Although it probably won’t, the recent kerfuffle over the brilliant works of Dr Seuss and other creators of children’s books ought to have readers going back to the writings of George Orwell. Not so much for the many perceptive things Orwell had to say about politics, censorship and the English language, but for the celebrated writer’s own work in mounting one of the first literary assaults on the reputation of such an author.
During the course of his otherwise luminous career, long before The Cat in the Hat was even an anthropomorphic twinkle in Dr Seuss’s eye, the one-time schoolteacher also turned his attention to the question of what youngsters should and shouldn’t be reading.
The focus of Orwell’s ire was the Billy Bunter stories, which from February 1908 until late 1940 ran as weekly yarns in the Magnet, one and all celebrating English literature’s most recognisable fat schoolboy, his coterie of conservative chums and perpetually frazzled schoolmasters.
No doubt the owlish Bunter’s creator, Charles Hamilton, whose work appeared mainly under the pen name of Frank Richards, had as whopping an appetite for words as his best known character had for snaffled cakes. In addition to the 20,000 of them he tapped out each week for the Magnet, he produced a similar word-count for the paper’s sister title, the Gem. Guinness World Records lists the self-educated Tory, who died in Kent in 1963 aged 85, as the most prolific author of all time with a lifetime output reckoned to be the equivalent of 1,000 full-length novels, including one Bunter story tapped out entirely in classical Greek.
According to a lightly detailed biography by W.O.G. Lofts and D.J. Adley, authors of The World of Frank Richards (Howard Baker Press, 1975), the Bunter character was partly based on a pushy Fleet Street editor whose own extensive circumference, to Richards’ eye, ‘seemed to overflow the editorial chair and almost the editorial office’. The book offers no speculation on the possible inspiration for the character of Tom Brown, the New Zealand representative among Bunter’s classmates, or Squiff, the rorty little blighter from New South Wales who smoked cigarettes and hung out with the bad hats at Greyfriars School.
Readers hoping to learn more about Bunter’s creator by scouring their local libraries are likely to emerge empty-handed. Surprisingly, this purging of the public shelves owes less to any contemporary notions of political correctness than the lingering influence of Orwell’s attack on the Bunter canon in the pages of the long-defunct Horizon magazine.
In his celebrated essay, Boys’ Weeklies, Orwell attempted to show that, far from being innocently comic schoolboys of the early 20th century, Bunter and his chums were dangerously reactionary young goats and not-so-subtle propagandists for white privilege (he didn’t put it quite like that, but still) fully deserving not only six on the bags from their form-master Mr Quelch but a jolly good cancelling to boot.
Orwell did allow that Bunter was indeed ‘a first-rate character’. Nevertheless, he huffed, the style of the stories appeared to be an easily imitated affair since any series running for so long could not possibly be the work of one writer. He went on to dissect Bunter’s effect on the mindset of young readers. ‘In reality,’ Orwell concluded, ‘their basic assumptions are two: nothing ever changes, and foreigners are funny.’
The lengthy meditation rang off with perhaps its best-known paragraph:
The year is 1910 — or 1940, but it is all the same. You are at Greyfriars, a rosy-cheeked boy of fourteen in posh tailor-made clothes, sitting down to tea in your study on the Remove passage after an exciting game of football which was won by an odd goal in the last half-minute. There is a cozy fire in the study, and outside the wind is whistling. The ivy clusters thickly round the old grey stones. The King is on his throne and the pound is worth a pound. Over in Europe the comic foreigners are jabbering and gesticulating, but the grim grey battleships of the British Fleet are steaming up the Channel and at the outposts of Empire the monocled Englishmen are holding the n-ggers at bay. … Everything is safe, solid and unquestionable.
Shortly after the piece appeared, the magazine’s editor, Cyril Connolly, was surprised to receive a spirited defence from Frank Richards, whom he had also, like Orwell, assumed to merely be a fictional entity.
‘In the presence of such authority, I speak with diffidence,’ Richards began in response to the suggestion that a series of weekly stories running for so many decades could not have been the work of just the one author but rather a team of hacks, ‘and can only say that, to the best of my knowledge and belief, I am only one person, and have never been two or three.’ Ouch. And what about the point about Richards finding foreigners funny? ‘I must shock Mr Orwell by telling him that foreigners are funny.’ Hmm.
As to the argument about young Bunter fans being conspicuously protected from life’s realities, Richards wondered if such potentially grim matters are ever really fit subjects for young people to meditate on. ‘It is true we live in an insecure world, but why should not youth feel as secure as possible?’ he asked. ‘It is true that burglars break into houses, but what parent in his senses would tell a child that a masked face may look in his nursery window?’
Richards’ celebrated rejoinder — it was much-discussed not only in London circles but in our own part of the world where Bunter fans were legion — had its own memorable drum roll, no less relevant perhaps in 2021 as in 1940:
Every day of happiness, illusory or otherwise — and most happiness is illusory — is so much to the good. It will help to give [a young reader] confidence and hope. Frank Richards tells him that there are some splendid fellows in a world that is, after all, a decent sort of place. He likes to think himself like one of these fellows and is happy in his daydreams. Mr Orwell would have told him that he is a shabby little blighter, his father an ill-used serf, his world a dirty, muddled, rotten sort of show. I don’t think it would be fair play to take his two pence for telling him that!
No, not the Greyfriars style at all. Not Dr Seuss’s either. And nor, really, should it have been that of George Orwell, who helped start this censorious trend yet unfolding in the popular culture.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10