‘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.
Having invented a striking prototype for an imaginary dumpling, Hughes goes on gleefully to appropriate some public figures for the rest of the Magnet cast: for instance, we are asked to suppose that Frank Richards (his real name was Charles Hamilton, but Hughes affects not to know this), scouring Eton with a literary purpose in mind, came face to face with a boy called Anthony Eden and put him down on paper as Harry Wharton. (In fact, this isn’t too wide of the mark. Charles Hamilton has left a record of how he went about the business of assembling his characters, picking up a podgy frame here, a pair of loud trousers there.) The author of But for Bunter, indeed, has a lot of fun selecting later celebrities with whom to equate the jolly boys of Greyfriars, though this is something of a hit-or-miss procedure. It is just about possible, perhaps, to see in Johnny Bull an embryo J.B. Priestley, or to take Skinner for the youthful Oswald Mosley: but there are no grounds at all for attributing a poetic sensibility to the brashest boy in the Fourth Remove – Richards’s bony American Fish. Richards himself, on one occasion, envisaging his schoolboys twenty-five years on, referred to Fisher T. Fish as ‘the great American fish-paste king’. Frank Richards knew what he was about. Neither would a future for Fish as someone like, say, Walt Disney have seemed amiss. But Fish as T.S. Eliot we just can’t swallow. The success of this particular game depends on the appropriateness of the linkages effected. For poor Mr Quelch – the formidable form master – Hughes crosses A.E. Housman with Jack the Ripper. It really isn’t a suitable concoction. Mauleverer, though, seems a proper boyhood embodiment for the Prince of Wales – and Mrs Simpson is brought in satisfactorily to extend the role at Greyfriars reserved for Marjorie Hazeldene, an especially ripping schoolgirl in everyone’s view.
Where in all this, we might ask, is the Bounder of Greyfriars? Another strand in contemporary history might have been adumbrated by means of this particular figure: a delinquent one. Burgess or Blunt would have fitted the bill. But it’s clear that Hughes has been chary of apportioning waywardness to anyone other than his hero, Aitken-Bunter, to avoid displacing the classic Owl from the centre of the stage. Some decided liberties are taken with the character of Bunter, not all of them justified by the assertion that Frank Richards got it wrong. That’s fine for the purposes of Hughes’s novel, but not when it’s carried back to the stories themselves. Bunter was never knowingly a mocker or a lord of misrule. He wasn’t at ‘the head’ of any clique – on the contrary, he epitomises the hanger-on. When Hughes mentions Bunter’s ‘magnificent frailty’ we may wonder how this attribute evolved out of such habits, peculiar to the Owl of Greyfriars, as tittering at others’ mishaps and getting himself in a jammy state. It’s a failing of But for Bunter that it resorts too often to hyperbole (‘I think you’re herding the facts into gas ovens. I think your cosy lunch was a cellar for torturing the life out of common sense’). But the theme of the novel is inspired and audacious. Even if he doesn’t quite pull it off, David Hughes deserves a lot of credit for his attempt to furnish a merry commentary on the infatuation with the English public school and its ethics which persists in certain circles, and the implications of this attitude for society at large. (You could call it another manifestation – a more frivolous one – of Hughes’s concern with the ‘evasions and fantasies’ by which people live, noted by the LRB reviewer of The Pork Butcher.) The mingling of the Greyfriars Remove and various historical moves makes a splendid ploy, but a slightly sharper touch would have been required to get the utmost funniness out of it.
