and THE MAGNET
Would the real
Charles Hamilton please stand up:
My interest in this topic stems from a long held delight in the school stories of Charles Hamilton, particularly those written about and around Greyfriars School and its most famous inhabitants: the aforementioned Billy Bunter; the group collectively known, long before Enid Blyton's more famous quintet, as The Famous Five, namely Harry Wharton, Bob Cherry, Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, Frank Nugent and Johnny Bull; and their teacher Henry Samuel Quelch. This delight prompted me to ask why Hamilton's stories, for all their faults, still give such particular pleasure. Could the reasons relate to, and perhaps even explain, today's popularity of J K Rowling's Harry Potter and the subsequent rejuvenation of the boarding school as a potent fictional location?
Few children today know of, much less read, Charles Hamilton's school stories. The reasons for this are not hard to find. The name 'Billy Bunter', as noted in Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, is now synonymous with 'fat and greedy'. 'Any attempt today' writes Nicholas Tucker 'to build up a comic fictional character based on extreme physical oddity would probably be strongly opposed before it could take root in the popular imagination.' (1981, p.208) Billy Bunter as hero or, more correctly, anti-hero is everything that contradicts today's view of what is appropriate in literature for children. Bunter is an inveterate liar, at times a racist and consistently a thief. Edited versions of a handful of Billy Bunter titles published in the 1980s highlighted by their omissions the most alarming elements of the stories. Nonetheless, it's interesting to compare Bunter with the similarly obese Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter books. As a character Dudley appears worse than Bunter by having been given, at least so far, few redeeming features yet no one seems to have taken Rowling to task for perpetuating this stereotype.
In his now infamous commentary on Harry Potter, the author, critic and Whitbread Book Awards judge Anthony Holden tried to demolish both Rowling and Hamilton when he wrote of Harry Potter: 'I found myself struggling to finish a tedious, clunkily written version of Billy Bunter on broomsticks . . Why on earth couldn't Hogwarts have been a comprehensive, or an embattled secondary modern or a solid old-fashioned grammar - a school of the kind with which most of those millions of young readers can identify?' (2000)
Holden's criticism was replied to, acerbically, by William Boot in The Bookseller who called him 'petulant and snooty' (2000, p.25) and went on to say that his comments were 'fat-headed beyond belief, since failing to identify with a good old private boarding school is not readily observable among these millions of young readers.' In his favour Holden does imply, though, that Hamilton's stories were neither tedious nor clunky and he highlights the continuum between Hamilton and Rowling despite the chronological distance that separates them.
As Boot points out, Harry Potter's readership extends far beyond the country where public schools were, and still are, such a distinctive institution. The same was true for Hamilton's tales of Greyfriars and St Jims, as letters published in The Magnet and The Gem attest. Hamilton's large cast of characters came, as did the magazines' readers, from all over the Commonwealth. Tom Brown, epitome of the boarding school schoolboy, was the name given to the New Zealand representative at Greyfriars; and there is even mention made of the All Blacks in one Magnet story. (Moss, 1995) And that Bunter and his fictional schoolmates are still of interest worldwide is demonstrated by the existence of a Bunter Egroup, Hamilton web sites established in both Australia and New Zealand and by novels for adults that incorporate elements of the Bunter stories. (1)
There are more serious criticisms, however, of Bunter than Holden's throwaway remark. Musgrave calls Hamilton's stories 'the worst examples of standardisation' (1985, p.223) of the school story genre (2). He censures Hamilton's writing largely for what he believes it does not offer, in particular change, development and explicit moral lessons. The realities of religion, sex, war, poverty and social class were, he says, left unmentioned. Nicholas Tucker wrote that '[Charles Hamilton] . . . had little time for subtlety . . . in his writing . . . He depicts an utterly unreal world in his stories, cut down to the most narrow stereotypes and repetitive, ever-predictable situations.' (1981, p.123-124).
