Friday, 9 November 2012

November 2012: Anthony Buckeridge's "Jennings' Little Hut" and our December book

Fossilised fish-hooks!  We went back to 1951 this month to spend some time at Linbury Court Preparatory School with JCT Jennings, his friend CEJ Darbishire and 77 other well-brought-up but excitable small boys, and to laugh at their adventures in Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings' Little Hut: building dens, exercising a goldfish in the school pool, smashing the Archbeako's cucumber frame with a wayward cricket ball, and generally getting into scrapes.

Born in 1912, Anthony Buckeridge was a schoolmaster in a prep school in Sussex in the 1940s when he began to invent tales about a boy called Jennings.  Like Joan Aiken, whose stories were first heard on Children's Hour in 1941, Buckeridge submitted a  script to the BBC about the well-meaning but hare-brained little boy, and between 1948 and 1962 Jennings and his perpetually ten-year old schoolfriends were Children's Hour favourites.  The first book, Jennings Goes to School, appeared in 1950 and a further 24 titles followed over the next 45 years.  Buckeridge died in 2004, aged 92.

It seemed we either loved Jennings or were  baffled by him.  Those of us who had fallen in love with Linbury Court as children were not disappointed by returning.  Those for whom it was their first visit found the book harder to enjoy, and somewhat  anachronistic.  The first chapter, devoted to the technicalities of hut building, proved difficult to overcome; the complexities of cricket - so vital to all boys' school stories - was also something of a turn-off.  But everyone loved the unique language: particularly the boys' specialised vocabulary of complaint and exclamation - everything being 'ozard', 'wizard' or 'supersonic',  accompanied by imprecations to 'ankle round', 'hoof off' or 'fox round', while the teachers were either 'heading this way at forty knots' or 'taking off on a roof level attack'.

We explored the differences between the girls' school stories of Enid Blyton's Malory Towers with its bullying spitefulness, and Buckeridge's Linbury Court with its focus on the boys' comic high spirits and well-intentioned schemes, and where everyone seemed to be liked by their peers - even 'clodpoll' Darbishire, the 'newt-brained shrimp wit' who is rubbish at games and tends to quote his father - a vicar - and Tennyson rather too often.  We compared Jennings with that other 1950's schoolboy of repute, the satirical Nigel Molesworth of St Custard's, the male equivalent of Geoffrey Willans' other school series, St Trinian's.  Molesworth seems just that bit more street-wise and appealing, with his 'history started badly and hav been geting steadily worse' attitude and his sketchy approach to 'speling', while St Custard's is more anarchically terrifying than gentle Linbury Court, ruled as it is with an iron fist by Headmaster Grimes (BA, Stoke on Trent),  constantly in search of cash to supplement his income and who runs a whelk stall part-time.
We discussed the powerful literary heritage of 19th and early 20th century boys' public school stories, and the imprinting of their ethos, language and experiences on subsequent generations, as evidenced by books such as Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's School Days (1857), Frank Richards' Billy Bunter and others - right up to today with Harry Potter and Hogwart's school (a name which first appeared in the Molesworth books as the rival school to St Custard's).  We looked at some examples of the genre from Bath Library's archive of historic children's books, including a copy of A Toast Fag (1901) by Harold Avery, which had been presented as a prize in 1911 to a child at South Oldfield Junior School - far removed from Eton, Harrow and Rugby.  We ended by briefly discussing the influence of P G Wodehouse, who was Anthony Buckeridge's favourite author.
We are staying in the 1950s next month to read The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy Boston (1954) and will meet again on Wednesday 5 December 2012 at 1015.

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