Friday, December 12, 2014

Down With Skool! by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle

Before we get on to the review, a quick announcement! The winner of the Goldstone Woods giveaway has been selected--Beth, congratulations, and I hope you enjoy your book :).

"O.K. come in."

Growing up homeschooled didn't mean that we never read school stories. On the contrary, we read and enjoyed all sorts of school stories, from Enid Blyton's Naughtiest Girl in the School to Talbot Baines Reed's The Master of the Shell. Oddly enough, however, I don't remember ever feeling the faintest curiosity about what attending an actual school would actually be like.

Perhaps part of this lack of curiosity was due to Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle.

Down With Skool! is the first, and perhaps most accessible, of Willans and Searle's infamous series lampooning the British public boys' school (the same illustrator was responsible for St Trinian's, which I have not read) Purporting to be the memoirs of "nigel molesworth, the curse of st custard's and gorila of 3B", illustrated with whimsical (and repulsive) ink drawings, the full title is:


A guide to school life for tiny pupils and their parents


--all of it irreverent ("the skool i am uterly wet and weedy as i shall (i hope) make clear but of course that is the same with all skools"), endlessly quotable (" any fule kno"), hopelessly jingoistic ("the british are brave super and noble cheers cheers cheers"), and delicately absurdist (the series of illustrations titled, in turn "A GAUL marching into Italy", "A ROMAN marching into Gaul", "A Gaul and a Roman passing each other in the Alps", "A GAUL returning to Gaul" and--don't tell me you didn't see it coming--"A ROMAN returning to Rome").

How sir molesworth led the apprentices from the City stormed the skool and claped the headmaster in the Tower
We found it uterly hilarious, though not all of our friends concurred. Maybe you have to come to it no later than around ten or eleven, or have the right kind of classical education, or the kind of mind that also finds 1066 And All That and The Goon Show pretty hilarious. At any rate, this is another fine sampling of the British comic genius. My favourite selections include "The Revolt of the Prunes",  which is a note-perfect parody of every British boys' adventure story ever:
It took the skool half an hour to realize that JASPER the headmaster was dead murdered by the prunes. Then all the masters quareled who would wield the kane. At molesworth's table he was recovering from a siesta when the news was brought.
"Dead?" he said. "By whom?" (Grammer.)
"The prunes are openly revolting."
molesworth by a grate act of heroism choked back the quip which rose to his lips.
"Sound the alarm," he cried.
Then there's the Latin play "The Hogwarts" by Marcus Plautus Molesworthus from the sequel How to Be Topp:
Sene One. The villa of Cotta at Rome. Enter CORTICUS a dreary old slave and RADIX his mate

CORTICUS:(laying a skin of wine at the sideboard) Eheu!
(The headmaster and all lat. masters who watch roar with larffter)
RADIX: Eheu!
(More larffter they are in stiches)
RADIX: Eheu!
(The curtain falls as the masters roll helplessly in the aisles.)" 
And if the title of this scintillating drama reminds you of anything, yes, it does seem certain that JK Rowling has read these books, "Hogwarts", "wizard wheezes" and all. Perhaps it was for this reason that when the BBC recently made an audio recording of the books, they chose Harry Potter star Rupert Grint to narrate.

I'd be the first to admit that Down With Skool doesn't even have the excuse of 1066 And All That, of being really rather informative in a misleading and hilarious way. What it is is clever, absurd, and a well-loved part of my childhood. Long may it be enjoyed--and, down with skool!

Find Down With Skool! on Amazon, The Book Depository, and Open Library.


Joseph J. said...

My public library has failed me this time. Damned 'Reference' books. Who would make 'Down with Skool' a reference book?

Kim Marsh said...

Yes, I have read and enjoyed both Molesworth and 1066 but I don't think Molesworth works for an adult. However you mentioned grea t British humouriists here are three to check out if you haven't already. A G MacDonnell, England Their England . Two fine newspaper columnists, J B.Morton (Beachcomber) and Myles na cGopaleen(aka Flann O'Brian. Over Christmas I shall stick with Pickwick. (have you ever been tempted to ask people to celebrat a Dickensian Christmas and give them a dish of gruel to eat?).
Many good wishes to you for the season. Kim

Anonymous said...

Joseph J.,

Having worked in a public library, my guess is - someone who didn't want it (or, the last remaining copy of it?) stolen... Laughing out loud in a library has its peculiar pleasures, though they can be short-lived (depending on the librarian).

I did not encounter them till I was grown up, and thoroughly enjoy them. I've since known (day-)school children to be very careful as to when they read them, for fear of them destablizing their spelling when a test was coming up...

David Llewellyn Dodds


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