Sherlock Holmes came back from the Reichenbach Falls. And soon Sexton Blake, also late of Baker Street, is to return from Waikiki Beach, to which he retired last year after 70 years' ascetic service, holding the hand of his honey-blonde secretary and babbling foolish but not irrevocable words about marriage. That was the year he narrowly escaped being dehydrated and swept up by a vacuum cleaner; a fairly routine hazard for a man who was falling out of balloons in the 1890s, dodging dynamitards in the 1910s, cleaning up Chicago in the 1930s and Soho in the 1950s.
Sexton Blake was a boys' hero who became a fantasy figure for fathers, a James Bond without brand names. To modern boys he means nothing. To the BBC he also means nothing; for, in reply to an anxious inquiry, they said they had no plans to include him in their "Detective" series on television. But to a generation weaned on Union Jack, Detective Weekly and the Sexton Blake Library, the name of Blake reopens a blest escapist world stalked by nothing worse than criminal monarchs and vengeful, reincarnated Pharaohs.
They don't create heroes like Blake any more. Or if they do, they don't keep them going. What character conceived in this decade will still be hounding Pharaohs in 2030 AD? Will elderly doctors and schoolmasters in 2000 swop hoarded copies of Beano, Lion, Tiger, Valiant, Hurricane, Victor, Hotspur, Rover and Wizard - and quiz each other about the adventures of Eagle's Dan Dare?
Of course, boys' papers have undergone a revolution. Few of them offer a "long-read" any more. Their stories are told in pictures, often surprisingly well drawn; reading, in short, has become viewing. Does this mean that boys now have their dreams ready-dreamed for them? Yes, cry those whose imaginations were once fired by columns of cruelly small print. For sixpence now a boy gets half-a-dozen rockjawed champs crying "Great Scott!" and "Aaaargh!" whereas 50 years ago, when there was no hurry to grow up, he got 40,000 honest-to-goodness words for a penny. To which the publishers retort: "What's so virtuous about reading? Pictures spark the imagination too. And in a day of multiple distractions you must provide instant excitement."
If the presentation has changed, the heroes remain familiar: air aces, intrepid soldiers, boy Spartans, the boy with "wonderful specs", the boy travelling back in time, the clubswinging giant striding out of the past. Mechanical men seem very much in fashion. Lion has a criminal-hunting robot called Archie, Hotspur offers "the world's only electronic schoolboy" and Hurricane features a walking juggernaut from Planet X. Although the days have gone when entertainers jostled to be featured in Film Fun and Radio Fun, one can still find "The Dickie Henderson Family" in TV Comic. Rover and Wizard (a merger) offers stories in real print, plus those well-loved statistics printed across the top of every page ("There are 158 verses in the Greek National Anthem", "There are said to be about 200,000,000,000 spiders in Britain"). In Valiant Billy Bunter, "the heavyweight chump of Greyfriars", survives in strip form. For boys growing out of champs, chumps and chimps there are still adventure "libraries", pocket-sized publications in pictures or text, which are mostly about war, crime and the Wild West. Magazines devoted primarily to school stories have vanished. But Magnet and Gem live on indestructibly in memory- and not only in memory. Most shopkeepers know better than to wrap putty or nails in the chronicles of the Famous Five and the Terrible Three. Even hasty executors think twice about burning the archives of Greyfriars or St Jim's.
Old copies bring in nothing like the sort of money that rare stamps fetch, but they probably yield greater pleasure when they finish in the right hands. If cash values must be quoted, copies from scare periods like the late 1914-18 war may be worth from five to ten shillings, or more if a collector badly wants to complete a run.
There are four old boys' book clubs in Britain: the London (motto: Puer Manebit, or "Boyhood Everlasting"), Midland, Northern and Merseyside; and there is another in Australia. The members meet in each other's houses to wallow without shame in nostalgia, to traffic in copies, to give selected readings, to test each other's knowledge in quizzes, to assist each other's compilations and to pass on new discoveries about favourite authors. Sometimes an elderly author or editor is flushed out and invited along to be questioned about stories of which, as likely as not, he has long forgotten the plot. The men who turned out tales at the rate of 30,000 to 40,000 words a week may be excused if they do not always remember what they wrote. There are occasional outings, too; a recent one organised by the London Old Boys Book Club was to the house near Broadstairs where the late Charles Hamilton (better known as Frank Richards, Martin Clifford or Owen Conquest) typed out the last stories of Billy Bunter. Few were privileged to visit this author's study in his lifetime. Mr. C. H. Chapman, who illustrated Magnet stories for nearly 30 years, has said that he first met Charles Hamilton in 1911 and did not see him again until 1952. They corresponded amiably - but both were busy men.
