The Lost Diaries of Nigel Molesworth
by Robert Kirkpatrick
Thus begins Nigel Molesworth’s debut as a man of letters, in the magazine Punch on 9 August 1939.
May 7. It rained.
Most people familiar with Molesworth will know of him through the four books (Down with Skool, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms and Back in the Jug Agane, all with illustrations by Ronald Searle) published in the 1950s, or via the omnibus The Compleet Molesworth, originally published in 1958 and re-issued in 1984 and then as a Penguin Classic in 1999.
What are less well-known, probably because they have never been reprinted, are the Molesworth diaries that appeared in Punch between August 1939 and December 1942. Although Molesworth appeared fully-formed, with his terrible spelling and cynical view of life, the diaries are substantially different from the later books, both in format and setting.
(It is thought that Willans appropriated the name “Molesworth” from the RAF station at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, and not from the late 19th century children’s writer Mrs Molesworth).
After a break as a full-time writer, Willans obtained a temporary wartime commission in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, initially as a Sub-Lieutenant in 1940 and then being promoted to Lieutenant in 1941. After the war he worked for the BBC European Service, whilst also contributing to various magazines. In the meantime, in November 1940, he had married Pamela Wyndham Gibbes, with whom he went on to have two sons.
* * * * *
In October 1941, after St. Cypranes had been bombed (“cheers cheers cheers”) it was merged with another school, St. Guthrums. (“Now we haf TWO headmasters. Am overwhelmed at this thort.”). It was not until 1953, with the publication of Down with Skool, that Molesworth found himself permanently at St. Custard’s.
The only constant between the diaries and the later books, apart from Molesworth and his brother, was the presence of his great friend Peason and the unutterably wet and weedy Fotherington-Thomas.
Not surprisingly, given the era in which they were written, the main focus of the diaries is the war:
1939. Nov. 10. Air-rade warning. Masters tremble and scram, xcept deaf master who asleep in his room. All boys very heroical and I offer cig card soldier of the british Realm to chap who hear first gun. Peason avacutates white mice which he sa very sussetptible to poson gas. We hear fighting planes – hurricanes – but only deaf master snoring. At last Mr trimp comes and say all into the air-rade shelter all to the shelter dubble. He dash in first (headmasters all the same) and is knee deep in water cheers conduc mark laughing (manners). Very fusty in shelter and white mice perish. We stand on benches but Nazis do not come mean groan they are weedy.School life, of course, had to carry on:
1940. March 2. Catch german measles and peason sa boo weedy german through sickroom door. Haf 1579 spots, not counting back of neck.
1940. April 1. April fools day will chiz all masters and misteresses also skool dog. Will pin kick me on deaf masters back. Awate opportunity but deaf master sa haf i not seen aeroplane crash on big field. Dash out but nothing there. Chiz chiz chiz grind teeth and buzz aple at skool pig instead. Peason votes we stick draring pin on deaf masters chair revenge but he come too soon and there shouts of K.V. Sit down in place on draring pin. Drone. Deaf master highly delighted he haf placed it there and give us lesson on how to win the war.
1941. Jan. 15. Chiz chiz chiz haf to go to dancing class. All boys look like girlies and girls haf weedy bows. Misteress sa feeble things she sa now we are all going to be chickens, little cocks and little hens Tippy toes tippy toes. Moan and groan. molesworth 2 dance mightily and there fat boy called robin but when he being little cock he fall wam. All larff xcept robin’s mother who sa i haf tripped him. Chiz as i do not think anebode see.The last diary entry (in which Molesworth, rather surprisingly, reads F.W. Farrar’s lachrymose 1858 school story Eric, or Little by Little, and is “deeply impressed”) was dated 9 December 1942.
1942. Oct. 19. Morning bell viz all boys leap from bed at thort of breakfast cheers cheers squadrons of sossages take off from plates and spoons zoom mightily MASTERS sneke in guiltily with yellow faces. Carry out begning of term inspecktion skool dog new bugs skool pig and dirty dick gardners boy all O.K. Test skool dog with trial conker which land in target area but am disgusted to find NEW MASTER who regard me venormously. He sa Hi you what your name: when i say Molesworth 1 he sa Har! i haf heard of you. Tremble tremble try old wheeze i.e. look ashamed but no go get 3 conduc marks and when i sa gosh 3 sir that a bit stiff he smirk and sa since i not satisfied he will give 4. This is skool record so thank him perlitely and ooze off to chass new bugs.
In the previous year, the cartoonist Ronald Searle had had his first St. Trinian’s cartoon published in the magazine Lilliput. A second followed in 1946, after Searle had returned to England from a traumatic period as a prisoner-of-war in the Far East, and he continued producing St. Trinian’s cartoons until he grew to detest them. Despite Searle blowing up the school in his last cartoon, his publisher, Max Parrish, wanted more. Searle promised to come up with something, and in 1952 his wife, Kaye Webb (a former assistant editor at Lilliput) introduced him to Geoffrey Willans, who had, by then, refined Molesworth and was anxious to see if Searle could provide some illustrations. Initially appalled at the idea of yet another school, Searle was won over by Willans’s text, and the result was Down with Skool, published by Max Parrish in October 1953, which sold almost 54,000 copies before the end of the year and has rarely been out of print since. A second book, How to be Topp, followed in the autumn of 1954.
By this time, Kaye Webb had become the editor of the children’s magazine Young Elizabethan. She enlisted both Searle and Willans as contributors, and thus, in January 1955, began a continuation of the partnership which culminated in 38 Molesworth features and two more books.
To be continued…
This is a complete list of all the Punch Molesworth diaries:
9 August 1939 My Sumer Diary
27 December 1939 My Diary of the War
21 February 1940 Molesworth the Good
10 April 1940 Molesworth Detective
15 May 1940 Molesworth and the Wicked Grandmother
3 July 1940 Molesworth the Problem Child
20 November 1940 Molesworth and the Battle of Britain
5 February 1941 Another Slice of Molesworth
2 July 1941 Molesworth Excelsior
6 August 1941 Molesworth Madcap
27 August 1941 Molesworth: Man or Beast?
24 September 1941 Molesworth at Goste Grange
22 October 1941 Molesworth of Red Gulch
10 December 1941 Molesworth the Fashionplate
24 December 1941 Molesworth of the Remove
18 March 1942 Molesworth the Dog Fancier
20 May 1942 Molesworth and the Domestic Problem
29 July 1942 Molesworth’s Jolliest Term
21 October 1942 Molesworth Goes Rustic
9 December 1942 Molesworth or Little by Little
Note: I got through this whole piece without once using the phrase “as any fule kno”, which, as any fule kno, is one of Molesworth’s most famous – oh, chiz...