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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