My first parting of ways came fifty years ago, when I was 8. In September 1957 I was to be sent away to prep school. I could hardly wait.
A brand-new brown trunk, inscribed with my name and school number, had been acquired weeks before. My mother had immediately begun assembling, name-tagging and ticking off items from a printed schedule sent to her by Matron, and then laying them neatly in the trunk. Meanwhile, no doubt to prime me, I was given a Jennings book to read, one of a series of prep-school stories written by Anthony Buckeridge. I was soon comprehensively hooked, and began working my way methodically through all eight existing titles, from Jennings Goes to School, first published in 1950, to the latest, Thanks to Jennings. Three days before the start of term, with my trunk packed at last, I was brimming with Jennings-fuelled excitement.
Then a virulent Asian ’flu struck. I woke the following morning feeling alternately hot and cold, with a pounding head and a lacerating cough. Over the next fortnight, I did little but lie in bed drinking Robinson’s Lemon Barley and rereading my Jennings books. Feverishly rereading them. Many children welcome illness as an escape from school. Jennings and his friend Darbishire gave me the paradoxical consolation of taking me out of the sickroom and into the classroom. It seemed to me a classroom of delight.
My 8-year-old reading was not offensively precocious but, as far back as I can remember, books had been as important as food. Picture books were long done with, though not comics. Beano, Dandy and Swift remained as essential as pudding, but they were not the main course. That was always a ‘real’ book and, unsurprisingly, I first liked adventure stories in which the characters
got into, and extricated themselves from, fix after perilous fix. I’d not entirely left behind Enid Blyton, with her string of bland ‘adventures’. But I wo
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My first parting of ways came fifty years ago, when I was 8. In September 1957 I was to be sent away to prep school. I could hardly wait.A brand-new brown trunk, inscribed with my name and school number, had been acquired weeks before. My mother had immediately begun assembling, name-tagging and ticking off items from a printed schedule sent to her by Matron, and then laying them neatly in the trunk. Meanwhile, no doubt to prime me, I was given a Jennings book to read, one of a series of prep-school stories written by Anthony Buckeridge. I was soon comprehensively hooked, and began working my way methodically through all eight existing titles, from Jennings Goes to School, first published in 1950, to the latest, Thanks to Jennings. Three days before the start of term, with my trunk packed at last, I was brimming with Jennings-fuelled excitement. Then a virulent Asian ’flu struck. I woke the following morning feeling alternately hot and cold, with a pounding head and a lacerating cough. Over the next fortnight, I did little but lie in bed drinking Robinson’s Lemon Barley and rereading my Jennings books. Feverishly rereading them. Many children welcome illness as an escape from school. Jennings and his friend Darbishire gave me the paradoxical consolation of taking me out of the sickroom and into the classroom. It seemed to me a classroom of delight. My 8-year-old reading was not offensively precocious but, as far back as I can remember, books had been as important as food. Picture books were long done with, though not comics. Beano, Dandy and Swift remained as essential as pudding, but they were not the main course. That was always a ‘real’ book and, unsurprisingly, I first liked adventure stories in which the characters got into, and extricated themselves from, fix after perilous fix. I’d not entirely left behind Enid Blyton, with her string of bland ‘adventures’. But I would never pick up a Blyton if something more red-blooded was to hand, such as Biggles in the Gobi or Riders of Red Range. Then, from my comics, I had learned to like humour. Blyton was more or less completely devoid of this, while W. E. Johns’s blokeish comedy was incidental to his thrilling dog-fights and sticky take-offs. In humour, the field was led by Richmal Crompton. The William Brown books were the Beano in words, but I could see that these words worked on a more complex level than the slapstick of Dennis the Menace. They were comedies of manners and, quite often, of ideas too. Finally, like most small boys, I had got into the habit of looking for heroes. Biggles was a good one, so was Robin Hood. But the hero did not have to tighten his lip or thump his chest. The clever employment of words and imagination to solve a problem, unhook oneself from a dilemma or outwit an opponent, were as potent as any action, in my opinion. William, with his unquenchable idealism, low cunning and muddy knees, registered high in the Pantheon. Into this mix, in that summer half a century ago, came J. C. T. Jennings. And I found that each of the literary ingredients just outlined – adventure, comedy, character and verbal dexterity – were beautifully combined in life at Linbury Court School. No wonder I was besotted. Anthony Buckeridge (1912–2004) received a private education through charitable grants. Though a lifelong socialist (and pacifist), he