The Molesworth Cronickles


IT WAS in 1939 that Nigel Molesworth, the ‘goriller of 3B’ and the ‘Curse of St Custard’s’, first saw the light of day in Punch magazine. He cast a jaundiced eye over the boarding school system in a series of misspelt observations. He was a comic masterpiece who makes me smile to this day, more than 60 years after I first encountered him, and gave the world the expression ‘as any fule kno’.

Molesworth was the creation of Geoffrey Willans, born in 1911, who was a pupil at Blundell’s School in Tiverton, Devon, and went on to become a master there. He put his experience to brilliant use, skewering lazy and stupid teachers while musing on the futility of life and the problems of having a younger brother, molesworth 2, at the same prep school.

Willans served in the war on the corvette HMS Peony and the carrier HMS Formidable, going on to work with the BBC European Service. In the early 1950s he approached Ronald Searle, whose series of cartoon books about the girls’ school St Trinian’s was a major success, to illustrate a Molesworth volume. Searle was reluctant to take on another school project but was won over when he read the material.

The pair’s first collaboration was Down with Skool! A Guide to School Life for Tiny Pupils and their Parents. It was published in October 1953 and by Christmas had sold almost 54,000 copies.

According to Molesworth, St Custard’s was ‘built by a madman in 1836’. An early illustration purports to be a photograph of the school. ‘That is the front door in front but you can’t get in since the boys nailed it up you hav to go in somewhere behind which fortunately you can’t see as it is most unsavoury. On the right is the fire escape which props up the skool I think or the skool props it up i am not sure. It is good to get out by at night but if there is a fire it is quicker to use that drane pipe. It is still quicker to jump out but in my case they might take the blanket away chiz.*

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

The headmaster is GRIMES (BA, Stoke-on-Trent), always spelt in capitals to signify the fear he instils in Molesworth. He is forever on the lookout for money-making schemes and runs a part-time whelk stall. The mad maths master, Sigismund Arbuthnot, often appears in young Nigel’s nightmares.

In a 1984 foreword to an omnibus edition, The Compleet Molesworth, the lyricist Tim Rice writes: ‘I was at my own prep school when the Molesworth memoirs appeared and in the perfect position to appreciate nigel’s struggle against everything that life could fling at him. His problems were mine; there was and still is a rice 2, and so many of his philosophical gems summed up my own situation and outlook precisely.

‘molesworth discovered at a tender age that life was a deckchair, hard to assemble into a coherent, useful or permanent shape and, even if assembled, liable to collapse without notice. While lesser mortals grappled with their deckchairs, nigel molesworth’s wise answer to the struggle was to stand and watch. Other observers of a set-up such as st custard’s saw nothing more than rows of identical and unattractive students presided over by identical and uninspiring masters – this scenario itself one to be found in every educational institution in the British Isles. molesworth saw behind superficial uniformity, comprehended the many and essential differences between one ink-stained inmate and the next, perceived that the authoritarian façade of the staff was an attempt to conceal a ragbag of human frailties.

‘Re-reading nigel’s thoughts in 1984 one realises that George Orwell was not the only writer from the century’s middle decades whose words still have a pungent relevance today.’

Beneath a drawing of a piggy-faced boy in a striped school cap, Molesworth introduces himself thus:

‘This is me e.g. nigel molesworth the curse of st custard’s which is the skool i am at. It is uterly wet and weedy as i shall (i hope) make clear but of course that is the same with all skools.

‘e.g. they are nothing but kanes, lat. French geog. hist. algy, geom, headmasters, skool dogs, sossages, my bro molesworth 2 and MASTERS everywhere.

‘The only good things about skool are the BOYS wizz who are noble, brave, fearless etc, although you hav various swots, bullies, cissies, milksops greedy guts and oiks with whom i am forced to mingle hem-hem.

‘In fact any school is a shambles AS YOU WILL SEE.’

Nigel goes on to describe some of his contemporaries. Beneath a picture of a curly-haired cherub with a skipping rope is the legend:

‘fotherington-tomas. As you see he is skipping like a girlie he is uterly wet and sissy. He reads chatterbox chiz and we suspeckt that he kepes dollies at home. Anyway his favourite charakter is little lord fauntleroy and when I sa he have a face like a tomato he repli i forgive you molesworth for those uncouth words.’

A picture of a gawky child with spectacles resting on a huge nose has the caption:

‘Gosh chiz this is molesworth 2 my bro he is uterly wet and a weed it panes me to think i am of the same blud. He is always eating and cheeks everybode. You kno when fotherington-tomas sa there are fairies at the bottom of his garden molesworth 2 sa there is a dirty old rubbish heap at the bottom of his then zoom away dive bombing sparows worms the skool dog and other poor dumb creatures. I diskard him.’

