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Clodpolls and Coots


Mat Coward


Mat Coward speaks to Anthony Buckeridge, creator of much-loved schoolboy hero J.C.T. Jennings.




"Hey, what do you think ! Stop-press news-flash ! Old Jen's caught like a rat in a drain-pipe. He's stuck with his arms full of hedgehog and he can't get back up the stairs without running slap-bang into Old Wilkie and the Head !"

  A portion of my childhood was spent (to simplify a long story) as a poor boy at schools designed boys. Like any schooling, mine was sometimes enjoyable, sometimes barely durable, and usually boring. Through all of it, I took great comfort from the companionship of my friend John Christopher Timothy Jennings - fictional character, but none the worse for that.

  Jennings's first public appearance was in 1948, when BBC radio's Children's Hour broadcast a play by teacher and part-time writer Anthony Buckeridge: "It was a one-off, then they said 'make it six,' then they wanted another six the following year... and that went on for about 16 years. Well, after a couple of years, about 1950, I thought I'd use the same material, take it all to pieces, and rewrite it as books.

  "I thought the first play would be a one-off; it wasn't, and I hoped the first book, by that time, would be a one-off and it wasn't. But I certainly didn't set out right at the beginning to create a series which would last me a lifetime; I didn't plan it out or anything like that. In the early days they used to have a thing called Children's Hour Request Week; you had to send in your vote for programmes you'd enjoyed most, and Jennings won this thing 16 years in a row - so I thought then, 'well anyhow, he's got over into this generation.'

  "He started when I was teaching at a prep school. I used to tell the children stories, mostly as a bribe - finish up your prunes and custard in thirty seconds flat and I'll tell you a story. So there had to be a hero, and the adventures gradually focused on this one character, who was Jennings, and that's really how he started. I was at school with a boy called Jennings, who did - I think - only two things which happen in my books, because he was a different sort of character. I just used his name because it seemed to fit."

  Life at Jennings' Linbury Court was, apart from the absence of girls, extraordinarily similar to life at my won prep school - but better. The escapades were brighter, and their consequences neater. "I don't think it's an idealized school," says Buckeridge, "I think it's the sort of school I was familiar with from teaching. Linbury Court isn't a well-heeled type of place at all, it's very average, where I would say boys are sent because there is some particular reason for sending them to boarding school, other than the fact that 'it's a jolly good job to send them off to have the rough corners knocked out'; I don't agree with that sort of thing at all.

"I've got three children: my daughter is just over 50 now, my elder son just above 50. I've been married twice, so my second son is 27. My daughter went through state education; my eldest son went to the prep school I was teaching at then, and on to senior school; my second son got a musical scholarship to Lancing, so that all his music could be looked after under one roof. I think if you can say there is a need for a child to go outside the state system, then I'm all in favour of it; but normally, no. I'm not really a boarding-school type at all. My father was killed in the First World War, when I was seven. He was a bank clerk, and the bank clerks' orphanage sent all we orphans to one particular school. Had my father lived, I'm quite sure I would have gone to a state day school.

  "Looking back, I suppose I did enjoy school as a pupil. The school I went to - I wasn't exactly deprived, but it wasn't a very nourishing experience, not a nourishing place at all. No music, no drama, no art, nothing of that sort. But at the time, I had nothing to compare it with, I thought 'this is school, this is what it's like.' As a teacher, I enjoyed the work, I enjoyed the whole ethos of it."

  I first read most of the Jennings stories, hiding from cross country runs and compulsory rugby, perched in trees or on top of hay-stacks. I tend to read them in bed now, but they still make me laugh loud enough to wake the neighbours. Having said that, it seems to me that the series had fewer belly-laughs as it went on. Buckeridge, re-reading his books for his new publishers, agrees.

  "The style does change, and I think it's probably because I was learning the job as I did it. The early ones possibly went over the top, rather, became slightly too farcical at times, which means you can lose in other directions. I think the style has improved, as some of the farcical elements have been toned down a bit."