taught at a fee-charging boarding school for boys – a prep school – until the success of Jennings enabled him to write full-time. During the Second World War he had served as a fireman – an experience he put to good use in a farcical episode of Jennings Goes to School, when Jennings unadvisedly calls out the Dunhambury Fire Station’s turntable ladder. Buckeridge had first cast his stories in the form of radio plays for the BBC’s Children’s Hour. They were immediately popular and he began to transplant them even more successfully into novels, of which there would eventually be twenty-two. These books are structured with classical restraint. The action always centres on the activities of Jennings and Darbishire, with other boys (Venables, Atkinson, Bromwich major) having walk-on parts or acting as a chorus. The setting, at least in the early titles, is never other than Linbury Court or its immediate environs, and the time is invariably the span of a single term. Typically, three running plots are interwoven, each reaching crisis and resolution at a different point in the narrative. It sounds formulaic but, remembering that juvenile readers enjoy repetition, and looking at the stories again as an adult, I am struck by the freshness with which Buckeridge infuses each new title. Buckeridge’s fictional world bears more than a passing resemblance to that of P. G. Wodehouse, who had cut his own literary teeth writing school stories. Linbury Court is a very Wodehousian milieu, in that it is noticeably lacking in violence, spite and darkness in general. No one there behaves cruelly, bears malice or grows old (Jennings, unlike Harry Potter, remains forever 11). Linbury Court is, in fact, no more malign than Blandings Castle or the Drones Club. True, in the early chapters of Jennings Goes to School, Jennings is frightened by a larger boy, Temple (allegedly the school boxing champion), who challenges him to a fight over precedence in the use of a washbasin. The prospect of a ‘bashing up’ by Temple leads Jennings and Darbishire to run away. They get as far as the nearby town, where Mr Carter’s tactful intervention makes sure the escape bid fails. But the failure itself provides Jennings with the means to best Temple. He does not need to fight him now; the prestige he gets from having ‘foxed into town’ and returned with sticks of rock from Valenti’s famous shop, ‘with the shop’s name on the bag to prove he had been’, is enough to save him. After this early hint of bullying – a seam mined to exhaustion in most schoolboy fiction – it is not heard of again at Linbury Court. Even more signally absent is corporal punishment. A severe ticking off, extra work, lines or detention are the worst an offender can expect, even from the volcanic Mr Wilkins. Sometimes punishments are a positive pleasure. One of my own favourites in the series, Jennings Follows a Clue, has Mr Carter correcting the boys’ rowdy spy-chasing game by making them listen to a Sherlock Holmes story, which enthralls them (and did me, when I followed the clue and read Conan Doyle for myself). The masters at Linbury Court are generally benign. The Head, Pemberton-Oakes, has faults reminiscent of Lord Emsworth: a touch idle, inclined to be detached, bumbling, complacent, and prone to doing the Times crossword when he should be signing reports. But he is just as affectionately drawn as Wodehouse’s earl – an educator at heart, who would rather create a good, happy school (albeit sustained by the efficiency and common sense of his Senior Master, Mr Carter) than make money out of a bad, miserable one. The Head apart, only two of the masters, Carter and Wilkins, count for anything. These contrasting types represent the broader range of men in any prep-school staff-room, but they also serve in their different ways to expose the yawning gulf in outlook between child and adult in the prep-school world. They are the yin and yang of school teaching: the one rational, patient and understanding of boys; the other none of the above. Wilkins, with his bullish impatience, explosive cries of ‘Corwhump!’ and failure to grasp (or remember) what 11-year-old boys are like, repeatedly makes life difficult for Jennings and his friends. But, despite being unsuitable for his chosen profession, his are venial sins: ‘though Mr Wilkins’s bark was brusque, his bite was largely bluff ’. The avuncular Carter, on the other hand, is an idealized figure who often gets the boys out of scrapes, though he operates on the sound principle that, wherever possible, they should be allowed to sort out their problems for themselves. He has a profound knowledge of their apparently surreal thought-processes; but even he has not the slightest tendency to think that way himself. It cannot be said that the Carter-Wilkins axis covers the range of teaching staff in a real school, or even in other fictional ones (there is no room in this idyll for Evelyn Waugh’s paedophile Captain Grimes, or Sigismund, the Mad Maths Master from Molesworth). But by dispensing with a fuller cast of teachers, Buckeridge shows his absolute commitment to the boys’ point of view. That commitment colours the writing throughout, but nowhere more vividly or funnily than in the literal rendering of how a child’s behaviour is actuated by his fantasy life.
