George and Weedon Grossmith (Penguin Popular Classics, 1995)
This classic of English humour was written during the Victorian age, but it feels more Edwardian than Victorian. Like Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, there is something gentle and oddly optimistic about it. In many ways the book still seems refreshingly modern in its depiction of a very ordinary individual, devoid of much intellect or greatness of character, and his battles with everyday living as a cog in the massive urban wheel of Victorian London.
Mr. Henry Pooter (who could ever forget the wild genius of that name?) is a suburban bank clerk who lives in Holloway with his “dear wife Carrie”. The tedium of their lives, and their apparent ignorance of it, is described in hilarious detail: “There is always something to be done: a tin-tack here, a Venetian blind to put up straight, a fan to nail up, or part of a carpet to nail down –all of which I can do with my pipe in my mouth; while Carrie is not above putting a button on a shirt, mending a pillow-case, or practising the ‘Sylvia Gavotte’ on our new cottage piano.” Battles with insolent tradespeople and boorish acquaintances Cummings and Gowing, difficulties with his wayward son Lupin (another brilliant name, which succeeds in being both woolly and Victorian), pretensions to upper middle-classdom, and DIY disasters provide much of the book’s narrative tension. Particular comic highlights include the famous red enamel paint episode and Pooter’s indignation over an insulting Christmas card mistakenly addressed to him (“I am a poor man, but I would gladly give ten shillings to find out who sent me the insulting Christmas card I received this morning. I never insult people; why should they insult me?”) and his resulting persecution complex, relieved only when the true addressee is revealed. His anger over having his name constantly mis-spelt in a society column report of a do put on by the Lord Mayor and the account of the “séance” are hugely amusing as well.
The book is a brilliant exercise in characterisation. Pooter comes to life as an irresistibly comic and appealing person, as his hopes for domestic harmony and social advancement are continually thwarted. His self-importance and complete lack of humour about his own circumstances (pace the Christmas card episode) render his struggles all the funnier. But he is likeable too, because his wishes and desires are things that we can all identify with, and we recognise the petit-bourgeois dullness of his world and sympathise with his subconscious wishes for escape. As the book continues we identify more and more with Pooter’s annoyances and end with a feeling that our powers of empathy have been given a good stretch. The Diary of a Nobody is not just a work of humour; it shows us the daily lives of the Victorian middle-classes, and makes us understand what motivated people like Pooter. The Grossmiths took the character of the archetypal Bore and humanised him. That is a tremendous achievement, and it is the secret of the book’s lasting popularity. --Isabel Taylor
Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, 1999)
The four Molesworth books that appear in this omnibus edition (generously comprising Down With Skool!, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms, and Back in the Jug Agane) are subversive and anarchic classics of English humour, and use the persona of the supremely cynical and disaffected adolescent schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, whose views on teachers, school food, parents, and the realities of life in the post-war era are set forth in hilariously bad spelling. The books focus mainly on his trials and tribulations at a run-down 1950s preparatory (public) school called St Custard’s. They were written with uncanny brilliance by Geoffrey Willans, a former schoolmaster, and illustrated with semi-Gothic flair by the great cartoonist Ronald Searle.
The first book in the quartet, Down With Skool! contains acerbic observations on different types of schoolmasters, including English masters (“English masters hav long hair red ties and weeds like wordsworth throw them into exstatsies”) and French masters (“According to ancient tradition no fr. master can keep order.”) Nigel is always entertaining, whether musing on “Skool Food, or the piece of cod which passeth understanding”, or “How to Torture Parents”, which includes such dastardly methods as forcing them to watch school plays and displays of country dancing by the boys “on ye sham vilage green”, or requiring the male parent to assist in the truly frustrating “Assembly of the Whizzo Space Ship”. How to be Topp casts an equally jaundiced eye over the rationale for studying Classics (“Akquire culture and keep the brane clean”), and traditional Christmas celebrations, among other things. The latter contains the useful “Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter”, which looks to me rather like a spoof of the form letter, with things to be crossed out, that men at the front in World War I were allowed to send home. Sometimes Nigel goes too far…
Whizz for Atomms is unique in the series. It tells us more about the average schoolchild’s perceptions of the post-war world than any of the other Molesworth books; as Molesworth remarks, “No one kno wot to do about anything at the moment, so they sa the future is in the hands of YOUTH”. The book addresses now long forgotten concerns and interests, such as being a Young Elizabethan, cowboy novels, and “How to Survive in the Atommic Age”, and shows us how pivotal strike disputes used to be in an impressive section entitled “Thortful work on labour relations”. It is good to be reminded, in a high tech and correspondingly jaded age, that television was seen as extremely novel and exciting when it first made its appearance (“Gosh super! we hav something to contend with which other generation hav ever had before i.e. the television cheers cheers cheers.”) When an American master arrives at St Custard’s, Nigel naturally fantasises about the possibility that a Russian teacher might come to the school too. Whizz for Atomms’ fascination lies in the fact that it is so much of its time.
The last book in the quartet, Back in the Jug Agane, ponders such matters as the Entente Cordiale, shaken to its foundations by the visit of a French boy to the Molesworth home (“ARMAND arive you can well immagine him only he is worse than anything you can immagine”) and sketches an ill-fated attempt by Nigel at reforming himself, including the determination to “luv gurls”, “swot”, and learn to “dansey-dansey”. He takes his own backsliding philosophically, however, for as he himself wryly remarks, “Life is tuough. It depends whether you can take it.” --Isabel Taylor