BBC Radio 7, 24 December 2009
Like many boys of my generation, I grew up on the Jennings books. I took
great pleasure in reading about the boys of Linbury Court School - Jennings and his bespectacled pal Darbishire, Temple, Venables
and Atkinson (no Christian names here!) - and their daily struggles to outwit Mr. Wilkins (aka Lancelot Phineas
Wilkins), their form teacher who, although devoted to his job, could never understand how little boys' minds worked. By contrast
Mr. Carter, a more laid-back type, always understood what they thought, and viewed their schemes with a kind of amused detachment.
There were two other teachers - Mr. Hind, an arty music teacher and Martin Winthrop Barlow Pemberton-Oakes, a blustery head
teacher who never seemed to know what was happening around him. And there was Matron who, as her name suggests, took a maternal
interest in everyone's welfare.
The books contained their fair share of implausibilities - we never heard much about
the other boys in Jennings' class, nor learned whether there were any more teachers in the school, other than those named
above. Linbury Court seemed to be a very small prep school, of the kind established by private individuals who had come into
a bit of money.
Listening to Anthony Buckeridge's adaptation (with the author himself playing the
role of Wilkins), I realized how old-fashioned the books had become, evoking a world of school dinners, inky fingers and traditional
textbook teaching, where the pupils used quaint phrases such as being "in a bate" (being angry) or "rotten mouldy chizzle"
(whenever something went wrong). Alan Bennett's Forty Years On, written in the late 1960s, offered an affectionate
pastiche of this world, but this was the real thing.
More interestingly, however, I understood how Linbury Court School represents
a male wish-fulfillment. Teachers and pupils live and work there in a little cocoon, with very little contact with the
outside world, except when the pupils go out on half-holidays or visit the doctor or the dentist. Everything within the school
is stable, safe, and unthreatening; teachers and pupils know and respect their place in the social order, while women like
Matron are safely confined to the roles of homemaker and general servant. Jennings at School shows the boys
getting into frequent scrapes, but none of them are life-threatening; the social status quo will soon be restored.
As I listened, I understood why many ex-boarding school boys describe their time there as "the best years of our lives," in
which everything remained secure and unchanging. Whether the Linbury Court experience had anything to do with the world outside
is another matter.