- But for Bunter by David Hughes
Heinemann, 223 pp, £8.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 434 35410 4
- Bunter Sahib by Daniel Green
Hodder, 272 pp, £8.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 340 36429 7
- The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing
Cape, 370 pp, £9.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 224 02323 3
- Unexplained Laughter by Alice Thomas Ellis
Duckworth, 155 pp, £8.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 7156 2070 3
- Polaris and Other Stories by Fay Weldon
Hodder, 237 pp, £8.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 340 33227 1
‘But for Bunter the result might have been serious,’ says a character in the Magnet ‘India’ series of 1926, giving credit to the fat schoolboy blunderer whose tomfoolery – quite by accident – has saved the day. It’s a custom of Bunter’s to run headlong into things, with preposterously beneficial results for all concerned. David Hughes, in his latest novel, takes this trait and turns it on its head: the outcome of Bunter’s intervention in certain notable episodes of the 20th century is very serious indeed. By this account, Bunter is personally responsible for the arrest of Crippen and the sinking of the Titanic, not to mention the Somme debacle and consequent prolonging of the First World War. The throne of England is rocked because of Bunter. A fiery act of Bunter’s sparks off the General Strike. It’s Bunter’s tailor who runs up some subsequently notorious black shirts for Oswald Mosley and his followers. Churchill assumes power in 1940 at the behest of Bunter. Bunter is at the bottom of the Suez business. ‘The Waste Land’ is a patch of ground at the back of the Bunter residence. David Hughes even devises a comic genesis, involving Bunter, for Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Billy Bunter? ‘Bunter,’ states Hughes’s narrator firmly at the start of the novel, ‘was a character in a schoolboy paper called the Magnet. He came on the scene in 1908 when he was 14 and vanished from it, having added not a year to his age, when the paper ceased publication in 1940.’ (There’s a slight error here: Bunter’s age is always 15.) A figment of popular culture, in other words, of no more substance than Desperate Dan. Ah, but Hughes imagines the future author of the Greyfriars stories, in or about 1907, doing the rounds of English public schools in search of characters to insert into his projected schoolboy series, and – having exhausted the possibilities of Eton, Harrow and so on – pouncing jubilantly on an outsize figure found attending a rather less venerable establishment. Archibald Aitken. It’s Aitken-Bunter who’s imposed himself on the 20th century, just as Bunter – a peripheral character to start with – imposed himself on the Companion Papers. ‘Billy Bunter’s Own Paper’ was the eventual subtitle of the Magnet. Bunter gained his hilarious prominence by displaying a lot of deplorable qualities to the fullest extent. Greed, sloth, stupidity and bumptiousness are what chiefly distinguish him. (Leaving aside his celebrated bulk.) These defects are sometimes modified to meet the requirements of certain plots, but Bunter’s behaviour is largely incorrigible. He is comically deficient in manliness and knows no better. His sturdier schoolfellows make allowances for him. Aitken, in the Hughes novel, complains about the travesty Frank Richards made of his character – obese he may have been, obtuse never. There’s the History Prize he won in 1910 to testify to his possession of actual brains in place of the low cunning ascribed to Bunter. It may also be meant to remind us of Aitken’s later extraordinary impact on the history of his times. David Hughes has an eye for egregious ironies as avid as Frank Richards’s own.