Page finalised 5th November,
YOU HAVEN'T HEARD OF 'THE MAGNET?
There comes to your editor every so often the need to write about his favourite stories, namely those by Charles Harold St John Hamilton. Thus you are in for more recollections of Greyfriars School in the county of Kent, Billy Bunter, Harry Wharton, the Famous Five, Smithy the Bounder, Quelchy, Inky, the lovely Marjorie, the 'Three Fishers', old Wingate, the venerable Dr Locke.. the list goes on, thanks to the pen Of Frank Richards, Charles Hamilton's most famous pseudonym.
The facts on THE MAGNET bear repeating. A weekly story paper, usually 28 pages in length (near A4 in physical size), it ran from 1908 to 1940 through 1683 issues. I suppose I have about half of the original issues with facsimiles of many of the others to be found in the celebrated Howard Baker facsimiles. A decade ago, having filled in quite a few gaps, I sorted all the originals into order and began reading them from the very earliest issues. This does present difficulties as the majority consist of stories which run from 2 to 10 issues. The single story is the exception, although all stories, even if they do make up a larger saga, can still be enjoyed as self-contained school tales.
Sadly, I know very few readers of THE MAGNET nowadays, at least in Australia. It must have enjoyable in the clubs set up in the UK to have been able to have met other enthusiasts and discussed the stories at length. Not that it takes much of an effort on my part to lose myself in the pages of THE MAGNET. I've read hundreds of other authors over the past 45 years; why, then, do I always return to the pages of this popular pre-war boy's story paper?
I've given this matter a lot of thought and have read many books on both Frank Richards and his creations. None of these highly enjoyable volumes really offered an explanation. They're really only for the old timers, the 'Converted'. I'd like to be able to win over a reader or two, to convince you to pick up a 'Magnet', one of the Howard Baker facsimile volumes, a Billy Bunter hardback or an Armada paperback, and read a sampling of Frank Richards' work. (This pseudonym being Charles Hamilton's most familiar, I'll stick with it.)
Maybe the best idea is to return to where It All Began, at least for your editor. THE GREYFRIARS HOLIDAY ANNUAL for 1928 was my earliest contact with Greyfriars My father gave it to me not long after I'd learnt to read. The GHA contained stories of Greyfriars and several other famous schools of fiction, including St Jim's and Rookwood, as well as numerous adventure stories, etc., and ran for 22 years, 1920. although with a slightly different title, to 1941. One notable inclusion in this sumptuous annual (which contained 360 pages of small type and magnificent illustrations) was a humorous story by George E Rochester, BAXTER'S BATH CHAIR. I also to recall a truly mind-boggling school story by P G Wodehouse which obviously appeared in another year.
The first story in the 1928 edition tells of a visit by authors Frank Richards, Martin Clifford and Owen Conquest, to Greyfriars. At the time, I no doubt thought it was a factual account! I was shattered many years later to learn that these were all Charles Hamilton pseudonyms.
The main Greyfriars story, HOW HORACE COKER GOT HIS REMOVE!, is self-explanatory, but I should explain that Coker was the biggest duffer to be found at Greyfriars. Coker occupied a spot in the Fifth Form (which would put him in the second last year of a NSW secondary school; he was supposed to be approximately 17 years of age). He shared a study with the long-suffering Potter and Greene. Coker was big, brawny, overbearing, but had numerous good points. Brave as a lion and very good-natured, especially if he found anyone down on his or her luck. Such was the author's skill that I still find myself thinking of Coker as a senior.
One criticism of Greyfriars (and of all the other schools which Frank Richards authored) was that the characters never grew up. I find this statement amusing as therein rests one of the many appeals of Greyfriars. One can open up any issue and quite happily read the contents without having to worry about what came before, or what followed. To return to the 1928 annual, I read it many times before eventually coming across the Billy Bunter hardbacks. These I found a disappointment with the abbreviated plotlines, but they were better than nothing. I began acquiring these as they were issued throughout the 1950s and 1960s, then one day picked up several GHAs in a Sydney bookshop, before starting to acquire the genuine articles, THE MAGNETS of the 1930s and earlier.
Frank Richards in his lifetime was reputed to have written the equivalent of 1000 full-length novels. He could produce a 35,000 word story for the MAGNET in a matter of days, putting down 50 words a minute via his ancient Remington typewriter. His manuscripts rarely required any corrections and generally went straight to the printers for typesetting. He was happy writing school stories and did not suffer from any delusions of grandeur.
After THE MAGNET closed down, readers of FRANK RICHARDS' stories were made aware through articles in the popular press of his monumental writing feats and began writing to him. He was quite moved by the outpouring of gratitude and began corresponding with many hundreds of people throughout the world. Both the Story Paper Collector (later to be combined with) and the Collector's Digest came into being to cater for many of these readers, plus readers and collectors of the many other pre-WW2 story and comic papers.