  Certainly, as an adult, I enjoy aspects of Jennings that I previously missed - Mr Carter's sarcasm, for instance, so gentle it's likely to go unnoticed by this popular teacher's thick-skinned pupils: "Then why were you hurrying in the opposite direction ? Have you forgotten the way, or were you blown off-course by powerful head-winds?" - but at the same time, I'm still laughing at the kind of humour which Buckeridge does better than any other writer this side of Wodehouse: comedies of errors and cross-purpose conversations.

  It's the brilliantly engineered misunderstandings which stay in the mind longest. When a naturalist visits Linbury Court to examine a hibernating animal, and is mistaken for a doctor summoned to a case of tonsillitis, he's gratifyingly confused to be told that his patient is "sitting up in bed writing his diary." But what makes that scene so enjoyable for the adult reader, is young Bromwich's response to the hedgehog expert's remark that "No doubt he snorts and snuffles a bit when there's any food around." The boy is not at all fazed by this description, despite believing it to refer to one of his classmates: " ' Yes, he does,' Bromwich agreed. He had always been a stern critic of Temple's table manners. 'Sometimes he makes an awful hog of himself at meal-times.' "

  Also reminiscent of Wodehouse - an influence which Buckeridge acknowledges - is a skilful use of both understatement and hyperbole. When a teacher cracks a weak joke, "The pun was greeted with the usual derision. All around the room boys groaned, sighed, winced, held their heads in their hands or collapsed in mock faints into the arms of their neighbours. A few of them, improvising weapons from pencils and rulers, polished off the joker with a burst of machine-gun fire."

  Buckeridge isn't afraid of using absurdism, but his humour is always grounded in exact observation and consistent characterization; the jokes are believable, and that makes them all the funnier. This is true even when the laughs come from Goon-style logic-stretching: an attempt to make Sir a cup of tea on a picnic results in a brew flavoured with lemonade, paraffin and burnt handkerchief; but, as one of the boys observes, "It should be a good cup of tea when it's ready, seeing all the trouble we're going to." In Jennings' Diary, perhaps the funniest book in the series, Jen discovers a tooth which is "well fossilized, slightly ossified and possibly a little petrified as well." He admits that the specimen didn't belong to a genuine hippogriff, as the species never existed, but is happy with the thought that "on the other hand, it might well have belonged to a bogus hippogriff."

  The author's favourite character is Jennings' sidekick, Darbishire: "He's really rather endearingly stupid, I think. He doesn't have very much macho and I rather like him for that." The sympathetically incompetent Darbi (a reluctantly loyal lieutenant, given to sighing "I've a good mind to complain if I could only find someone who'd listen") perhaps partly explains why Buckeridge's audience has never been limited to boys with direct experience of boarding-school - or even to boys, at all.

  "Oh yes, girls read me. Girls read boys' books although boys don't read girls' books. But these aren't for girls or boys, they are really for any age. In fact most of the letters I get now, in the 1990s, are from people about the same as Jennings - which is to say, chronologically, about fifty-something. They're the people who remember him from the old days.

  "I get quite appreciative letters from teachers, occasionally from librarians, who seem to think that it is elitist and sexist and all sorts of things, which I don't agree with at all. I think it's completely classless. They are all nice letters; I've never had a hate letter about Jennings. People seem to like him, they don't bother to write otherwise.

  "I don't think I planned to be a writer as a child, but that was the thing I wanted to do second, I should think. All through my youth I wanted to be an actor. I managed to achieve that ambition to a certain extent - I mean, I played in weekly rep, I have acted in my radio plays, and now I do little bits of acting, not singing I hasten to add, at Glyndebourne. I think, now that I've got to my ripe old age of pushing 80, it's just as well I didn't become an actor, because I think I made a better choice.

  "I think I'm a humorist first. I don't really write school stories as such, I write humorous stories, but I put them against a background I happen to know. I think all writers must know their background, or they're going to find themselves in trouble very soon. When I started writing, I didn't write children's stuff at all, I started off with radio plays for adults. But I preferred writing humour."

