Archive for September 18th, 2011

September 18, 2011

Dick Beresford, The Uncensored Boy’s Own: Spiffing Tales of Plucky Deeds and Unspeakable Beastliness

Last week’s Left of Cool piece. A word of apology (to those of you who know enough to need it). Cramming the entire history of the school story into a couple hundred words for context was a very difficult thing to do – particularly since my M.Phil thesis dealt with the subject and I knew enough to know whenever I was making a gross oversimplification.

Also, a shout out to the wonderful Sridala Swami who discovered this book somewhere in Scotland and sent it to me. (She also sent me my first ever Jilly Cooper book, which I look forward to writing about on this blog)

 

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In the second half of the nineteenth century, newspapers and magazines for girls and boys really took off. The most prominent of these (at least among boys) was The Boy’s Own Paper, first published in 1879. The trend continued well into the twentieth century – The Boy’s Own Paper continued in one form or the other well into the 1960s. A major feature of these magazines were serialised adventure stories and school stories – for example Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter stories, published in The Magnet. The school story was famous in book form too, though many Indians are most familiar with Enid Blyton’s (comparatively late for the genre) Malory Towers books. P.G Wodehouse wrote school stories for magazines at the beginning of his career, centring them around the fictional schools Wrykyn and St Austin’s.

A genre as popular as the serialised school story was bound to have its parodists – and often these were the writers themselves. Wodehouse often mocked the genre even as he wrote within it. Kipling was rather more biting with his Stalky & Co. The greatest of the modern school story parodies (I will not accept that this is subjective opinion) is Geoffrey Willans’ Molesworth series; a record of life at St Custard’s school told in the voice (and spelling) of one Nigel Molesworth (“Skool according to headmaster’s pi-jaw is like Life chiz* if that is the case wot is the use of going on?”)

An unusual take on the school story parody is Dick Beresford’s The Uncensored Boy’s Own: Spiffing Tales of Plucky Deeds and Unspeakable Beastliness. The title’s exaggerated use of the language associated with the genre makes its satirical intent clear. Yet the illustrations look surprisingly authentic-almost as if they had been drawn at the height of The Boy’s Own Paper’s popularity. It turns out that this is exactly what they are. Beresford (a pseudonym of the incredibly prolific Russell Ash) has taken original art from works published from 1925-35 and added his own captions to create a strange and sordid history of life at “St. Fred’s”.

Most of the humour comes from the selection of illustrations, which create the impression that St. Fred’s is a very strange school indeed. One spends a great deal of time wondering what sort of original stories required pictures of boys hiding onions up chimneys, being attacked by minotaurs, being led into dark rooms wearing sunglasses or watching films with a Mark Twain lookalike. One chapter expresses bewilderment at the behaviour of some members of staff (“I heard they belonged to an exclusive gentlemen-only rumba club, from which they often had to be collected in an advanced state of intoxication”).

Another chapter addresses the painful subject of “beastliness” or homosexuality within the school – rather aggravated at St. Fred’s by the strange custom of making the boys share beds. Eventually the young men find out about girls (“Matron tried to help out by showing us some interesting photographs). Once the narrator comes across a copy of Kraft-Ebing’s Psycopathia Sexualis, things get even more interesting, if slightly confusing (“at first they didn’t believe a word, especially all that stuff about the gerbils and the butter”).

There are also a series of gags about boy scouts, school camping trips, odd traditions and cricket matches. The Uncensored Boy’s Own relies upon a certain level of knowledge from the reader – as with any parody you have to be familiar enough with the original to know what is being mocked. This is also what makes it predictable – the overblown language, the violent schoolgirls, the sinister foreigners. The incongruity of pictures and words is funny, but not sustainably so – in the end the book is too lightweight to work. The Uncensored Boy’s Own is extremely silly and so beautifully produced as to look quite authentic, but other than as a curiosity or a collector’s piece (for those of us who find the school story endlessly fascinating) it’s hard to know why anyone would bother.

*”a chiz is a swiz or a swindle, as any fule kno.”

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(Thanks to my own anarchic tagging, only a few of my many posts about the school story are viewable here - for more you’d have to hunt through the whole of the blog. And wouldn’t that be awful?)
September 18, 2011

Maeve Gilmore, Titus Awakes

Technically Maeve Gilmore and Mervyn Peake, but only the fragment at the very beginning is Peake’s, and most of what I’ll be discussing is therefore his wife’s.

The situation as I understand it is as follows: Peake died in 1968 leaving only a fragment and notes for the intended fourth book in the Titus series, Titus Awakes. In the years following his death his wife Maeve Gilmore, with whom he had discussed the book, worked on a manuscript of her own based on these scraps of Titus Awakes titled Search Without End. According to Brian Sibley’s introduction to this book Gilmore did not initially plan to publish the book (though there’s no indication that she was against it). The manuscript was lost for some time but resurfaced early last year and was published in time for Peake’s centenary.

The result is a very strange book, and a very uncomfortable read.

To start with, Titus Awakes is closer in feel to Titus Alone than to the two books set in Gormenghast. Titus Groan and Gormenghast are both deeply strange books in many ways, but the world in which they are set is a self-contained one, and there’s a general sense of knowing where things ought to be (this is something that informs the plot to a great extent as well). Titus Alone represents a massive change stylistically – suddenly we’re in a world that Gormenghast hadn’t prepared us for, but that exists in the same universe. Suddenly we have cars and pretentious literary partygoers and surveillance technology. You don’t know where this world will lead you.

Titus Alone has Titus wandering, and trying to come to terms with a sense of self that isn’t centred around Gormenghast. Titus Awakes has, in some ways, more of the same, but many of the places Titus visits seem to make reference to Peake’s own life – particularly his World War II experiences. There is a meeting with an artist (Maeve herself?), some time spent in a hospital, and at the end of the book Titus travels to Sark (where the Peake family lived for some years) and appears to meet Peake himself. Gilmore sometimes captures the weird, dreamlike quality of much of Peake’s writing. Attempts to write like Peake (if that ever was the intent) fail – often Gilmore has her characters speaking with more like the narrator of the Gormenghast books than actual people.

Sibley states in the introduction that while the book “begun as an act of homage” it evolved into “a highly personal quest to understand her husband’s tragic descent into illness in terms of his artistic and literary brilliance”. This is the real problem – it is intensely personal. I suspect that the writing of it may have been cathartic, but it’s so uncomfortably tied up in Gilmore’s own relationship with Peake that for me, at least, it was hard to separate the two. I felt like an intruder all the time.

Gilmore has written another book about her life with Peake – the autobiographical A World Away. In terms of style and coherence that book is probably a lot better than this one. But what I took from Titus Awakes that I could not see in A World Away was a stronger sense of Peake and Gilmore as both being artists with a great sense of respect and understanding for each other’s work.But this, once again, is less about the book than the Peakes – however hard I try I find myself judging Titus Awakes on what it tells me about the relationship between  the authors rather than on its own merits. And that doesn’t feel right at all.