Frank Richards often sent his characters to foreign shores, quite often to lands he had never visited. A good example is the 'Harry Wharton in Texas' series, issues 1573--82. I have always preferred the school stories, but this series is very enjoyable even though I have no particular interest in the American West. The settings, language and characters have the ring of authenticity. You can just about sense the heat and dust rising from the pages, the wide open spaces, picture the large as life characters. Most probably I'll be reading a 'Magnet' on my deathbed.
HOWARD BAKER FACSIMILES of 'THE MAGNET'
Many contributors to the early Collectors Digest regarded the 'golden period' of 'The Magnet' (TM from here on) as being around the early 1930s. Many readers of TM first read the paper in the early 1930s and no doubt, like readers of other story papers, regarded the stories they first read as being the best. Or so it seems to this reader. The first issues I read were from the later 1930s and for a long time I didn't think they could be beaten. Back in the 1960s when I first made the acquaintance of Greyfriars and other schools through the Bunter books and other hardbacks, it was almost impossible to locate copies of TM. Finding the first facsimile volume ('Billy Bunter in the Land of the Pyramids') was a revelation. I never read a Bunter book again, for one thing. For another, I sold off my collection of 38 Bunter books (all in jackets and vg condition) which had taken many years to acquire. Why reads these inferior stories when the 'real thing' was to become readily available, I reasoned. (This wouldn't stop me later on deciding to once again start collecting the Bunter books!) Since this was written, I've now acquired a complete set from a local and now sadly deceased collector.
standard 'Magnet' facsimiles, containing the issues
Just as original issues of TM have become more readily available over the past decade, so have the limited edition facsimile volumes (to be listed in the near future) containing in many cases the early issues. At first I found the very early issues, those before no. 100, difficult to digest. CH however, was a fast learner. He tested out plots and characters in those first hundred issues and soon mastered the Art of the school story. Two interesting characters from these early issues who later degenerated into caricatures were Fisher T Fish of the Remove and Horace Coker of the Fifth. 'Fishy' started off as a not unlikable and fairly believable member of the cast. His American mannerisms weren't so pronounced, nor was his be-all and end-all the great dollar. Likewise Coker, who began as a far more sensible member of the Shell before Aunt Judy browbeat Dr Lock into moving her favourite nephew up to the Fifth. That isn't to say he was a good student. Far from it! But he had a measure of common sense which was to disappear completely in the later issues. He knew when fellows were making fun of him and generally accepted their jibes with good humour. Later on his humour vanished. Jokers would instead find themselves wearing bloodied noses!
The order in which the Howard Baker limited editions were published must have jarred the sensibilities of readers who had not experienced the earlier issues. Having read so much of the opinions of others, I fully expected to find early issues hard going, and it turned out to be the case as mentioned above. Then I opened the following volume.
[Note - I am assuming readers are familiar with the characters. Ratings vary from * average to ** good and *** brilliant!]
THE GREYFRIARS HIKERS, Howard Baker Press London, 1973. Volume no.19. Facsimile issues of THE MAGNET originally published in 1934, numbers 1331 to 1340.
Nowadays, 'product placement' is often remarked upon,
be it in movies, TV shows or even in news reports. 'The
Greyfriars Hikers' contains perhaps the most blatant
example of 'product placement' in the history of juvenile
literature! However, rather than detract from the story,
this does in fact add to its overall enjoyment.
THE FALL OF THE BOUNDER
Magnet issues 487 to 494 (1917) and available as
Greyfriars Book Club Volume no.24, limited edition of
500, Howard Baker, London 1979.***
'The Fall of the Bounder', issue 487, sees Smithy take the fall for his study mate, Harold Skinner. (This is before Tom Redwing came to Greyfriars.) Quelch finds cigarettes in their study and Skinner denies ownership. Smithy is gated and decides that if he is to be given a bad name, he will live up to it. In 'The Bounder's Match', issue 488, he is simply outrageous and the reader (myself, at least) couldn't help smiling as he plays a series of remarkable tricks on his form-mates. Wharton isn't amused and I have to admit to being guiltily amused at seeing the Captain of the Remove taken down a peg or two! Unlike later and similar series, Smithy does not carry on a personal vendetta against Wharton. He does end up having to fight his Captain, but this is done without bitterness or rancor. In short, Smithy in this series is not only a brilliantly drawn character, he is as believable as any other fictional character ever committed to paper. He doesn't indulge in dirty tricks because of any evil thoughts, it is his way of triumphing over authority. 'The Last Straw!', issue 489, sees Smithy consorting with Ponsonby and the other cronies from Highcliff on a regular basis but only for the sake of 'playing the part'. His heart is not really in it.
