I used to love Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books, and am always surprised by how little-known they seem to be now. They’re clearly meant for boys: set in a boys’ boarding school, in the early 1950s, and full of stories of cricket, building huts, boats, space travel, etc. But I loved them, and always found them hysterically funny. I was concerned that I would find I had outgrown them – but no, I still laugh helplessly whilst reading them (warning: don’t read them on the train).
There are apparently 25 Jennings books, written between 1950 and 1999 – though I have only read the ones written in the 50s. Jennings himself is an average schoolboy, who is always in trouble, but with good intentions. He and his friend Darbishire are presented as well-meaning but catastrophic, which is what makes them funny – they infuriate their teachers, especially the stuffy Headmaster, Mr Pemberton-Oakes, and the hot-tempered Mr Wilkins. Anthony Buckeridge (1912 – 2004) attended a boarding school himself, and was later a teacher, which perhaps indicates the ability of his books to see both sides of the story – one of the teachers in particular, Mr Carter, is a sympathetic and friendly character.
To be fair, the stories are quite dated – I just love their retro language (everyone that Jennings doesn’t like is an ‘ozard oik’; a good idea is a ‘wizard prang’, and a favourite expression is ‘Fossilised fish-hooks!’), and the class assumptions of all boarding school stories of that period are present. But it is all such jolly good fun that it doesn’t matter. I suppose I always liked accident-prone characters who get into trouble (such as Just William – another perennial favourite – and Paddington). I used to find books meant for boys preferable to those for girls for this reason, I think. Jennings’ attempts to explain himself are always the funniest parts of the books, especially when he is misunderstood by his teachers. It’s such a relief to still find his escapades funny; and the books are well-written and have an enduring appeal, I think, despite their dated slang.
I wonder if perhaps the books will come back into favour one day soon (though I’m pleased to see they are still in print) because they seem to me to embody what being a child (especially a boy) is about. Jennings finds some lessons dull, but he genuinely tries to engage, and even though he misinterprets a lot of what he is taught, he enthusiastically tries to apply his knowledge, whether he’s writing a detective novel, being a space-man, or building a hut (to mention just a few of his many activities). He falls in ponds and ruins his best suit; he breaks windows with cricket balls, and many other no doubt reprehensible activities, but he enjoys himself so much, and he remains a pleasant, generally well-mannered boy throughout, who sticks to a strict code of behaviour (don’t tell on your friends, own up to your bad behaviour, try to help others, etc). I think I shall start sending copies to all the little boys I know.
NB I’m delighted to see on Wikipedia that the Jennings books were popular in Norway – after being rewritten, and Jennings renamed ‘Stompa’. This amuses me greatly.