Nonetheless, the reasons for the enduring appeal of the stories, albeit today mostly amongst collectors and aficionados, cannot be ignored, nor the reasons for their massive popularity in the first half of the 20th century when, at its height, The Magnet sold up to 250,000 copies each week. Some of the critics are on Hamilton's side. 'A greedy fat boy,' argues Beverly Lyon Clark, highlighting the contradiction at the heart of the Bunter stories, 'can subvert the straight-arrow, stiff-upper-lip values of a proper boys' school, a subversion particularly valued by a readership comprised of boys who were not themselves attending public school.' (1996, p.249) Jeffrey Richards goes several steps further when he says: '[Hamilton's] stylisation of language and the ritualisation of events, so often misunderstood by short-sighted critics who talk of standardisation and stereotyping, are necessary elements of myth.' (1988, p.274)
The attempt in the 1980s to sanitize Hamilton's writing actually revealed one reason why the stories, for all their ideological incorrectness, were so good. Hamilton's writing style, deemed by some to be numbingly repetitive, is in fact highly idiosyncratic, difficult to imitate or indeed alter convincingly. The following parallel extracts from the opening chapter of the two versions of Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School give an indication this:
Chapter 1: Bunter knows!'Bunter!' Mr Quelch's voice was not loud, but deep.It was heard distinctly by all ears in the Remove form-room at Greyfriars School: excepting, apparently, one pair of very fat ears. Billy Bunter did not answer. It was the second time Quelch had called his name. Quelch seldom had to call on any boy in the Remove twice. Now he had called twice, and still in vain. Bunter was silent. There was a stirring in the Remove, as fellows turned their heads to look at Bunter, wondering why he did not reply. Really, it was not safe for any Remove man to pass Quelch by like the idle wind which he regarded not. Yet there sat Billy Bunter, staring straight at his form-master through his big spectacles, but otherwise not deigning to take the slightest notice of him!(Richards, 1968, p.5)
Chapter 1: Bunter knows!'Bunter!' Mr Quelch's voice was not loud, but it was deep. Every pair of ears in the form room heard it - every pair, that is. But one. Billy Bunter's fat ears must have been closed, for he didn't answer. This was the second time that Quelch had called Bunter's name, and the other members of the Remove stirred uncomfortably, one or two of them risking a glance at the fat Owl. To ignore Quelch was to risk life and limb, and yet the Owl simply sat at his desk, staring silently at his form master through his large, round specs.(Richards, 1982, p.1)
Jeffrey Richards sums up the appeal of Hamilton's unique style when he writes: '[His] repetitions have the regular, ritual cadences of . . . the Authorised Version or the classic nursery rhymes, creating a form of speech which is a texture of catch phrases, has the recurrent elements and limitations of ordinary speech but gives the effect of a litany.' (1988, p.274-275)
What of the readers' themselves? Musgrave's suggestion of a moral vacuum in Hamilton's writing is strongly denied by Robert Roberts in his book The classic slum, a study of working class life in Manchester at the turn of the century. He writes: 'Even before the first world war many youngsters . . . had developed an addiction for [Charles Hamilton's] school stories . . . schoolboys and some young teenagers strove . . . to conform [to the standards of conduct]' of the characters. (1971, p127)
Brian, born in 1951 and growing up in a small, economically depressed community, was one of the readers who emailed me with their reasons why they enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, Charles Hamilton's writing. He believes that 'the working class of the inter-war period appreciated [Hamilton's] portrayal of a moral society.' And he adds: 'My main interest has always been the way [Hamilton] uses language. For someone of my background, interested in literature, it was splendid to meet a boy's author who would suddenly quote Virgil or Fenimore Cooper.'
Steve contributed the following: 'Reading about a group of young boys who really looked out for each other was a vicarious way of interacting with others and sharing their adventures . . . to me [the age of the stories] didn't show. What did . . . was the strength of characterisation in the writing. I was . . . a bit on the chubby side, but never felt any anger towards the portrayal of Bunter.'
