The Compleet Molesworth 

“‘Reality,’ sa Molesworth 2, ‘is so unspeakably sordid it make me shudder.'”

Nigel Molesworth, the schoolboy ‘author’ of Down with Skool!, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms, and Back In the Jug Agane (collected as The Compleet Molesworth), is the creation of Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. Molesworth is a pupil at St.Custards, an appalling prep school – “it smell of chalk Latin books skool ink foopball boots and birdseed” – run by Grimes (“Headmasters are always very ferce and keep thousands of KANES chiz moan drone. With these they hound and persecute all boys who are super like sir galahad.” )and other masters (or ‘beaks’). Sigismond the mad maths master is a particular favourite.

Molesworth considers Fotherington-Thomas a weedy-wet and a swot: as his brother, Molesworth 2, says “‘i diskard him.’

“‘And wot,’ sa Grimes, ‘wot hav we all been reading in the hols?’

Tremble tremble moan drone, i hav read nothing but red the redskin and Guide to the Pools. i hav also sat with my mouth open looking at lassie, wonder horse ect on t.v. How to escape? But i hav made a plan.

‘fotherington-tomas, sa GRIMES, ‘wot hav you read?’

‘Ivanhoethe vicar of wakefieldwuthering heights treasureislandvanity fairwestwardhothewaterbabies and -‘

‘That is enuff. Good boy. And molesworth?’

He grin horribly.

‘What hav you read, molesworth?’

gulp gulp a rat in a trap.

‘Proust, sir.’

‘Come agane?’

‘Proust, sir. A grate fr. writer. The book in question was swan’s way.’

‘Gorblimey. Wot did you think of it, eh?’

‘The style was exquisite, sir, and the characterisation superb. The long evocative passages-‘

‘SILENCE!,’ thunder GRIMES. ‘There is no such book, impertinent boy. I shall hav to teach you culture the hard way. Report for the kane after prayers.’

Chiz chiz to think i hav learned all that by hart. It’s not fair they get you every way.”


One may assume from Lissa Evan’s letter below that, if Molesworth was faking the Proust, he was better acquainted with Madame Bovary…

Lissa, a previous guest at The Books That Built Me, won a competition with her letter from Molesworth to Mme Bovary – the competition was to imagine a love letter between two unlikely fictional  characters. Molesworth attracts many fans; Lissa, this month’s Books That Built Me guest, Anthony Quinn, June’s guest, Emma Beddington, Charlotte Mendelson, all of us introduced to his delights by fathers who had discovered him in the fifties when It was first published. I couldn’t induce Trefusis Minor to read Molesworth, and nor could my father.  I would be interested to know if his appeal survives into a third or fourth generation: The Compleet Molesworth is out of print. Anyway, he still makes me chortle: earlier, re-reading Back in the Jug Agane I was helpless with mirth, and kept muttering ‘chiz chiz’ and ‘hello clouds hello sky’ much to the collective bemusement of the  Trefusii.

For more on Molesworth, this LRB piece is very good.

The Compleet Molesworth, Geoffrey Willans and Roger Searle 

With thanks to Lissa Evans for allowing me to include her brilliant Bovary/Molesworth letter. Her latest book, Crooked Heart, is a delight.

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Crooked Heart, Lissa Evans at The Books That Built Me

The marvellous, clever, hysterically funny, utterly delightful Lissa Evans had guests eating out of the the palm of her hand at last Tuesday night’s Books That Built Me. 

After leaving medicine for a stint in stand-up, Lissa made her name in radio and television comedy, winning a BAFTA for Father Ted, creating the format for Room 101 and producing/directing hit shows  – The Kumars and Have I Got News for You, amongst others. Like so many brilliant women writers, she came to writing novels after having done all sorts of other things first, which I always find tremendously heartening: I have a theory that women do their best work later in life, which quite contradicts Kazuo Ishiguro’s conviction – or is it Martin Amis’ – that ‘most literary masterpieces are written people under forty’) . Her first novel, Spencer’s List, was published in 2002 and she has since published three other novels for adults and two for children.  

The latest, Crooked Heart is set in and around London during the Blitz and tells the ‘odd-couple’ story of the unlikely relationship between ten year old evacuee Noel -a precocious ‘walking-dictionary’, orphaned, raised in wealthy Hampstead by his ex-suffragette godmother Mattie – and the impoverished hustler, Vera Sedge, who takes him into her shabby St Alban’s home more as one of her rather unscrupulous money-making schemes than from a sense of civic duty.

As one might expect from an author with a background in film and television, Evans’ deft, precise prose, engaging plotting and vivid evocation of life on the home-front firmly grounds Crooked Heart in its time whilst allowing the friendship between two lost and lonely souls to develop with great warmth, humour and poignancy. It’s their need for each other that gives the novel its glorious heart. 

The Books That Built Lissa Evans

1. My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell

I can pinpoint the exact day I read it,’ said Lissa, of her first book. ‘It became my world…you can quiz me about any page.’

One of the things I particularly love about Crooked Heart is how perfectly it nails the character of Noel, a bookish, precocious child of ten whose life changes utterly, almost overnight. My Family and Other Animals is Durrell’s marvellous autobiographical story of how, when he was ten, his family left dreary Bournemouth for Corfu, as if on a whim. At about the same age, Lissa’s family moved house and she had to start again in a new school in a new part of the country, so she intimately understands the nimble strategies a child employs to survive in a new environment. Yet it’s not only this that connects Lissa so strongly to My Family and Other Animals, or the wet camping holiday in Wales during which she first discovered it, it’s that Durrell’s novel taught her ‘the precision of being funny

2. Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell

 Lissa’s parents were great readers, with bookcases full of Penguin Originals – crime novels in green covers, and Penguin’s eclectic mix of fiction in its distinctive orange livery. It’s in her parent’s shelves she found Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London when she was about twelve, and loved it so much she gave it to her best friend fr her birthday, sneaked in alongside the Trojan Horse of a copy of Eric Segal’s Love Story.

