In response to my post about William and Nicholas fatwhiteduke confessed that he (and I bet he is a he) still cannot bring himself to admit that William is better than Jennings. During a rather long period of my childhood I would beg my dad to take me on Saturdays to the bookshop in Aylesbury so that I could browse the Jennings books, waiting till I had saved enough pocket money to buy the next one. I think I read them all, which I still have not done with William. The Jennings books occasionally go out of print, unlike the Williams. Several have recently been reprinted, and are available in the States here and here (UK here and here).
I recognize that William is, in some sense, superior, but never had the relationship with William that I did with Jennings. (I actually had a friend in secondary school who resembled Jennings a good deal in both looks and surface personality, and who, interestingly given the influence of Wodehouse on Buckeridge, reveled in the name of Mulliner – any information on his whereabouts welcome, because google is bloody useless when your target shares the name of a world famous croquet player). I suspect that my and fatwhiteduke’s fondness of Jennings is partly a response to authorial intention. Crompton wanted to make adults laugh, and entertaining children was an unexpected side benefit; Buckeridge clearly adored children and wanted to engage and amuse them. The stories offer a great deal to adults, but the world is created for the child reader. Although the boys are the heroes, the world is controlled by adults, who (unlike the adults in William who are being pretty mercilessly satirised) have the best interests of the boys in their charge always in focus. The reason we became so enamoured with boarding school life without ever wanting to go to one is because the Linbury Court staff are like a composite ideal parent, the boys have enough freedom really to enjoy themselves, but not enough ever to be in real danger, and when all their plans go wrong (as it often does), while they are terrified of the consequences, the reader knows that kindness will prevail.
I should probably be ashamed to admit this, but I’ve not read more than 10 pages of Harry Potter; I’m told that the creation of school life at Hogwarts draws heavily on Jennings, and this is not least because Jennings presents just about the only positive image of boarding school that most of us oiks had access to when Rowling and I were growing up.
The stories originated as radio plays. BBC7 has played a couple, and one was remade a few years ago, but most of them seem to have been lost (as is the way with so much of the BBC’s early output – where the hell is Norman and Henry Bones? and, for a bonus, who can tell me the link between them and the Smiths?). Not all Jennings associations are positive. On the one hand, the greatest living Englishman has recorded a few of the stories; on the other, the cast of one of the surviving plays includes, as Atkinson, a young boy named Jeremy Clarkson who, in a bizarre but effective career move, later prefixed “The odious” to his name by deed-poll.
Returning to a childhood favourite as an adult is always a bit nerve-wracking, like meeting a childhood friend with whom you are quite aware you might no longer have anything in common. Whereas William has remained with me throughout my adulthood, I’d doubt that I read Jennings more than a couple of times between the age of 14 and 38 (when I started reading it to my eldest girl). But fear was misplaced. The stories are satisfyingly funny, the characters warm, and I’m gratified that my daughter anticipates each impending disaster by going rigid with suspense. Like me, I suspect that she would choose Jennings over William for a desert island, despite recognising the superiority of the latter.
The US is the only place I know where the stories haven’t become popular at any stage, and I have no idea why. I used to think they were too English, but if so why are Harry Potter and Bertie Wooster so popular here?
Oh, and if anyone has a copy of the Longer OED, is it true that the first use of “Doh!” is attributed to Homer Simpson? Mr. Wilkins was using it with the same meaning in the early 1950’s.