Sandeep, who now lives in the United States but grew up in India, said: 'I first read [Hamilton's] books as a 12 or 13 year old in Bombay . . . and enjoyed them immensely . . . I am of the opinion that . . . [Hamilton's] . . . work . . . imparts a significant set of values to their readers . . . values such as honesty, integrity, loyalty, fairness, respect and facing determinedly up to adversity (3). . . The same cannot be said of a lot of what kids read today. . . During our school days, one of the reasons we read [Hamilton's] books . . . was to improve the quality of our English . . .'
Sandeep also makes an interesting comment on the Indian member of The Famous Five, Hurree Jamset Ram Singh who, he admits, is a caricature, but nonetheless 'is treated very differently from . . . other foreigners - he is credited with a lot of brains, he is often mentioned as being very "sharp", he is . . . the best bowler in the Remove, and he plays a rather important role in many stories . . .'
Tony lists some reasons why he enjoys the Bunter stories. 'The schooling is similar enough to my own for me to relate to it, but different enough to be interesting . . . there is a never ending supply of changing stories . . . the writing style is comical and brings a smile.'
David writes: 'It's the outrageous and totally unbelievable Billy Bunter and the serpentine and stereotypical plots that make these tales classics.'
Pete says: 'I discovered Greyfriars around the age of 9 . . . now . . . my bookshelves sag beneath the Howard Bakers (4), the framed map hangs above the mantel, and my email address [Friardale, a village near Greyfriars school] speaks for itself.' I will return to the map later.
Jonathan, aged 14, talks about how he was introduced to the Greyfriars stories because of their apparent similarity to William and Jennings. But he sounds a cautionary note: 'I wouldn't take me in any way to be typical of my age,' he writes, 'as I don't really know anyone else who would dream of even looking inside one of the books.'
Jonathan is not alone however. Another Jonathan, journalist Jonathan Wilson, describes giving a Billy Bunter novel to his sixth-grade son: 'Like a few million kids before him, my son found the Bunter books very funny. I heard him laugh out loud while he was reading, which doesn't happen all that often. My son is no egghead; he is . . . fully American in his interests and activities. Like most Americans he prefers talking to reading.' (1995, p.98)
Raja, originally from Sri Lanka, emailed: 'I first entered the enchanted world of Greyfriars as a 7 year old in 1948 . . . Since then [Charles Hamilton] has had me in thrall.'
Given the vastly different cultural, moral and social landscape of today compared with the inter-war years, we would expect the values identified by Roberts in The classic slum to have less relevance in the 21st century. But, taking into account the feedback from present day readers, this is clearly not a given. However, while these values may still sometimes be important, it is equally clear that moral imperatives are not, and cannot, be the only reasons for the lasting appeal of the stories. Mary Cadogan, Hamilton's biographer, writes: 'Even if the author's assumptions about adolescent honour and decency and clean-mindedness were somewhat inflated, readers responded to his irresistible enthusiasm, his comic use of the high-flown simile . . . and to his charismatic characters.' (1986, p.61)
The stories are funny, often in a slapstick, exaggerated cartoon way; they are linguistically and referentially challenging at the same time as being reassuringly repetitive; they subvert; they offer, as Raja said, entry into an 'enchanted world.' Ultimately, their success is dependant on them being not only timely, but timeless. Bunter's Greyfriars is as much a fantasy creation as Harry's Hogwarts. 'Landscapes,' according to one writer, 'are . . . constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock.' (Schama, 1995, p.61) Hamilton, who never attended a public school, invented the rules for the landscape he constructed much as Tolkien did for Middle Earth, Lewis for Narnia and Rowling for Hogwarts.
