‘I say, you fellows’ – An Irishman’s Diary on Billy Bunter
The Billy Bunter stories by Frank Richards, set in the fictitious English public school Greyfriars, were originally published in cartoon form in 1908 in the ‘Magnet’
A recent obituary of Michael Bond, author of the Paddington Bear books, disclosed that as a boy he read Billy Bunter stories with a torch under his bedcovers. This sparked my own memories of reading the same stories as a schoolboy and the fun and humour in them.
The Bunter stories by Frank Richards, set in the fictitious English public school Greyfriars, were originally published in cartoon form in 1908 in the Magnet. The magazine ceased publication in 1940 but some years later the transition of the stories to book form took place.
The first hardback, Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School, was published 70 years ago in September 1947 by Charles Skilton. Within weeks of its release it sold 25,000 copies. Bunter had been brought to a new generation and became an institution.
Skilton produced a further nine hardbacks until Cassell took over the publishing rights in 1952. Fortunately, they retained the distinctive yellow dustjacket and created an image of Bunter in over-tight check trousers with podgy legs. The series continued until 1965, by which time 38 books had appeared.
As a lover of Richards’s writing, I scoured bookshops, devoured the contents and built up a complete collection. Like many young readers, I relished the scrapes Bunter got into and his habit of owning up to some misdemeanour long before he was accused of anything. Richards, known as the “undisputed king of school-story writers” was a literary phenomenon. He sold his first short story at 17, continuing uninterrupted for the next 68 years. At the height of his career, he was turning out 1.5 million words a year on his ancient Remington and wrote 60 million all told. His total output was estimated by Guinness Records as the equivalent of 1,000 full-length novels.
However, it is for his schoolboy fiction that he is most remembered.
The Greyfriars stories are filled with stalwart characters such as the Famous Five: Harry Wharton, head-boy of the Lower Fourth (known as the Remove); Bob Cherry; Frank Nugent; Johnny Bull; and the redoubtable Indian prince, Hurree Jamset Ram Singh – the Nabob of Bhainpur – whose “knowfulness” was terrific. A good-natured Irish boy, Michael Desmond, known as Micky or “young Tipperary” also featured in the stories.
But it was the lean angular figure of Henry Samuel Quelch, the gimlet-eyed form master which brought most amusement. His gaze sometimes resembled that of Gorgon, the fabled creature of Greek mythology. In William George Bunter’s opinion Quelch had “an expression that might make a stone image quake”.
When Cassells took over publication some characters were embellished. Vernon-Smith was lean and dapper with a pugilistic nose, Johnny Bull was presented with a pug face and a thatch of dark hair, while Coker of the Fifth had a pudding face. All this added a touch of descriptive magic, bringing the books alive in a new way.
The undisputed school “star” was the immortal fat owl of the Remove, noted for his colourful phrasing. Chapters often open with Bunter being caught in flagrante sneaking tuck: “I say, you fellows. Oops yarooooh! Look here, it wasn’t me. Stoppit! Oh, crikey, wow-wow-wow!” Bunter was referred to by the Removites as a “blinkering, blethering, burbling bandersnatch”, while his lies were dismissed as “piffling, pernicious porkers”.
Memorable sayings still resonate. If Bunter was vacillating, Richards would invoke the line: “He who hesitates is lost.”
Frequently, the sword of Damocles hung over him as an ever-present peril for missing Latin homework translation, or non-payment of a debt because his father’s postal order failed to arrive. Bunter was never famous for having cash. He also failed to appreciate the qualities in Virgilian verse, and while others were delving into the Aeneid, he was invariably busy lining his stomach, sneaking biscuits from Coker’s study or scrounging from the form room. The tuck consisted of calorific cakes topped with marzipan, caramels, éclairs, meringues, jam-tarts and doughnuts, which today would be frowned on, if not outlawed, by the dental and health education police.
The books of another children’s writer, Enid Blyton, have recently been satirised for adults with the publication of Five on Brexit Island, but it is hard to imagine an author reinventing a 21st-century Bunter. Task forces would be brought in to sort out the problems of Greyfriars, while he would be instructed to take exercise thrice daily, and to make informed choices on diet and nutrition to help his clogged arteries.
But no one can take away the memories of what Richards created, the harmless fun of sharing hilarious escapades and knavish tricks. My Bunter collection, which I have lived with for 50 years, comes with lemonade stains and price-clipped dust jackets. They each cost nine shillings and sixpence, and adorn a top shelf. Many decades on, first editions are much sought after. In book collector’s parlance, some are “slightly foxed”, but come, like the fat owl himself, “w.a.f.”, with all faults.