A meeting with the lovely Marjorie Hazeldene of Cliff House causes Smithy to make a frank admission: "I've dropped into my old ways".."You used to dislike me then; and now I'm the same chap again, only worse." Marjorie asks: "Is it worthwhile?" Says Smithy: "No, it never is. But a fellow often will do things that are not worth while..." and he goes on to explain why Quelch had come down on him. "But I don't want to whitewash myself, even to you. It's in my blood. Some fellows are born with a kink in them, and I'm one. I was getting fed up with going straight - that's honest! I was going to stick it out- I meant that. But I found it a horrible bore sometimes..."
From this point on, the reader is on Smithy's side. This reader was, at least! His path after that point leads ever downwards but my sympathies were with him, especially after Wharton - but that would spoil it for you. After 490. 'The Bounder's Way' comes 491. 'Sir Jimmy's Pal', in which the arrival of a down and out friend of Sir Jimmy Vivian at Greyfriars gives Hamilton the opportunity to display his abhorrence of snobbery and class distinctions. This is CH at his best. His study of the attitudes of the various members of the remove concerning the arrival make this story worth reading again and again. Sir Jimmy, missing from later stories, was a fascinating character. He had lived on the streets of the city until found by Lord Mauleverer's uncle. (His story was told in an earlier issue.) Not one to forget his old friends, Jimmy neglects to think of how the arrival of 'The Spadger' will embarrass the latter. As Mauly says: "I'm quite sure this Spadger is a rippin' kid - better than Skinner or Snoop, anyway. I'd pal with him with pleasure, as far as I'm concerned - ...But he's trampin' it from London. You can guess the state he will arrive in. - It's a shame that poor kids live in such a state in this country. With seven million quid goin' on the War every day, it seems odd that we can't afford to keep kids in boots." Smithy, against the wishes of Skinner, shines in this issue as you will discover, and again in 492. 'Sharing the Risk'. Not so, Sidney Snoop, who features in it. Smithy is 'Against His Own Side' in 493., in an amusing an relatively light-hearted story, while Skinner receives a shock in 494. 'A Lesson for Skinner'.
Probably the best series of 'The Magnet' read, up to this point. Thirteen years later comes:
ACTION AT GREYFRIARS, Magnet issues 1161 to 1168 (1930) and available as Greyfriars Book club Volume no.25, limited edition of 500, Howard Baker London, 1979.*[Fish Kidnapping] and **[Pop of the Circus]
The contrast in style between this volume and the previous as reviewed above is remarkable. Rather than an intriguing plot and intricate character studies we find a light-hearted story concerning various attempts to kidnap Fishy. His father having cornered the US Pork Market, Fisher T Fish suddenly becomes attractive to American criminals. This was the period of big crime in the US, both in real life and on the screen. Prohibition had given rise to a dramatic increase in criminal activity so it seems likely that CH was told to write this series. Bunter had now taken centre stage and the rest of the cast had degenerated into 'also rans' - in this series, anyway. The dialogue used by the author for his gangsters is an expansion of that employed for Fishy and soon becomes tiresome. It takes five issues for the action to start moving. Issue 1165 is an excellent read. The second series in this volume concerns 'Pop' of the Circus. 'Pop' is a nephew of Sir Hilton Popper, one of the school's governors. Cecil Popper is a daredevil trapeze artist with Walker's World-Famous Circus. Or he had been until his uncle, endowed with a three hundred pound allowance in return for looking after the lad, sends the latter to Greyfriars. This short three issue series is far more amusing than the Fish series. The final issue, 1168, had me in fits of laughter. CH at his most amusing. Even Bunter is bearable for a change.
THE FLOGGING JUDGE JEFFREYS, Magnet issues as below (1917) and available as Greyfriars Book club Volume no.27, limited edition of 500, Howard Baker London, 1979.
consists of 12 copies of the Magnet 496-8, 501-5, 507-8,
510-11. Issues 496-7 feature Hurree Singh in a case of
mistaken identity. Not very exciting as 'Inky' hadn't yet
developed into the interesting character he would become
much later. *
BUNTER'S HAT TRICK, Howard Baker
Press London, 1975. Volume no.31. Facsimile issues of THE
MAGNET originally published between 1936-1938; numbers
1325-27, 1456, 1531-32 and 1573-74.
INDEX and LINKS
C. H. CHAPMAN A page of memories,
photos and artwork supplied by the grandson of the famous
'Billy Bunter' artist
The REMOVE Members of your
favourite form (external English page)