I want to explore in a little more detail this fantasy aspect of the Greyfriars stories. One of my email correspondents disagreed with my suggestion that Hamilton created a fantasy landscape that both echoed the real world at the same time as distanced itself from it but, interestingly, Robert Roberts in noting how the standards and ideals of the stories 'conditioned the thoughts of a whole generation of boys', also conceded that the Greyfriars code of conduct was something of a fantasy. 'Greyfriars,' he wrote, 'gave us one moral code, life another, and a fine muddle we made of it.' The 'simple tales' were 'distorted into myth'; the characters were 'unsullied by [the] early cares of adolescence . . . [a]nd that was how we wanted it.' (1971, p127)
George Orwell, for all the hostility towards Hamilton's writing contained in his famous essay on boy's weeklies, almost got it right when he wrote: 'It is well worth getting hold of some copies of The Gem and The Magnet . . . simply to have a look at the correspondence columns. What is truly startling is the intense interest with which the pettiest details of life at Greyfriars and St Jim's are followed up . . . It is clear that many of the boys and girls who write these letters are living a complete fantasy-life." (1968, p.469)
What Orwell could have acknowledged, of course, was that these readers were prepared to suspend their disbelief and enter wholeheartedly into the world of Greyfriars in the same way that readers of other fictional worlds are prepared to do, particularly those readers of modern fantasy and, indeed, followers of long established television soap operas. Over an enormously long writing career Hamilton was so successful in creating a local habitation and a place that the Kent where Greyfriars was situated became at least as real as the real thing. Food parcels were even sent to Bunter at the non-existent Greyfriars. In issue number 1,546 of The Gem the editor is forced to say twice in the same issue: 'St Jims and Greyfriars are fictitious schools.' And: 'I cannot send you the autographs you want as the characters are fictitious.' (1937, p.17)
Margery Fisher, summarising Hamilton's 70 million word output in two paragraphs calls Bunter 'a freak in a comic-fantasy world.' (1975, p.46) Robert Kelly, writing in The Saturday Book of 1964, is a little more circumspect, and kindly. He writes: 'It is not generally realised today that The Magnet featured within its pages every type of story possible in a school or holiday setting without resorting to the fantasy of visits to lost valleys filled with prehistoric monsters, invisible schoolboys, magic potions, or feats of superhuman strength. If there was a touch of fantasy about the Greyfriars scene it was merely of the type that made the settings and characters seem a little larger than life.' (1964, p.150)
This is not strictly true. At least one sequence of Bunter stories contains magical elements that make it more akin to a Harry Potter tale (5), and the larger than life aspects of the Greyfriars stories often take on extraordinary proportions to match the physicality of Billy Bunter himself. Kelly goes on to say that 'Bunter, with his sublime ignorance both in education and in sport, his constant thefts of food, his transparent lies, and his postal order which never arrives, . . . can take credit or blame for liberating The Magnet from the constricted public school story code . . . his contempt for authority in all its guises, coupled with a refusal to recognize his own modest place in society [makes] Bunter . . . a Walter Mitty with the energy and nerve to bring his fantasies to life.' (1964, p.154).