Orwell’s first book is an account of his time on the breadline, first in Paris where he works as a plongeur in the horribly filthy kitchen of a very posh hotel, and then in London, when, left destitute when a job falls through, and discovers what it is to be a tramp, living entirely without income in the London of the late 1920’s. As Lissa says, Orwell ‘said good prose should be like a window-pane: that sort of vivid clarity is what I’m always aiming for‘, and more than that, his descriptions of the exhausting, boring, chaotic struggle just to survive that the very poor have, gave birth to Crooked Heart’s other protagonist, Vee.

3. The Egg and I, Betty McDonald

Betty McDonald’s mother impresses on her from an early age that one must always allow one’s husband to follow his career passions, which in McDonald’s case leads her to an isolated, broken down chicken farm in the Olympic Mountains in Western Washington where the nearest neighbours -can only be described as a very mixed blessing- arefour miles away. Like a less refined ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’, The Egg and I chronicles its heroine’s struggles with the relentlessness of farm life with a wry, precise humour. If, as Lissa says, it’s occasionally like ‘being buttonholed by a raconteur’, it’s an immensely funny book full of extraordinary characters-‘I owe her a great deal: I wish I’d met her’

4. The Leopard, Lampedusa 

The Leopard is ‘a truly immersive book about someone you don’t imagine having anything in common with….it’s a little like Buddenbrooks [and] intensely beautiful. ‘

Set in Sicily, mostly in the summer of 1860, against a backdrop of Garibaldi’s invasion, The Leopard is the story of the decline and fall of the house of Salina, a family of Sicilian aristocrats. It first appeared in 1958, but its perfect evocation of a lost world suggests a 19th, rather than 20th, century novel. Lampedusa is an exquisitely precise writer – when she’s writing, Lissa prefers to hone and pare each sentence til it passes muster, and build sentence on sentence, rather than press on with a first draft and then go back and draft again. ‘I hate being given notes’ she says.

5. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks

Lissa first came across Oliver Sacks as a medical student and read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat to the night porter and sister during one long casualty night shift. ‘It’s what medicine should be about …he tilts the prism to see people find themselves again‘.

6. The Penguin Book of Hymns 

This is where it all began- hymns were entertainment during assembly‘. If, like Lissa and I, your school day invariably began with an interminable assembly, you’ll know Hymns Ancient and Modern, or the New English Hymnal, and if, like us, you found assembly utterly tedious, you may also have lost yourself in the rich poetry of hymns. ‘The language is wonderful for seven year olds – there are words to ponder, rich vocabulary and imagery…. hymns gave a vocabulary that transcended class.’ Anyone who has read Crooked Heart, and grown to love Mattie, the former suffragette, will understand why Jerusalem, hymn of the suffragettes long before it became the W.I’s theme tune, is Lissa’s favourite. I’m enormously excited to hear that Lissa’s next book may be a Crooked Heart prequel, giving us more of Mattie and the Suffragettes.

Crooked Heart, Lissa Evans, published by Doubleday, £14.99

 

Helen Brocklebank

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Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell

I

Fortunately for me, I’m neither down nor out in London, and nor was I earlier this month when in Paris on business. And one can hardly call reading a book over coffee in The Wolseley slumming it. I’m counting my blessings and frantically swotting for next week’s The Books That Built Me with marvellous Lissa Evans, author of Crooked HeartI don’t think it will spoil anything to tell you one of the books she’s chosen is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. 

Poverty is what I’m writing about,’ says Orwell, describing the people he meets in Paris, ‘the slum, with its dirt and queer lives, was first an object lesson in poverty, and then the background of my own experiences… For, when you are approaching poverty, you make one discovery which outweighs some of the others.  You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact it annihilates the future.’

Down and Out in Paris and London is an object lesson in poverty and it’s full of vivid, Rabelasian characters – there’s an extraordinary Russian called Boris for whom ‘war and soldiering were his passion‘ so much so that he favours a particular cafe simply because there’s a statue of Marshal Ney outside, and he prefers to get out of the Métro at Cambronne – ‘though Commerce was nearer, he liked the association with General Cambronne, who was called upon to surrender at Waterloo, and answered simply, ‘Merde!’

Orwell’s first book is a memoir rather than autobiography, ‘faction’ rather than roman à clef in that it’s a much tidied up, novelistic account of his time in Paris – working as a plongeur at Hotel X and down but probably not out – and in London living as a tramp. Orwell’s experiences help develop his political focus and give him a keen appreciation of the precariousness of life on and below the bread-line

‘At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.’

Rejected first by Jonathan Cape and then by T.S Eliot at Faber, it was published by Victor Gollancz who gave Orwell an advance of £40. Critical reactions were slightly mixed – Cyril Connolly’s ‘I don’t think Down and Out in London and Paris is more than agreeable journalism’ is particularly sniffy, and it may not be Orwell in his pomp, but it’s a brilliant, radical, and by turns painful and funny account that takes the lid off the life of people who are usually without a voice, those at the outer fringes of society, dispossessed by poverty. It should be required reading for anyone who uses the expression ‘hard-working families’ to perpetrate the pernicious myth that the poor is divided into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’.


 Down and Out in Paris and London was one of the Books That Built Lissa Evans, 28th April 2015