May 17, 2021

England, some time in the first half of the last century. Night.

In a boarding school near the Kentish coast, a ruffian sneaks along the corridor, hunting for the rare stamp that will make him rich. In a Home Counties village, a tousled-haired schoolboy lies awake, putting the finishing touches to his scheme that will win the war for the Allies. Many miles to the north, a boat pulls away from Wildcat Island, bound for fortune and glory. And far across the oceans, a group of schoolboys tremble in terror, as their South Sea captors prepare to sacrifice them to their idol …

Such is the world of the classic British children’s story: the world of Billy Bunter and his Greyfriars chums, William Brown and his fellow Outlaws, Titty, Roger and the rest of the Swallows and Amazons, Jennings, Molesworth and the Secret Seven. For more than half a century, such stories dominated the imagination of millions of readers. You can still buy second-hand editions of Richmal Crompton’s Guillermo el Detective, and wonder what on earth readers in General Franco’s Spain made of them.

When I was growing up, the books of Frank Richards, Arthur Ransome and Richmal Crompton were still everywhere, just about. Our local library groaned with stories in which middle-class British children spent their weekends in the barn across the fields and their weeknights sneaking out of the dormitory for some stolen tuck. Raised on the virtues of teamwork and courage, the boys grew up to become hunters, naval commanders and Spitfire pilots. I never found out what happened to the girls. For a boy in the early Eighties, to have been caught reading Mallory Towers would have been social suicide.

I thought of these splendid and now largely forgotten books when I read that a new star is about to join the constellation of children’s writers. Marcus Rashford, footballer and saint, has written a book, or at least put his name on a book by his collaborator Carl Anka. I don’t want to be rude about it: if it encourages football-crazed children to read, so much the better.

I’ll be as rude as you like, though, about Meghan, Duchess of Sussex’s forthcoming children’s book The Bench. Catchy title! According to the publishers, it aims to evoke a “deep sense of warmth, connection and compassion”. It sounds ghastly. What sane child wants to read about connection and compassion, when they could read Billy Bunter Butts In instead?

My own defiantly non-compassionate copy of Billy Bunter Butts In, first bought for my mother in 1951, is beside me right now. As far as I remember, it’s the first book that I read after lights-out, under the covers with a torch. I was risking my pocket money, but I simply couldn’t contain myself. Would the Fat Owl of the Remove be caned for failing to do his Georgic? Would Stephen Price of the Fifth manage to get his bet on for the two-thirty? And who would win the titanic showdown between plucky form captain Harry Wharton, the colonel’s son, and Herbert Vernon-Smith, cocky son of a millionaire stockbroker, the legendary “Bounder”? (Don’t worry: I won’t give the result away.)

Purveyors of Californian compassion might think this a dreadful book for a boy to be reading in the early Eighties. But I was in good company. In their heyday between 1910 and 1940, Frank Richards’s Greyfriars stories, which ran in the Magnet magazine, were the single most popular narrative in all British fiction. Then as now, some people deplored them. When V. S. Pritchett’s father discovered his son’s stash of Magnets, he burned them in the fireplace and told him to read John Ruskin instead. But Pritchett could not help himself. “One page and I was entranced,” he remembered. “I gobbled these stories as if I were eating pie or stuffing.”

Later, recalling his days teaching the sons of “shopkeepers, office employees and small business and professional men”, George Orwell reported that almost all read the Greyfriars stories and “were still taking them fairly seriously when they were fifteen or even sixteen”.

And in his book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, the historian Jonathan Rose quotes a colliery winder’s son, a Camberwell labourer’s son and the disabled son of two Yorkshire millworkers, all of whom loved the stories. On the South Wales coalfield, a butcher’s boy called Aneurin Bevan made a weekly pilgrimage to the newsagent’s for the latest Magnet. Like many other parents, Bevan’s father, a miner, banned them from the house. But the NHS’s founding father bought them anyway and hid them underneath a local bridge.

In his famous essay “Boys’ Weeklies”, Orwell argued that these stories formed one of the great bulwarks of British conservatism:

“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 cosy 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 niggers at bay…”

Actually, they’re not quite as reactionary as you might think. The working-class scholarship boys are far brighter and more likeable than the aristocrats and stockbrokers’ sons, and they all go out of their way to shield their Indian chum Hurree Jamset Ram Singh (er, “Inky”) from the “colour prejudice” of their American classmate Fisher T. Fish.