Indeed, nowhere is this more apparent than in one particular sequence of stories, collectively known as 'Bunter Court' series published between July and September 1925, at the beginning of the classic Bunter period when Hamilton focused all his energies and talent on The Magnet, and stories by substitute writers ceased. The abstract to the story in issue number 910 is revealing and worth quoting in full:
'Bunter Court exists only in the imagination of Billy Bunter. His schoolfellows are tired of hearing about the host of footmen, the Rolls-Royce cars, the horses, the gorgeous picture gallery, the gardens, lake, etc. But Bunter is determined to convince his doubting Form-fellows that Bunter Court does exist! From "fancy" comes the first stone of the "ancestral" home, the beginning of a great "reality!" ' (1925, p.3)
The eight Magnets that follow chronicle Billy Bunter's litany of lies that enable him to obtain possession of a country estate and, at the same time, reveal how Hamilton managed to make this extraordinary deception believable. Bunter, he writes, 'would have liked to be a lord, but the next best thing to that was being taken for a lord. (1925, 910, p.7) . . . Bunter, to do him justice, was quite unconscious of any wrongdoing in his conduct. He was so in the habit of considering only his own interest and advantage that it hardly occurred to his fat mind that anybody else had any claim to consideration at all. (1925, 910, p.18) . . . consequences never bothered him till they came along.' (1925, 910, p.20) . . . He was simply unable to realise that any other inhabitant of the globe had any rights or interests as important as his own . . . Bunter regarded the world as his oyster, which he had to open somehow.' (1925, 912, p.12)
The fantasy here is presented as something not only external (Bunter's possession of the country estate), it is also internalised in Bunter's amoral world view which blinds him to social mores and generally acceptable conduct. Bunter is the quintessential anti-hero, who thinks nothing of incarcerating butlers and estate agents in the wine cellars in order to retain his fraudulent tenancy of the so-called Bunter Court. That the reader is prepared to accept all this for the duration of the story is due only partly to Bunter's deviant psychology; it is also because of the acquiescence modeled by other characters, especially the upright, honest Famous Five who are completely taken in, and (and this may be the strongest reason) because we, the reader, enjoy Bunter's short-lived life of misrule. Society with all its conventions is riotously, albeit temporarily, overturned and we can partake vicariously while still expressing our indignation or outrage by switching sides when Bunter's house of cards comes tumbling down. What could be a more sublime, and subversive, fantasy than this?
Hamilton the man was something of an enigma, little known during most of his lifetime, until George Orwell's article, which cast doubt on the singular authorship of the stories in The Magnet and The Gem, engendered a reply by Hamilton, and made him, as it were, an overnight success. Hamilton's reticent autobiography omits his childhood and most of his teenage years. Because it contains such scanty details about these formative years, and because it is written in the third person, Hamilton becomes a rather shadowy, shaped, character in a story that is more biography than autobiography. This feeling is reinforced by Hamilton's decision to use his best-known pseudonym, Frank Richards, when talking about himself. He thought of himself, in fact, more as Frank than Charles. A curious and somewhat convoluted extension of this distancing act occurs in Val Andrews detective novel Sherlock Holmes and the Greyfriars School mystery. (1997) Here the 'author as character' becomes a 'character as author'. Dr Watson, as an old boy of Greyfriars, enlists the help of a retired Holmes to recover Mr Quelch's stolen 'History of Greyfriars.' What they uncover instead is that the austere schoolmaster, Bunter's nemesis, is moonlighting as a writer of boy's stories under a host of pseudonyms including that of Frank Richards! 'I can assure you,' the teacher says, 'that Henry Samuel Quelch is my real name, although I have told my publishers that I am one Charles Hamilton.' (1999, p.170)
What Hamilton's autobiography does reveal is a portrait of a genial, reserved man, cosmopolitan, egalitarian, vulnerable, whose true story lies hidden like a palimpsest beneath and between his endless lines of print. Which is perhaps why his characters also remain essentially on the borders of credibility, larger than life stereotypes or archetypes depending on the individual reader's point of view. In Hamilton's life story one can glean the possibility of a doomed romance, the struggle to adapt to a loss of physical resilience, a man who gambled away his considerable wealth in Monte Carlo and, for a time after the war, was in considerable financial difficulty.
One of the perverse delights of Hamilton's stories is in following his characters to the brink of dissolution. Wealthy schoolboys fall prey to compulsive gambling, blackmailers, money sharks and, in Bunter's case, food. The nice boys we can like, admire even, and try to emulate, but we also identify with the wicked ones; we sink with them and sometimes rejoice in their ultimate redemption. Except they are never really redeemed. In the next set of stories they fall again. Bunter's Promethean quest for tuck, for instance, is everlasting, always fulfilled and always unfulfilled. It is tempting, if perhaps a little hyperbolic, to suggest that the Greyfriars stories are a kind of Mystery Play, embodying the temptation, fall and redemption, and that in them we hear an echo of our human situation, our personal cycle of growth, decay and renewal. Hamilton himself would have baulked at this: in a poem prefacing his autobiography he wrote simply of his motive for writing: 'And if my tale give pleasure, /And ease the daily task, /And charm an hour of leisure, / Then what more need I ask?'
