Saturday, February 3, 2018

down with skool (fifties versus eighties)


Down With Skool! (1953) - first in the Molesworth series, by the great Geoffrey Willans and the very great Ronald Searle.

Very tempting to scan every single one of Searle's drawings, and then move on to the other two books in the series I still have. (Mystifyingly there's a fourth which I don't possess, but I'm sure I would have bought it at the time). 

Clues in the end pages of this paperback about forthcoming books due April 1972 suggest I read the series in 1971 or thereabouts, aged eight or nine.  The world described by Nigel Molesworth, purported author of these tell-all guides to surviving boarding school, would have been recognisable to me as a day boy attending a minor prep school.  Blotting paper and ink-stained fingers, corporal punishment (not canes at my school,  but a gym shoe), doing lines, the tuck shop, virtually inedible school dinners, the typology of masters, the typology of pupils (swots, cissies, etc), the kind of rousing, virtue-encouraging things headmasters would say at assemblies, prize givings, and other occasions, paper darts (just one of several crazes that would spread throughout the school, rage for a few weeks, and then expire just like that).... It was all pretty intact still, really not changed much from the just-after World War Two world described by Nigel Molesworth.*

That's why things like the St Trinians films (which I hadn't realised were based on Ronald Searle's cartoons also) were both enjoyable and relatable. 

And why if....  - if you were allowed to stay up late enough to see it on BBC2 -  felt intoxicatingly subversive.

Only a few things in Molesworth had become trapped-in-time period details, e.g. references to a New Elizabethan era, a notion then in the air on account of the young E II's coronation.

At my school the desks still had holes where the ink wells had not so long ago been. It was still blackboards and chalk - and as a result a classroom would have a faint misty quality from motes of dust in the air catching light through the big windows. By the time I got to middle school, we would all be given slide rules.  But by the time we'd mastered them,  calculators arrived, instantly rendering the slide rule a relic. Then towards the end of the Seventies, the blackboards at my school were started to be replaced by the white, wipe-clean kind for marker pen use.

I wonder if a UK schoolkid today could relate to anything in these Molesworth books? I know they would mean absolutely zilch to my kids, educated in the American equivalent to state schools, with a progressive slant.

I tried explaining to my daughter what a fountain pen was the other day, and blotting paper.  I might as well as have been describing a traction engine.

*  The way schools and teachers were depicted in the Beano and other comics stayed frozen in time as well. Well into the Eighties the schoolmaster had a mortar board and wielded a swishing cane against malfeasant schoolboys with their trousers down. Kids have catapults etc. There's a frozen notion of schoolkid misbehaviour that hovers somewhere between Just William and Molesworth / St Trinians. 

Meanwhile, though, you had more up to date versions of school life coming from Gregory's Girl and Grange Hill  

Forgot that the Grange Hill credit starts with a Dandy / Beano style comic strip, but appropriately modernised 

What a nifty funky little tune that Grange Hill theme song is.

By library music staple Alan Hawkshaw. 

Talking about funky, also love the Scots jazz funk score to Gregory's Girl

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