Hughes’s narrator is an overweight government employee named Patrick Weymouth, incompletely divorced from his wife and unsatisfactorily entangled with his secretary, whose present task – rather vaguely defined – is to draft a report on the state of culture in modern Britain, with emphasis on current children’s reading. He prefers to recall with affection his wartime ingestion of the Magnet – back numbers – under a Sussex hedge, like the old pork butcher in Hughes’s last novel, ‘living off the fat of his memories’ – or at any rate, his memories of a fatty. Weymouth is a Bunter addict. In the early days of his marriage, he and his friends behaved like members of an Old Boys’ Book Club, ‘testing one another’s memory of goings-on at Greyfriars’. When, at the opening of the novel, his ex-wife Lesley remarks blandly that Billy Bunter is still alive, he thinks it’s a snide allusion to his over-eating. However, Lesley is being literal. She means that the model for Bunter has become an 89-year-old enfant terrible, at present living in New Romney, Kent, in the charge of two peculiar employees named Smedley and Soames. (Frank Richards’s Soames – we remember – was an ex-valet-turned-crook, and at one point in the saga we find a bogus schoolmaster passing himself off as a Mr Smedley: however, no special significance is attached by Hughes to these facts.) Weymouth, having been persuaded to confront this figment of schoolboy fiction in the flesh, finds himself inveigled by Aitken into an escapade: a day trip to France. What larks! In the course of a beanfeast in Boulogne, Aitken starts offering some exorbitant revisions to the events of the recent past, as historians would have them (‘he was now going on about Field Marshal Montgomery, and then Pandit Nehru received an inscrutable mention’ – the inscrutability was no doubt terrific). Eventually, we are brought up to the mid-1950s, with Sir Anthony Eden in a fit of pique brought on by Aitken. Suez ensues.
Daniel Green presents a blunter Bunter – not William George, but his supposed great-grandfather William Frederick Augustus. Enumerating the moral flaws which delineate Frank Richards’s classic character, Patrick Weymouth mentions greed, pride, sloth, envy and avarice (the last two unjustly), but leaves lust out of the list. Bunter Sahib isn’t especially a prey to this drive either, but most of the laughs in Daniel Green’s novel (odd to find a couple of reconstituted Bunters appearing simultaneously) arise from the fact that its plump young hero keeps coming up against concupiscence. It’s his sexual allure that gets this particular Owl (‘if I’m an owl,’ he says defensively at one point, ‘it means that I am, well suited to night work’) into a succession of scrapes. Nineteenth-century India is the setting for the lewd advances inflicted on Bunter Sahib, the innocent possessor of – as one importunate Begum puts it – ‘a pizzle a temple bull could envy’. ‘Well, really!’ Frank Richards might have exclaimed, seeing his character subjected to some very unseemly transformations.
Authors sometimes engage in odd enterprises: with her last novel, for example, Doris Lessing discarded the expertise she’d been cultivating since 1950. The second part of her Diary of Jane Somers is an exceptionally trite and tiresome piece of work. The Good Terrorist, however, shows a resurgence of her customary boldness and diligence, and reminds us how purely readable this author can be, whenever she chooses. The impulse towards irony is paramount again, along with the seriousness of purpose which ‘Jane Somers’ lacked. The good terrorist of the title is Alice Mellings, a renegade from the middle classes, whose talent for housekeeping benefits an appalling squat. We follow with interest the processes – initiated by Alice – of getting lavatories unblocked, electricity restored, the refuse of ages dealt with. Alice has a special relationship with shiftless Jasper, close but sexless (he prefers men, she does without). These two, at the start of the novel, arrive at what looks like a radically impaired building. Here, however, some people indifferent to comfort are already ensconced. They are all, or nearly all, would-be revolutionaries, and a plan is afoot to seek affiliation with the IRA.
Nothing comes of this plan, as it turns out. The Good Terrorist is far from being cast in the form of a thriller, though a fair amount of ordinary narrative suspense is generated in the final section: it’s rather a matter-of-fact scrutiny of the ideas, activities and usual outbreaks of those for whom society’s conventional workings smack only of corruption. Lessing’s central character is an over-age protester who likes to daub walls with slogans denouncing the bourgeoisie. Her unexceptionable family’s claim to consideration she discounts entirely. She blames her parents and their friends for being blind to Jasper’s merits. Their refusal to subsidise his exploits she cannot forgive. She blots out of her mind the consequences of her behaviour towards them, and especially towards her mother, a prop for her and Jasper for a number of years. A selective helpfulness is practised by Alice. It is directed towards those oppressed by awful childhoods, nourishing spectacular grievances, or lumbered with distorted sensibilities. She finds her kind-red spirits among the socially progressive – as it seems to her – campaigners for a tolerable future, humanitarians, non-workers, malcontents, freelance pickets. Alice, the good girl manqué, not without a spot of self-delusion, throws in her lot with some bad hats. A stubborn and deadly innocence is one of her characteristics.
