Back in 1940, George Orwell wrote a long piece (10,000 words) on magazines like The Gem and the Magnet. It was called "Boy's Weeklies", and it was a detailed examination of the language, readership, attitudes, and priorities of the stories that appeared in them.
It's hard to think of something comparable to come out today. Firstly, the magazine is dying. Second, it's hard to think of anyone with the equivalent of Orwell's heft as a political and cultural commentator. Third, though there are numerous think pieces, they're companions to "trend stories" in children's writing. Fourth, there are essays and articles about "What kind of book should kids be reading" - promoting books that promote "diversity", the current cultural ideal. And there are the inevitable listicles for people with ever decreasing attention spans.
In, for example, the Magnet's Greyfriars stories, written for and read by a much smaller English-speaking audience than exists today, there's Hurree Jamset Ramsingh, an Indian, Sampson Field, an Australian, Tom Brown, a New Zealander, Wun Lung, a Chinese, Piet Delarey, a South African - and Afrikaner, Monty Newland, a Jew, and Nappy Dupont, a Frenchman. This probably was one of the most diverse schools in fiction. Of course, the reason for the diversity was the Empire, and the worldwide readership the magazine enjoyed. "It is read in every corner of the British Empire, by Australians, Canadians, Palestine Jews, Malays, Arabs, Straits Chinese, etc., etc," writes Orwell. Of course, the diversity is national, and not racial, but then immigration into the UK, according to Migration Watch, was insignificant before the second world war.
Despite that, both characters of "colour" that figure as students are drawn relatively sensitively - despite the stereotyping. Hurree Singh, for example, is the direct descendent of F Anstey's Hurry Bungsho Jabberjee (who says things like "I am like a duck in thunder with admiring wonderment", and was supposed to be "a humorous yet truthful study of the East Indian with a veneer of English civilization"). Inky (Singh's nickname) may talk like a twerp and his language is one source of comedy, but as a character, he is as good a person as any other, and rather better than most. He plays cricket beautifully, and is several times described as the best bowler in the school (drawn from Ranji, no doubt, the Indian who could play cricket). He's also much smarter and a better observer than most of his peers, though that's not saying much, since most of his peers seem to be complete blockheads most of the time.
There's Wun Lung, the pigtailed Chinee who "talk velly funny". Very much the inscrutable Oriental, Wun Lung is very much a revolting stereotype most of the time. I can forgive the portrayal of Inky, being an Indian. I wonder if today, a Chinese reader would forgive Wun Lung's portrayal. But when he is at center stage - he is shown as devious, but very nice. A good friend to have in times of need, and with a wicked sense of humour that uses and subverts the very stereotype he represents. In one story, he takes his revenge on Bunter, who has stolen his tuck, by convincing the fat Owl that what he's eaten is the shopkeeper’s cat. It's actually chicken, but Bunter believes him because, of course, everybody knows that Chinese eat anything.
And there's Monty Newland, the Jewish boy. The story where he is introduced is still hard reading - in terms of the sheer amount of prejudice that Newland endures when he comes into the school. And despite following a well-worn groove, it's still quite powerful. He's called a Sheeny and a Shylock when he steps into the school. His study mates try to throw him out, and at one point, he wonders that why, despite his family being in England for centuries, they've always been treated as outsiders and lesser citizens. (Surprisingly, there's no reference to Christ-killing or anything, but that's probably because religion hardly ever figured in these stories. Newland, of course, proves his worth, as all boys must do, by standing up to the school bully, and beating him down. It's also notable that he ends up sharing a study with Dick Penfold, the son of the shoemaker and a scholarship boy. An inadvertent reflection of where Jews stood in the English class system?
The Gem and the Magnet were popular. “They are on sale in every town in England, and nearly every boy who reads at all goes through a phase of reading one or more of them,” wrote Orwell. Evelyn Waugh was a fan. So was Noel Coward. And VS Pritchett. When Christopher Hitchens was asked by a godmother to choose any six books he wanted, his first choice was “a garish series of the adventures of Billy Bunter”.
There’s this lovely book called The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, by a guy called Jonathan Rose. It covers, in some depth, what the miners and canners and fishmongers and weavers read, from the mid-late 19th century on, and it devotes a chapter to The Gem and the Magnet. Rose looks at the influence of these magazines and the school stories on their readers – most of whom were drawn from the working classes.
The books were inherently conservative, and Rose wonders if any of their readers – much older now, of course – would say “These books indoctrinated me in a bourgeois cultural hegemony, and I’m a better man for it”, and finds that there are quite a few. Of course, this comes from a time when it was possible to be culturally conservative, but politically radical. A number of the Magnet’s fans got their ideas of honour and ethics from these stories. According to Paul Fletcher, the son of a colliery worker, the stories defined a code of honour that was as well defined as the scriptures were nebulous. Later, in 1972, Fletcher, would write that “(Some), rejoicing under the name of intellectuals, would find it difficult to stifle their mirth at yarns which a beginning, a middle and an end, and were completely free of drugs, dolls, crude Americanisms, and lavatory wall adjectives. But they don’t matter. Harry Wharton and the Famous Five set an example of ‘How to play the game’, and their code of honour, effete as it may seem now, was something which society as a whole could do with”.
The Famous Five in the quote above refers not to Harry Wharton, Frank Nugent, Bob Cherry, Hurree Jamset Ramsingh and Johnny Bull. The term was coined in 1912, and Enid Blyton used it in 1951, well after the first books were published. There was also a Secret Seven, a school secret society that dealt out justice to errant prefects using Guy Fawkes masks. It’s unlikely that David Lloyd pinched the idea for V’s mask from, but still, it’s a fascinating titbit. Harry Wharton’s father died on the Afghan frontier, serving in the Loamshire Regiment. This was in 1908. Wiki the Loamshire Regiment, and you’ll find this:
“Loamshire Regiment is a placeholder name used by the British Army to provide examples for its procedures. For example, the Loamshire Regiment is provided by the British Forces Post Office to show how to write a British Army address, and is used to set out specimen charges for violations of military law. It is used in Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard's Sniping in France, a World War One manual for training British Army sharpshooters.”
Sniping in France was published in 1920. The Loamshire Regiment was also used by Sapper – Bulldog Drummond is a Loamshire Regiment man. Since then, the Loamshires have appeared elsewhere, including Waugh’s Men at Arms and Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
But if anything, the lasting legacy of these magazines, these stories – mostly written by Charles Hamilton – must be the “Schoolboy Code”. Or the “Schoolgirl Code”, filtered as it was through Enid Blyton’s St Clare’s and Malory Towers books. After all, Blyton, the daughter of a cutlery salesman, was born in 1897, and would have been among the Gem and Magnet’s significant female readership when she was growing up.
On a personal basis, my school, at least between 1974 and 1987, was making its name as a crammer. We had some good teachers, of course, and some lovely people studied there, but as an institution, I have very little love for it. We yearned for the last bell, waiting for freedom from the endless tedium poorly taught maths and science. When I’m at home, I take a walk by “the old school” almost every day, but all I feel is mild surprise about how small the classrooms were.
So it’s not surprising that these school stories, with their pranks and rags, their feeds and feasts would work their charm, 5099 miles and seven decades away. Oh, I never saw a Magnet or a Gem, but I remember the bright yellow Cassell paperbacks, and the Armada publications with their ugly cover art, borrowed from Eshwari lending library on Lloyd’s Road.
The “Schoolboy Code” is irrelevant today, of course. It’s was irrelevant when I was a schoolboy as well, but I didn’t know that. As Robert Roberts would write “Greyfriars gave us one moral code, life another, and a fine muddle we made of it all”.