Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Gone fishin'

I Love Lucy #7Hard work and no horseplay make Bully a very dull little stuffed animal indeed, so I'm off to the Great White Pacific Northwest to kick up my hooves in a woodland cabin for the next week an' a half, sans TV, sans phone, sans DVDs, sans internet, to get in touch with my inner beans and to just relax. That means I'm "off the grid" as the mountain men say, so have fun and play nice with the World Wide Web while I'm gone. (Don't split it in half!) I'll be back with the usual weekend features on Saturday, September 15. (For those of you who follow "A Wodehouse a Week" and are worried I'm gonna get off schedule, I'll plug #20 into 9/10, but only after I get home.) Please play nice, enjoy the cake, stay off the goofballs, and as always, be good to yourselves and others. See you on 9/15!

Monday, September 03, 2007

I has shoes.

A Wodehouse a Week #19: Tales of St Austin's

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It's "Back to School" time in the Bully household, and this little stuffed schoolgoer couldn't be more chuffed about the prospect. Sure, I'm homeschooled, but I still get excited to the state of hopping-about-on-one-hoof-and-squealing-loudly when we go out to buy protractors and pencil boxes and my brand new Superbad lunchbox with Thermos®-brand insulated drink bottle. This year I am learning all about oceanography, which will mean plenty of visits to the New York Aquarium out in Coney Island, plus much reading of Aquaman back issues (Miz Tegan said she'd help me with that part!) and tuna fish sammiches for lunch.

It also means it's the perfect time to pick up one of Wodehouse school story collections, in this case the ripping Tales of St Austin's (1903). Holy cow! This book is over a hundred years old. I'd better wash my hooves before I touch it, then. What's even more incredible is that we're still not at Wodehouse's first book, which is almost two years previous (1901's The Pothunters—I'll get to one of these weeks). Like The Pothunters, these are "Boy's Own"-style adventure stories of sport and putting one over on the masters, set in the same fictional school of St Austin's, a fine, fine academy but one which runs a slightly second in my heart to Wrykyn (in The Gold Bat and the Mike and Psmith stories). There's twelve short stories here, plus four short essays on boarding school life, and they're all excellent examples of very early Wodehouse gung-ho adventure and good gentle humor. His romances are definitely in the future...there's no sign of a beating heart in these stories, unless it's out of nervousness over an upcoming exam...but there's an easily-recognizable frivolity of language and devil-may-care atmosphere, complete with a handful of genially mild twist endings that are nevertheless the prototypes for his later, more complicated works.

Remembering his own school days at Dulwich, Wodehouse wrote these while slaving away as a junior clerk for The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in London (which in turn would serve as the inspiration for Psmith in the City). They were published in contemporary boys' magazines like The Captain, and I can't imagine the boys of that time not eating them up like treats from the tuck shop. They are funny, elegantly written, don't force morals don't your throat, and most important, treat the boys as heroes all around while at the same time not painting the masters as villainous blackguards. There's a overall sense of fair play and decency even when trickery and gambling are involved (no plot is too harmful and those that seek to better themselves at the expense of others receive their just desserts with a good humor). The masters are no fools but just as willing to look away at a bit of trickery passing under their noses as long as no one gets hurt. The boys are resourceful, witty, keen on sport and comradeship. There's a definite sense of a golden age passed when you read these stories, and even if that time wasn't quite as golden in real life as Wodehouse has painted it, well, by gum, it ought to have been.

British school stories have been something of a minor cult for many years; books like Tom Brown's Schooldays and the Jennings series have been popular but only with a small audience. Even Wodehouse's school stories have often been described as "for completists only." In the last few years of the twentieth century, however, the Harry Potter books have increased the fandom of the old-fashioned school story once more. Really, at the heart of it, there's not a huge world of difference between St Austin's and Hogwarts...minus the female population and the world of magic, of course. Well, that, and that the student body of St Austin's seems to be populated wholly by loquacious wise-cracking genial slackers—yes, the entire population is Fred and George Weasley:
'Tell us what happened.'

'I'll tell thee everything I can,' said Charteris. 'There's little to relate. I saw an aged, aged man a-sitting on a gate. Where do you want me to begin?'

'At the beginning. Don't rot.'

'I was born,' began Charteris, 'of poor but honest parents, who sent me to school at an early age in order that I might acquire a grasp of the Greek and Latin languages, now obsolete. I—'

'How did you lose?' enquired the Babe.

'The other man beat me. If he hadn't, I should have won hands down. Oh, I say, guess who I met at Rutton.'

'Not a beak?'

'No. Almost as bad, though. The Bargee man who paced me from Stapleton. Man who crocked Tony.'

'Great Scott!' cried the Babe. 'Did he recognize you?'

'Rather. We had a very pleasant conversation.'
Sport and fair play both endanger and save Charteris in this story—he risks discovery by slipping off school grounds to participate in a foot race in a neighboring town and misses his train back when he stops a pack of bullies harassing a young girl. His salvation from punishment comes when it's revealed the girl is the niece of St Austin's headmaster, and Charteris gets off with a minor punishment of a handful of lines to copy out and a warning:
The Head extended a large hand. Charteris took it, and his departure.

