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?)

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