Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The ghost of Billy Bunter

As a youngster I read all of the Billy Bunter books, yet decades later I wonder why. Why did they appeal to a lad brought up on a Derby council estate who knew nothing of private boarding schools or the etiquette of wealth?

Perhaps the social gulf was easily bridged by ignoring it, but Bunter was not even a character one could admire or with whom one could identify. According to those inky swots at Wikipedia -

Bunter's defining characteristic is his greediness and dramatically overweight appearance. His character is, in many respects, a highly obnoxious anti-hero. As well as his gluttony, he is also obtuse, lazy, racist, inquisitive, deceitful, slothful, self-important and conceited.

His compatriots at Grefriars School weren’t much better either as far as I recall. The beastly place was crawling with snobs and fearsome beaks such as Mr Quelch. So what was the attraction all those years ago?

Looking back I think the books were straightforward stories with a beginning, middle and end. They were available from the local library and easily spotted in the shelves because of their yellow dust jackets. Bunter was good enough rather than appealing, with the added benefit of being a series so a chap knew what to expect.

Perhaps Billy Bunter brings out the mechanical aspect of reading. Beneath the literary flim flam books are usually something to do, entertainments as Graham Greene called his own output. Something to pass the time on a rainy day or when there isn’t anything else. Holiday reading without being on holiday.

There is a mechanical aspect to all forms of entertainment. It doesn’t have to be uplifting or even entertaining - available and easily digested will do. Eventually we learn to discriminate, to select according to our mood and passing inclinations, to learn, to muse, to delve, laugh, think, agree or disagree, to be angry, indignant or resigned.

Or we don’t.


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Wildgoose said...

I didn't read Bunter, but as a boy I did read all of my father's "Tom Merry" books about St Jims, and especially his favourite character "Cardew the Cad", along with other characters such as Augustus D'arcy. He grew up on a Sheffield Council Estate and found the books just as appealing as you did.

Frank Richards/Martin Clifford/Owen Conquest and no doubt other pseudonyms of Charles Hamilton must have been one of the most prolific writers in the English language, ever.

Simple, uncomplicated escapist stories written in an easy language suitable for boys growing up amongst the rationing and rubble of the post-Second World War. Sunny skies and green fields rather than brutal cold winters such as 1947, and the everyday reality of smoke stack industry and bomb-sites.

Paddington said...

I preferred 'Just William'.

A K Haart said...

Wildgoose - according to Wikipedia Charles Hamilton wrote over a hundred million words. The mind boggles. Yes they were escapist stories, even Billy Bunter transported us to another world if an unfamiliar and somewhat unappealing one.

Paddington - so did I. I read one quite recently and still see the appeal.

James Higham said...

Had the hardback with that dustcover.