  In the 1950s, Buckeridge wrote stories for the Eagle comic about a slightly older boy at a grammar school (the stories were later collected in four books). "I think I've finished with Rex Milligan," he says now. "I thoroughly enjoyed Milligan, and I can't really understand why it didn't take on like Jennings did, because I think it's just as funny."

  Meanwhile, Jennings appeared on TV, stage, and even in a musical. The books have sold millions of copies, in 13 languages - in Norway, there are even Jennings films. So what's the Norwegian word for clodpoll ? "I doubt if there is one! I'm always sent copies of translations, which can be a bit funny sometimes. It usually comes out in the illustrations: in France, where Jennings is known as Bennett, they'll illustrate a cricket pitch which will end up looking much more like a greyhound stadium."

  It's not only foreign illustrators whose interpretations mystify the author. "Most writers of children's books have got a love-hate relationship with the artists. Some artists are good, but most of them don't seem to be able to read! I mean, they've got the text in front of them, they've got a perfectly good description of what happens, and when you see the final results they've not taken any notice!  You say it's a winter scene and they come out wearing summer clothes; you describe a towny sort of background and it comes out a rural background. When you protest, the publisher says 'Oh! sorry, old man, bit late to change it now.' "

  Perhaps that explains the Macmillan cover of The Jennings Report, which portrays Darbishire as an elderly, black dwarf, crippled by lumbago.

  To-day, Jennings is back on radio (read by Stephen Fry, "a natural Mr Wilkins," says Buckeridge) and, at last, back in hardback (Jennings Again!). "Round about 1977, I suppose Collins thought the books had had their innings so they dropped them from their list. There was still quite a demand for them, people used to write to me saying 'why aren't you writing any more books?' The answer to that was, 'because nobody's printing them.' I thought I'd finished with Jennings but then Macmillan decided to re-issue them in paperback, and they wanted a new one to boost the titles they're reprinting. Having written another one after fourteen years I quite enjoyed it, and I wouldn't mind writing another; but it rather depends upon how this one sells."

  Nostalgic purists may be disappointed that shops in Linbury village and Dunhambury town no longer accept pounds, shillings and pence, but apart from decimalization the novels have undergone little updating. Buckeridge is choosing the order in which the Macmillan reprints appear: "I'm not doing them chronologically, I'm mixing up one or two older ones with one or two newer ones. Jennings' character has remained the same over the years, but his interests and hobbies are different in every book."

  This sense of a term lasting almost a lifetime, in which any number of causes, enthusiasms and feuds can be pursued with utmost intensity and forgotten with startling rapidity, is typical of Buckeridge's keen understanding of the 11-year-old's mind: a month may pass in a flash for an adult, but time moves differently for children.

  Eleven is the only age Jennings could be, really; eleven is just old enough to be dangerously and excitingly independent, but from puberty onwards, according to my memory, sex and smoking largely take over from space-ships and tree-houses as a boy's main preoccupations. By keeping his characters at that borderline age, Buckeridge is able to make his stories realistic, without exercising too much censorship.

  He keeps in touch with childish concerns through his wife who still teaches and by eavesdropping. "You've only got to ride on top of a bus and listen to kids when they come out of school, and you've got an enormous amount of funny material. They don't realize they're being funny, that's the point, it all seems thoroughly serious to them - but to an adult it can be very entertaining. And of course the opposite happens: you see kids do the most incredible things for reasons which are perfectly good to them, but which the average adult finds incomprehensible. That's the trouble with Wilkins (Old Wilkie, Linbury Court's shortest-tempered master); a very nice chap really, deep down, yet he just doesn't understand how the juvenile mind works. Because he can't understand it he gets upset about it."

