How to be Topp, cover

Geoffrey Williams’ Molesworth – School Humour From Another Time

Penguin has republished the classic Molesworth books from the 1950s. This new review asks: do they stand the test of time? Are they of another time and place, now past?

The Molesworth books were a great success in the 1950s and 60s. They are well illustrated by Ronald Searle’s cartoons, and are reviewed again here. The humour is set in a minor public school and it will also be appreciated by those who went to the grammar schools of the period.

A Guide to Success for Tiny Pupils

As the sub-title puts it, it is A guide to Sukcess for tiny pupils, including all there is to kno about SPACE. It is set out as guide for new pupils on how to get on at their new boarding school. It is written in the public (fee-paying) school argot of the immediate post war years with the incompetent spelling of the poorer new student.

Initially amusing, at least for those of who were at school around the time, How to be Topp recognises the references and culture of the then still traditional school. At the time these books were written British education was changing and the culture this book lampoons was changing fast. The school culture was a throwback to the 1930s and the pre-war social setting was being replaced as the world moved quickly into the new dawn of the 1960s.

Nostalgic Humour – a Representation of Time’s Past

It is probably appropriate that How to be Topp should now be seen as a nostalgic look back to supposedly more innocent and socially respectful times. Consequently, the underlying humour is still there but the modern reader may not get full value from it; unless they are over 60 years old and were at school in Britain at the time.

The archaic “childish” spelling may well irritate the modern reader and thereby get in the way of full enjoyment. There is indeed plenty of humour but the whole setting is now a different country which is no longer accessible to most people. Certainly it will be hard work for today’s young reader.

Illustrated With Excellent Ronald Searle Cartoons

In How to be Topp Ronald Searle, of St Trinian’s fame, was his recognisably wicked and excellent self. His visual humour certainly stands the test of time better than Geoffrey Williams’ text. Most of the cartoon wit still works; however as with the text many of the visual clues are of the period and may now be missed, especially, by the younger reader.

Does the Humour Still Work?

The humour will still be very funny for those who understand the setting which may include those younger readers who have watched and enjoyed the post-war St Trinians or pre-war (or wartime) Will Hay or other such school films. The Molesworth stories do not last likeTom Brown’s Schooldays so their time has probably passed.

The advice to grand-parents is to buy these books for themselves and revisit the humour of their youth. By all means grand-parents can share these books with grand-children but should not expect today’s child to find the Molesworth stories as hilarious as they once did.

For many the How to be Topp will be hilariously funny yet there will be those who will be left completely cold if not positively irritated by it.

How to be Topp, A guide to Sukcess for tiny pupils, including all there is to kno about SPACE (ISBN: 978-0-141-19169-0) is republished (2009) by Penguin Press Red Classics at £7.99 (Can$ 11.00)

One of Nigel Molesworth’s items on Latin is titled “The Hogwarts” – is this where J K Rowling got the name of the school in Harry Potter?



First appeared on Suite101



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