The Headmaster opened his book again, and turned over a new leaf. Charteris at the same moment, walking slowly in the direction of Merevale's, was resolving for the future to do the very same thing. And he did.
There's no (excuse the phrase) bullies or tormentors along the lines of Flashman or Malfoy at St Austin's; the worst the boys have to deal with are meddling uncles who destroy cricket grounds and a thieving cat who steals teatime sardines. There's a genesis-glimmer of Drones Club banter in the discussion of these schoolboys:
...the cat was in excellent training, and was, moreover, backed up by a strong temptation. It pocketed the stakes, which consisted of most of the contents of a tin of sardines, and left unostentatiously by the window. When Smith came in after football, and found the remains, he was surprised, and even pained. When Montgomery entered soon afterwards, he questioned him on the subject.

'I say, have you been having a sort of preliminary canter with the banquet?'

'No,' said Montgomery. 'Why?'

'Somebody has,' said Smith, exhibiting the empty tin. 'Doesn't seem to have had such a bad appetite, either.'

'This reminds me of the story of the great bear, the medium bear, and the little ditto,' observed Montgomery, who was apt at an analogy. 'You may remember that when the great bear found his porridge tampered with, he—'

At this point Shawyer entered. He had been bidden to the feast, and was feeling ready for it.

'Hullo, tea ready?' he asked.

Smith displayed the sardine tin in much the same manner as the conjurer shows a pack of cards when he entreats you to choose one, and remember the number.

'You haven't finished already, surely? Why, it's only just five.'

'We haven't even begun,' said Smith. 'That's just the difficulty. The question is, who has been on the raid in here?'

'No human being has done this horrid thing,' said Montgomery. He always liked to introduce a Holmes-Watsonian touch into the conversation. 'In the first place, the door was locked, wasn't it, Smith?'

'By Jove, so it was. Then how on earth—?'

'Through the window, of course. The cat, equally of course. I should like a private word with that cat.'
These bright, quicksilver minds surely must have grown up into other Wodehouse heroes (we see that Psmith fits right in during his school novel, aptly bridging the two Wodehouse eras). It is, of course, before the wars, and surely a number of these fine fictional men perished in Flanders Fields, but for Wodehouse their school histories are ever of football victories, cricket centuries, and slogging their way through examinations:
Now I have remarked already that I dare not say what I think of Thucydides, Book II. How then shall I frame my opinion of that examination paper? It was Thucydides, Book II, with the few easy parts left out. It was Thucydides, Book II, with special home-made difficulties added. It was—well, in its way it was a masterpiece. Without going into details—I dislike sensational and realistic writing—I may say that I personally was not one of those who required an extra ten minutes to finish their papers. I finished mine at half-past two, and amused myself for the remaining hour and a half by writing neatly on several sheets of foolscap exactly what I thought of Mr Mellish, and precisely what I hoped would happen to him some day. It was grateful and comforting.
If the world of boarding schools is a mystery for you and thus turns you away from the joys of Tales of St Austin, well, I feel sorry for you. If you don't know the difference between a tuck shop and a touchline, if you think fagging is something unbearably unspeakable, if you're wondering why the boys refer to each other by their last names instead of first, well, you may not get as much enjoyment out of these cheerful and energetic stories. But skim quickly over the terms you don't understand and there's still delight to be found, even if, like me, you're all at sea in this passage about cricket:
I had made about sixty then, and was fairly well set—and he started simply mopping up the bowling. He gave a chance every over as regular as clockwork, and it was always missed, and then he would make up for it with two or three tremendous whangs—a safe four every time. It wasn't batting. It was more like golf. Well, this went on for some time, and we began to get hopeful again, having got a hundred and eighty odd. I just kept up my wicket, while Scott hit. Then he got caught, and the last man, a fellow called Moore, came in. I'd put him in the team as a bowler, but he could bat a little, too, on occasions, and luckily this was one of them. There were only eleven to win, and I had the bowling. I was feeling awfully fit, and put their slow man clean over the screen twice running, which left us only three to get. Then it was over, and Moore played the fast man in grand style, though he didn't score.
I pulled my Penguin UK paperback copy of Tales of St Austin's off the shelf and gleefully buried my nose in it. It's fronted with a color Ionicus illustration or boys and masters surrounded by paraphernalia both academic and sporting, and there even seems to be a proto-Harry Potter figure in there: slight, bespectacled, but carrying a jump rope instead of a broomstick. If the school-story subplots of Potter intrigued you, you owe it to yourself to read one of its antecedents, Wodehouse's influence not only on his peers but on his followers like Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings, Michael Palin's Ripping Yarns and even this year's smash British import, The Dangerous Book for Boys.I figured Tales of St Austin's would be long out of print and would pose a problem in recommending an edition to you, but to my surprise, it must be out of copyright, because there's several rather generic-looking editions available (the least-expensive edition is at the right in the usual Amazon.com order box). There's also a few e-texts of the book available online; I won't point you directly to them but they're easily found on Google—the price certainly is right. I myself am more a fan of having the physical book in my hooves for easy reading in bed with a mug of hot cocoa by my side, but it's clearly a scheme that would have appealed to the clever and thrifty young lads of St Austin's, and three cheers to them all.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Ten of a Kind: Multiple Choice Questions

(More Ten of a Kind here.)