As early as 1915, in The Magnet issue 409, a map appeared of the Greyfriar's environment. Already in this early attempt we see a start to the codification of a landscape Hamilton had been fictionalising for just eight years. The apotheosis of this codification came in 1965 when a much more detailed map was produced for the Holiday Annual of that year. The importance of maps in fiction is that they both resemble and dissemble. In mimicking a geographical map they suggest that a kind of truth is contained within the map boundaries, 'beyond which lie dragons'. Yet ironically, nothing portrayed on a fictional map is really real and what lies outside the frame, and therefore outside the narrative, is actually the 'real' world. Children's literature is, of course, full of maps although we are still waiting for one of Hogwarts. Whoever charted the highways and byways of Greyfriars in the County of Kent, England, was trying to suggest that this world was tangible and authentic. Yet the very act of framing it revealed it to be, instead, fantastic and mythic. The immutability of the stories, cited by Orwell as their major flaw (Orwell, 1968, p473), is actually a natural consequence of the mapping and framing process.
The elements of fantasy and myth, I think, are ultimately the only explanations for the permanence of Hamilton's stories. True, individual readers have found other reasons, but in the end what has made the work enduring is our understanding that it is unbelievable and, therefore, able to be believed; non-existent and therefore ever present. The stereotyping and standardization identified by Musgrave and the archetypes posited by Richards are both true; over time one has alchemised into the other. In the classic Bunter stories we can enter an 'enchanted world', one that bears only a passing resemblance to the world we experience every day. This was shown to be only too true when in 1979 Humphrey Carpenter published a children's novel called The Captain Hook affair. In this story two children Lizzy and Jack encounter characters from children's literature through the device of a magic pencil. One of these characters is a strangely emasculated Billy Bunter whom Jack takes out of his familiar environment of Greyfriars into a late seventies Britain. The episode generates a feeling of disconnection, the dissonance between the immediately pre-Thatcher world and that of timeless Greyfriars being simply too great: taken from his familiar frame of reference, Bunter no longer fits.
If Charles Hamilton is little known today, he and his writing deserve to be remembered. His school stories in particular were well written and widely read. In Billy Bunter Hamilton created a character repulsive yet instantly memorable. As with Rowling's Harry Potter books the best of the Bunter stories are strong in characterisation, humour, setting and complex plotting; they are part of, but at the same time subvert, a long tradition, of which Hogwarts is but the latest manifestation. It comes as no surprise really that Harry catches the Hogwarts Express at the beginning of the school year. Each term the Greyfriars schoolboys arrived at their school via either Courtfield or Friardale railway stations.
Hamilton wrote that in 'his own considered opinion . . . he has done a good job, and has been a useful citizen . . . He is proud to know that his writings were read in the trenches in one war, and in the Western Desert in another. But his pride and his pleasure is to write for young people, and he is content to live and die a Boys' Writer - Billy Bunter and he are inseparable till death do them part!' (1962, p174)
Notes ( )
1. A recent example is 'Sherlock Holmes and the
Greyfriars School Mystery' by Val Andrews. The web site
addresses are: GREYFRIARS
(New Zealand site) and CB&M
Andrews, Val (1999) Sherlock Holmes and the Greyfriars
School mystery. Anstey, Leicestershire, Thorpe.
Thanks, too, to those who emailed me with their thoughts about Charles Hamilton's writing.
Any problems or questions? E-mail John - firstname.lastname@example.org