And an upside-down picture of a hirsute youth is accompanied by:

‘it is a wonder this one didn’t bust the camera it is peason, he is my grate friend which means we tuough each other up continually. Acktually he not bad tho we argue a lot saying am not am not am not etc until we are called on to tuough up a few junior ticks.’

Turning to the staff, Molesworth opines: ‘Second to swots headmasters like boys who are good at foopball and shoot goals then they can shout “Pile in caruthers strate for goal” or other weedy things from the touchline.

‘Personally i am not good at foopball i just concentrate on hacking everybode. Headmaster yell at me he sa MARK YOUR MAN MOLESWORTH ONE what does he think i am, the arsenal chiz. Acktually fotherington-tomas is worse than me he is goalie and spend his time skipping about he say Hullo clouds hullo sky hullo sun etc when huge centre forward bearing down on him and SHOT whistles past his nose. When all the team sa you should have stoped it fotherington-tomas he repli “i simply don’t care a row of buttons whether it was a goal or not nature alone is beattful.”

‘i do not think he will catch the selectors eye.

‘Every headmaster hav a study or sitting room with easy chair for boys to bend over in fact it is not so much the kaning we object to it is the smell of the cushions and all that fluff down there. Peason sa he once found 2/6 down there but i expect it was a woper he always tells them.’

Under the heading ARE MASTERS NESESSESSARY? Nigel opines: ‘The job of masters is suposed to be to teach boys lessons e.g. geog lat fr. div hist bot arith algy and geom.

‘Aktually most of them prefer BEER and PUBS. They are always late for breakfast not like keen alert boys who goble porridge with grate gusto and look scorn on masters pale yelow faces when they see a skool sossage. Then is the time to ask Would you like some cream sir? or Gosh look at my egg sir its all runny.’

In a section on French teachers Molesworth writes: ‘Acording to ancient tradition no fr. master can keep order. Whenever a French master apere in the doorway it is a signal for hale of ink pots rubers chalk and stink bombs poo gosh. The fr. master then loose his temper and sa: “mon diue canaille allez-hoop” or my god they’re at it agane. nb if the fr master is English this amount of French is ushually beyond him, he sa: “turn it up 2B now, turn it up” (tournez-le dessus maintenant).’

On singing teachers, Nigel observes that they are ‘frequently fr. maths lat or geog masters. This is becos when they first come up to the headmaster and say “Any odd jobs going, chop your wood?” the head say, “Yes you could take 2B in div. geog. handiwork and carpenty but only if you play the organ and take singing as well.” Singing master then touch his cap. “Give you a bit of a jingle” he sa and take out a mouth organ at which headmaster flee into the woods.

‘Singing master then sit on stool of skool piano as if he could pla it with ring of worms and cads round him. fotherington-tomas hand round books full of minims crotchets etc which hav been made into beetles by boys mischievous fingers dear dear wot will they be up to next.’

Which brings us to history. According to Molesworth, ‘history started badly and have been geting steadily worse. It is like racing really when peason and i have a modest fluter through the under gardener. All the favourites go down.

‘Harold beaten at Hastings.

‘Richard the Lion-Hart couldn’t beat Saladin who was as black as your hat.

‘Bruce victorious at Banockburn tho Scotish pack heavily outweighted.

‘Cavaliers beaten by the roundheads.

‘Finally beaten by the Yanks who thro all our tea into Boston harbour dressed like red indians that was the absolute end.’

On world affairs, Nigel says: ‘Aktually the Mess is due to the rusians who are roters. The points I wish to make are contained in the molesworth newsletter.

a)    the rusians are roters.

b)   americans are swankpots.

c)     the french are slack.

d)   the germans are unspeakable.

e)    the rest are bad if not worse than the above.

f)      the british are brave super and noble cheers cheers cheers.

‘The only way for Peace is for all of them to dive into the sea and end it all.’

And on that jolly note we leave St Custard’s for the time being but will return in a future column for the second book, How to be Topp.

PS Typing this piece has been a nightmare because the computer spellchecker insists on correcting every misspelling and I have had to go back and make things wrong again.

Old jokes’ home

A friend of mine always wanted to be run over by a steam train. When it happened, he was chuffed to bits!

A PS from PG

Blandings Castle slept in the sunshine. Dancing little ripples of heat mist played across its smooth lawns and stone-flagged terraces. The air was full of the lulling drone of insects. It was that gracious hour of a summer afternoon, midway between luncheon and tea, when Nature seems to unbutton its waistcoat and put its feet up.

PG Wodehouse: Summer Lightning

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