Venables sat in his classroom that evening after tea; he was wearing pipe-cleaner spectacles and making pipe-cleaner poodles. Binns minor, who usually chose to be a jet-propelled aircraft at that time of day, flew in at desk-top level. Spotting Venables through his bomb-sights, he banked sharply, throttled back his engine with a sharp snap of his teeth, and circled down to make a perfect landing on the runway between the desks.Buckeridge’s constant theme is the friendship of Jennings and Darbishire; it runs through the books like a vital nerve. They come together, not through some ineffable magnetism, but out of circumstance, arriving together as the only new boys in their dormitory and bonding under pressure from a strange new environment. Jennings is the attractive, confident one, the natural leader, while Darbishire is an endearing, bespectacled nebbish. The pair’s cross-wired logic and misplaced idealism repeatedly get them into trouble, but they are never wantonly naughty. At Linbury Court, their roads to detention are paved only with the best of intentions. They are a comedy duo, a prep-school Jewell and Warris. But how realistically imagined? Not very, if you look (for example) at Prep School (1991), a revealing anthology of memories compiled by the late crime writer Michael Gilbert. Gilbert’s contributors show the extent to which Britain’s five hundred or so boys’ prep schools were ‘total institutions’, in just the sense that would be used, a few years later, by the psychologist Irving Goffman when writing of asylums: places of confinement and round-the-clock surveillance, their inmates cut off from the wider world and vertically organized along a strict ladder of authority (in Goffman-speak ‘echelon-control’) on which the most recent arrivals occupied the lowest possible rung. It was a structure that invited abuse, so that the boys’ lives were not only confined but also constantly threatened by persecution, public humiliation and violence. In such circumstances the prevailing emotion was fear – fear of doing the wrong thing, fear of breaking the rules, fear of violence from other boys, or from adults, or from accidents. As Cyril Connolly put it in his memoir Enemies of Promise, the prep school that he attended – and where he was George Orwell’s contemporary – was an ‘incubator of paranoia’. In his essay ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, the author of 1984 also looked back at ‘St Cyprian’s’ – not with the same mixed feelings as Connolly, but in a mood of sustained hatred:
Your home might not be perfect but at least it was ruled by love rather than fear, where you did not have to be perpetually on your guard against the people surrounding you. At eight years old you were suddenly taken out of this warm nest and flung into a world of force and fraud and secrecy, like a gold-fish into a tank full of pike.Though Orwell was writing of a time before 1920, the prep-school world did not much change over the next thirty years. Yet Linbury Court has no pike menacing its green-tinged waters. It is full of fun, jokes and optimism, and it also always feels like a real school. How on earth does Buckeridge do this? Not by denying the anxiety underlying the schoolboy’s life, but by transforming it. The characteristic Jennings storyline hinges on impending disaster, infusing the books with anxieties quite comparable to, but very different from, those that haunted Connolly and Orwell. In Buckeridge the threat of evil arises only from impersonal things – misunderstandings, cracked reasoning and actions based on insufficient data. A master’s instruction is taken too literally, or not literally enough, or a situation is misinterpreted owing to some freak alignment of circumstances. This enables Buckeridge to indulge to the full his enjoyment of semantic confusion, but it also reveals a lot about his moral outlook. Appropriately for a lifelong pacifist, evildoing was for him akin to one of the oldest proverbs on record – the Hittites’ insistence that ‘war is not the fault of people but of words’. To raise the origin of evil in discussing a 1950s schoolboy comedy risks critical overload. But, four years after Jennings Goes to School, another schoolteacher, William Golding, published his own view of prep-school boys, Lord of the Flies, in which two elements are central: the problem of evil, and the relationship between the 11-year-olds Ralph and Piggy. The similarities between Buckeridge’s and Golding’s duos are striking. Ralph, like Jennings, is good-looking and courageous, while his myopic acolyte is a fatter and cleverer Darbishire. Their respective alliances, like many childhood friendships, are forged defensively against the unpredictable forces that surround them. The prevalence of these forces on Golding’s desert island brings death and despair; at Linbury Court they infuse the stories with life and provide the fun. Did Golding read Buckeridge? I think so. For, whether consciously or not, Lord of the Flies looks remarkably like a dystopian inversion of the Linbury Court idyll: a tragedy to match a comedy. The tale of my obsession with Jennings in the summer of 1957 has a slightly rueful ending. My arrival at the longed-for school was quickly followed by painful disillusion, as I ran smack into its Goffmanesque, or Orwellian, aspect. Much as I loved and believed in Linbury Court, I could no longer square it with everyday reality. I suppose this was an early lesson in the separation of art and life. But it was a sharp one, and no sooner had I absorbed it than I stopped reading Jennings. Would any child of today take to Jennings? Judging by the Harry Potter craze, stories set in old-fashioned boarding schools are the very thing right now, especially when their young readers will never have to inhabit one. Linbury Court may not have been an accurate reflection of the prep-school life I knew, but it doesn’t have to be. It is a stage on which Buckeridge can display his rare ability to enter unpatronizingly into a child’s mind, with all its optimism, its mistakes and its wonky assessment of consequences. The backcloth may present an idealized picture, but Jennings and Darbishire are true, and that is the point.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 17 © Robin Blake 2008
About the contributor
Robin Blake is a prize-winning author – Form 2 English Prize, 1959. He also served briefly as a tuck-shop monitor.