  Up-to-date, as always, the latest Jennings has a "green" theme. Does this mean Buckeridge's amiable humour hides a hidden agenda ?" I'm not just an entertainer, though I do agree that entertaining is terribly important, but I do have ideas and I want to get them over. I don't want to push them to such an extent that they become propaganda, and here's a case in point. I am very keen on ecology, I think it's terribly important, especially now, so what I've done is I've taken a serious subject and treated it in a humorous fashion. It's not terribly easy to be funny about green issues, but if you can do it you are getting over something at the same time which you hope will make some sort of impression on your readers."

  When I was eleven, "hoo-hahs", "bishes" and "famous brain-waves" were not included in the normal schoolboy's vocabulary, nor did I ever hear a teacher preface a "frantic bate" with "I - I corwumph!"; but it's only in retrospect that I notice the anachronistic language.

  "The slang is my own, in the main," Buckeridge explains. "When I wrote the first radio play I did make a terrible mistake of using current slang. If you can remember that far back, people were talking in sort of RAF wartime slang, 'wizard prangs' and things like that, and I used some of these - and of course a few years later it was so dated it was embarrassing to read, so I cut out all that sort of thing and made up my own. 'Clodpoll' is an Elizabethan word - Shakespeare uses it - so that can't very well date. 'Fossilized fishhooks,' that sort of thing, I make up myself, so it can't really date in the way that if you can say something is 'brill,' the next year it's going to be 'great.' We don't have 'decent chaps' any more, we have... well, I'm not quite sure what the modern equivalent is, but you don't have ordinary current slang because you know that it's going to date in a very short time."

  Jennings belongs, indisputably, amongst the first rank of funny fictional children, but he's also unique; neither heroic public school role model, nor satirical anti-hero. Buckeridge, an admirer of Richmal Crompton's William, and of Willans and Searle's Molesoworth, says: "Molesworth, you see, does go in for this belly-laugh we were talking about earlier, but you couldn't write a whole book in Molesworthese, not a book with a story which continues through 50,000 words; it wouldn't work. He's marvellous in short doses, and he can go over the top and get away with it.

  "The difference between William and Jennings is that William is a rebel, he's anti-authority, anti more or less everybody and everything. Jennings is just the reverse, he's not a rebel, he gets into trouble because he falls over backwards, as a rule, to put things right that have gone wrong. It's his fault they went wrong in the first place, but he never consciously sets out to get the better of Mr Wilkins except in a rather crafty sort of way. He may try to deceive him, but he won't turn against him as a rebel."

  When I asked Buckeridge what he thought his two most famous creations might have done in later life, his immediate thought was "Well, I think the chances are Jennings might have become a vet and Darbishire might have become a librarian. I don't want to push that too far, because I haven't really got very much evidence for it."

  Indeed, it's noticeable that the reader learns next to nothing about the non-term-time lives of the boys and masters of Linbury Court. "I'm putting a very small bit of my characters' lives under the microscope, I don't follow them outside school. If school is your background, you've got them captive for 24 hours a day and you concentrate on that bit; if you don't do that if you follow them for the rest of their lives outside school and that sort of thing, you're enlarging your background to such an extent that it's all much more difficult."

  Of one thing, I suggested, we can be certain - that Jennings and Darbishire's partnership would endure, no matter what divergent courses their adult lives might take. "I don't know, you just cannot answer a question like that. Of all the boys I was at school with, I was only really closely in touch with one, for the rest of his life. Occasionally you meet them... but not very close friendship, no."

  What's the revisionist heresy? Jen and Darbi not best friends for life? Much as I hate to contradict the Master, surely Anthony Buckeridge is wrong on this crucial point, and in evidence I call my star witness - Mr Pemberton-Oakes, the Head himself: "We always say at Linbury Court that if you want Jennings you have to look for Darbishire, and vice-versa, don't we, Mr Wilkins ! The two boys are inseparable." There you are - inseparable. Any clodpoll can see that.


Interview by : Mat Coward


Texts appearing in blue are by Anthony Buckeridge



  We were not able to find the contact details of Mr Mat Coward in order to contact him.