The fog of pseudonyms which cloaked the authorship of so many boys' stories has been slowly dispersed, down the years, by single-minded researchers. Substitute and 'prentice writers often wrote under the pen names of Charles Hamilton and the faithful have gone to prodigious pains to identify the authentic tales. Controversies of this kind are thrashed out in the collectors' magazines, of which notable examples are the Collectors' Digest, published by Mr. Eric Fayne at Surbiton, the Story Paper Collector, published by Mr. William Gander at Transcona, Manitoba, and Golden Hours, which circulates in Australia (overseas interest is strong).
Mr, Fayne, a former headmaster, has the biggest collection of Magnets and Gems, all solidly bound. When Charles Hamilton died, he wrote a last chapter to the memorial edition of Hamilton's autobiography, giving all those details of stories, characters and publications which many sought in vain in the original edition. Mr. Fayne says that even as a boy he felt sharp disappointment on reading a Charles Hamilton story which was plainly ersatz. The deputies borrowed the master's learned allusions, but lacked his peculiar artistry and polish (though several substitute writers did a sound enough job). Recently a boys' paper reprinted some Greyfriars stories - and, to the chagrin of Hamilton's admirers, led off with a story by a substitute writer.
Mr. Fayne thinks that the stocks of Magnets and Gems which still find their way on to the market were collected originally by adults; boys' collections would have been thrown out by their mothers during spring cleaning. The salvage drives of two world wars also depleted stocks.
Although he is a Hamiltonian, Mr. Fayne's magazine is open to the addicts of Sexton Blake, Nelson Lee, Boy's Friend, Chums, Boy's Own Paper, Captain or any other magazine; but the major interest is undoubtedly in the papers of the Amalgamated Press (now Fleetway Publications) of the 1920s and 1930s. The D. C. Thomson papers of Dundee had some durable and doughty heroes - with names like the Wolf of Kabul, Thick-Ear Donovan, Morgyn the Mighty and Strang the Terrible, not forgetting the detective Dixon Hawke-but their middle-aged admirers do not yet foregather for readings.
Outstanding authorities on Sexton Blake are two civil servants, Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Packman, of East Dulwich. Befittingly, they own one of the few surviving Blake busts, designed by Mr. Erie Parker. Mr. Packman, a founder of the London Old Boys' Book Club in 1947, can produce from his shelves such literary curiosities as a Sexton Blake story reprinted in hard covers with the detective's name changed to Grant Rushton, yet retaining many other familiar names from the Blake saga, like that of the rascally George Marsden Plummer.
It came as something of a shock to Mr. and Mrs. Packman, as to others, when in 1956 a rejuvenated Blake opened up an office in Berkeley Square and took the honey-blonde Paula Dane as secretary of his organisation", At the same time the youthful and ever faithful Tinker became Mr. Edward Carter. This change of image was the work of Mr. W. Howard Baker, who alone knows what sort of Blake will return from Waikiki. Has sex really caught up with Sexton? For 70 years that sinister first name of his helped to keep adventuresses at bay; no woman can say, "Kiss me, Sexton," still less, "Kiss me, Sex." Even Paula never got beyond calling him "Chief'. There was a story in which someone called Blake "Tony", a decided liberty.
Mr. and Mrs. Packman are at work on a master catalogue of the Blake corpus. A similar service to the memory of Blake's rival, Nelson Lee, has been performed by Mr. Robert Blythe, a co-founder of the London club. Lee's span of service was shorter, but his devotees are defiantly proud of him. His best and principal chronicler was Edwy Searles Brooks who, like George Hamilton Teed, wrote both Blake and Lee stories.
Among recent feats of scholarship is the "Who's Who of Boys' Writers and Illustrators", published by Mr. Brian Doyle. How many schools did Charles Hamilton invent? Here is the answer: close on 50. Who wrote the biggest total of Blake stories? George Hamilton Teed, with 299. What is known about that hard-working story-teller, Desmond Reid? Alas, he never existed; the name was used "to cover the identities of new authors of promise until they could take their place unaided".
John Andrews did not exist, either; they put his name on stories which had to be rewritten or when another author's name had been appearing too often. Listed here is the author of a substitute Magnet story with a religious background, "The Sunday Crusaders", which was distributed to clergymen and headmasters in the hope of persuading them that the Magnet should not lightly be confiscated. Mr. Doyle's "Who's Who" contains such old-timers as R. M. Ballantyne, G. A. Henty, W. H. G. Kingston and Talbot Baines Reed (of Boy's Own Paper fame) whose works were never liable to confiscation.
Why don't women foregather to reread girls' papers? Where is the Angela Brazil Circle? Where are the one-time addicts of Peg's Paper and Poppy's Paper? Why is the trade in girls' papers so small? Mr. Fayne thinks the explanation is simple, men are much more sentimental than women". He may be right. #