had taught at his old prep school near Liphook, and after leaving Oxford he taught for a term at Marlborough. But he found the work uncongenial, and abandoned teaching for the more hazardous life of a writer. A cheque from Punch arrived just as he was about to propose to his future wife, and had an emboldening effect. Sir Owen Seaman, the editor of Punch, encouraged Ellis to become a regular contributor; his successor, E. V. Knox, appointed him assistant editor in 1933, in charge of an editorial staff of four. The Ellis house in Roehampton became a rendezvous for fellow-contributors such as A. P. Herbert, Bernard Partridge, E. H. Shepherd and A. A. Milne; congenial ingredients of Punch life included long lunches at the Garrick and country-house weekends with a cricket match thrown in. After spending the war in the Royal Artillery, Ellis returned to Punch under the editorship of Bernard Hollowood and Malcolm Muggeridge, serving spells as literary and deputy editor. But he took an instant dislike to the next editor, William Davis, and severed all connections with the magazine in 1968. Salvation, however, was at hand in the form of S. J. Perelman, who urged him to become a regular contributor to the New Yorker. Ellis had been an enthusiastic rugger and cricket player at Oxford, and whereas The Papers of A. J. Wentworth has remained only fitfully in print, surging on to the bookshelves when an enthusiastic publisher takes up the cause before sinking back into oblivion, Ellis’s account of the rules of rugger, Why the Whistle Went, has been endlessly reprinted and translated into innumerable languages, including Japanese. He also edited the Royal Artillery Commemoration Handbook and co-edited The Manual of Rugby Football. I only met Ellis once, not long before his death in 2000, when I went to interview him for the Oldie. He and his wife lived in a remote corner of the Quantocks, and they very kindly invited us to lunch. We soon got lost in a maze of tiny lanes, and arrived at least forty minutes late, gasping and panic-stricken. As we screeched into the drive of a pleasant red-brick house, a tall, distinguished looking man with aquiline features came out of the front door to greet us. I knew from the back of my Penguin Wentworth that Ellis was a chubby-looking cove with moon-like features and a quiff of white hair. ‘That’s not him,’ I told my wife. ‘We’ve obviously come to the wrong house.’ She let off the brake, and was just about to rev off down more country lanes when the Duke of Wellington lookalike tapped on the window, introduced himself as H. F. Ellis, and invited us in for a large and restorative gin-and-tonic. Penguin, he told me a few minutes later, had muddled his photograph with that of some eminent child psychologist, albeit of the moon-faced variety. It seemed a very Wentworth-like state of affairs.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 11 © Jeremy Lewis 2006


About the contributor

Jeremy Lewis has written three volumes of autobiography, and biographies of Cyril Connolly, Tobias Smollett and Allen Lane. Most recently, his biography of the Greene family, Shades of Greene: One Generation of an English Family was published in 2010.

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