Not that we’re invited, in these pages, to relish, or to marvel at, anyone’s depravity: Doris Lessing is far too conscientious to be censorious, and her present purpose isn’t satirical, or expository, or even very clearly aligned with any special political view. She merely takes two kinds of destructiveness, bureaucratic and anarchic, and examines the conditions procured by the pair of them. Her approach is thorough, factual and oddly entertaining – the last an effect of her traditional narrative gift.
We are all, she would seem to be saying, implicated in society’s failure to manage things better. No one has any grounds for self-congratulation. People who require symbolic vignettes from their fiction need look no further than the opening pages of The Good Terrorist, with the top-floor rooms of a gracious, solid house – c. 1910 – crammed with buckets of shit. Such a house – for all the effort that goes into its reclamation – can’t effectively be put in order.
The unexplained laughter of Alice Thomas Ellis’s title would seem to have a celestial source: she’s at the business of larking with the metaphysical again. Her light, worldly novels don’t exclude a salutary touch of the ineffable. There is always, for this author, some unspoken observer of people’s antics – and this makes things gloriously intriguing and rum. Her ability to shape flawless, droll, astringent sentences is a help as well. In this, her fifth novel, a not quite broken-hearted journalist visits a Welsh valley to recuperate after a cut-off love affair. The name of this engaging show-off is Lydia, she has a lot of curly hair in which a bow is sometimes placed, a sharp brain and a piquant manner. A plain and ordinary person accompanies her to her cottage – Betty, who, until she’s disabused of the notion, entertains a worry that Lydia, left to herself, might do herself in. Betty is a good sort with no dash whatever. Lydia goes in for beguiling venom, envisaging disagreeable ends for her absconding lover – ‘She wished that Finn’s caique might sink in waters infested with small sharks’ – until it occurs to her, about half-way through the novel, that goodness might be a more chic attribute. This quality isn’t easily attained.
In a nearby farmhouse lives a full-flavoured family: dour husband, downcast wife, young sister-in-law afflicted with some unspecified deformity. The last is Angharad, whose elemental view of things, inserted into the narrative in passages set in italic type, forms a counterbalance to the sportive malice of Lydia. When Lydia labels the home of these people ‘Farmhouse Grim’ you feel it’s to avoid uttering the a phrase ‘cold comfort’, which, after all, has become something of a cliché. Queerness in the country rarely gets any other tag. There is queerness in abundance here. But Alice Thomas Ellis, though she pokes fun with gusto, at the same time goes looking for the skull beneath the skin – an unsettling practice, and one altogether alien to the Starkadder spirit.
Fay Weldon’s tone, in her new collection of stories, is as grimly chatty as ever: ‘Well now, friends, let’s have a little light relief. Let me tell you the story of what happened to Esther and Alan in the 24th year of their marriage.’ So opens ‘Redundant! or, The Wife’s Revenge’. It’s this author’s agreeable custom to cast a sardonic eye on the accredited triumphs of womanhood – marriage, child-bearing, an affluent way of life, and so on. Her instructive little life-histories reckon up the cost of these attainments, in terms of psychological wear and tear. Hysterical paralysis in an apparently happy woman? You’ll find a husband of unacknowledged frightfulness at the bottom of it. Uncontrollable list-making on the part of another? This must indicate some unseen lack. (Baldness, on the other hand, suggests a more obvious assault, of one kind or another.) Weldon’s warped wives – warped by men’s mishandling, as it may be, or just by the thinness of the options available to them – are sometimes driven to take matters into their own hands, with a good deal of ado. The outrageous retaliation is a recurring motif – and, behind it, Fay Weldon has a knack for discerning a crazy pattern in marital goings-on. Her characters are all unnaturally busy – busy storing up trouble for themselves, averting it or meeting it head-on. There are 12 stories here, composed in a range of moods from the vindictive to the amiable, and all of them marked by brevity and a certain showiness of style. Women’s fates, in all their variety, continue to activate Mrs Weldon’s fiction, and have led her to perfect what you might term the revenger’s skit.