But in essence Orwell was right. Greyfriars is a deeply conservative place, unchanging and hierarchical, menaced by an endless stream of loafers, ruffians, footpads and foreigners. I bow to nobody in my love of Billy Bunter, the “schoolboy Falstaff”, the jam-sodden embodiment of greed, laziness, stupidity and cowardice. Though when I was looking for a bedtime story for my son, even I drew the line at Billy Bunter Among the Cannibals.

Bunter wasn’t my only favourite. The first story I ever wrote as a boy was an illustrated sequel to Swallows and Amazons, rather undermining the innocence of Arthur Ransome’s original by equipping the characters with automatic weapons. But today I would give the gold medal to Richmal Crompton, the shy, unmarried invalid whose William Brown stories sold some 12 million copies between 1919 and 1969.

Originally written for middle-class mothers and published in women’s magazines, they chronicled the adventures of a mischievous 11-year-schoolboy in a Home Counties village. And if you’re looking for an antidote to connection and compassion, a repudiation of everything Meghan and Harry stand for, they are perfect.

For generations of readers, William and his fellow Outlaws Ginger, Henry and Douglas were as familiar as their own friends and family. Then there was the supreme villain for any 11-year-old boy, the terrifying, invincible Violet Elizabeth Bott, a monster of narcissistic self-pity. ‘I’ll thcream and thcream until I’m thick.’ That would make a good motto for somebody.

William himself is an inveterate culture warrior, an unashamed lover of flags and statues, the personification of the anti-woke spirit. Although he chafes under parental authority, he reserves his greatest contempt for idealists, do-gooders, artists and intellectuals. In one story, a League of Nations enthusiast arrives in the village and implores the boys to give up their weapons as a first step towards world peace. William pretends to go along with it, tricks his enemies into disarming, and then seizes their catapults and air rifles and turns them on his foes. Connection and compassion are definitely not his thing.

In another story, with a general election looming in 1929, the children organise their own mock election. Henry, the gang’s brainbox, lays out the position:

“There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ’em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ’em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ them jus’ a bit, but not so’s anyone’d notice, an’ there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by takin’ everyone’s money off ’em, an’ there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves.’

No political scientist could put it better.

At first, attracted by the thought of so much violence, William flirts with the idea of Communism. But eventually he stands as a Conservative, influenced by his father’s friend, a big game hunter from the African veldt. The day of the election comes. Addressing the other children, William simply lists the man’s kills: buffalos, lions, elephants, even hippopotamuses. At last, slowly, grandly, he reaches his peroration: ‘An’ this man is a Conservative. He votes Conservatism at gen’ral elections.’

He wins in a landslide.

Crompton’s best stories date from the war. In one story, William half-hears his family discussing Norway’s Nazi puppet Vidkun Quisling at breakfast, and becomes convinced that a man called “ole Grissel” is at large in the village, preparing the ground for ole Hitler’s invasion. Later, he arms his friends with an air gun, bows and catapults, and scours the lanes for enemy parachutists. An actor appears, dressed for an entertainment at the local aerodrome. The Outlaws knock him senseless and call the police. The man denies everything. But William has a crushing, unanswerable riposte: “If you aren’t a parachutist, why are you dressed up as a woman?”

Is there any hope for such stories today? Probably not. Given the ultra-woke instincts of most children’s publishers, I suspect they’re sunk forever. There is too much stoicism and not enough self-pity, too much pluck and not enough diversity. I certainly can’t see Meghan enjoying Billy Bunter’s outings to Egypt, China and the South Seas. As for William Brown, his attitude to anti-racism campaigners, curriculum decolonisers and mental health professionals doesn’t bear thinking about. Sad to say, the only reason Richmal Crompton hasn’t been cancelled is that so few people still read her.

For me, though, her stories will live forever. Bunter and William will be charging around my imagination till the day I die, or at least until I lose my marbles. And when I think of Orwell’s imitation, I can’t help smiling in recognition:

“Lord Mauleverer has just got another fiver and we are all settling down to a tremendous tea of sausages, sardines, crumpets, potted meat, jam and doughnuts. After tea we shall sit round the study fire having a good laugh at Billy Bunter and discussing the team for next week’s match against Rookwood. Everything is safe, solid and unquestionable. Everything will be the same for ever and ever…”

The irony, of course, is that Orwell loved them as much as anybody. He’d have had no time for The Bench, would ole George.