Orwell, Boys’ Weeklies and politics.

In 1939 George Orwell wrote Boys’ Weeklies, an essay that has been justly famous for its description of the world of the Magnet and Gem comics:

The mental world of the Gem and Magnet, therefore, is something like this:
The year is 1910—or 1940, but it is all the same. You are at Greyfriars, a rosy-cheeked boy of fourteen in posh tailor-made clothes, sitting down to tea in your study on the Remove passage after an exciting game of football which was won by an odd goal in the last half-minute. There is a cosy fire in the study, and outside the wind is whistling. The ivy clusters thickly round the old grey stones. The King is on his throne and the pound is worth a pound. Over in Europe the comic foreigners are jabbering and gesticulating, but the grim grey battleships of the British Fleet are steaming up the Channel and at the outposts of Empire the monocled Englishmen are holding the niggers at bay. Lord Mauleverer has just got another fiver and we are all settling down to a tremendous tea of sausages, sardines, crumpets, potted meat, jam and doughnuts. After tea we shall sit round the study fire having a good laugh at Billy Bunter and discussing the team for next week’s match against Rookwood. Everything is safe, solid and unquestionable. Everything will be the same for ever and ever. That approximately is the atmosphere.

Spot on. But Orwell also says that the papers completely ignore contemporary politics:

As for class-friction, trade unionism, strikes, slumps, unemployment, Fascism and civil war—not a mention.

I’ve been looking at Magnet comics of the Great War, and the description is not accurate for that period at least. I mentioned yesterday A Case of Conscience of 1918, in which conscientious objection is considered in ways that I think Orwell would have approved of – the story’s message is that pacifism is unrealistic, but it’s wrong to persecute people for their sincerely held opinions, especially when these are held courageously.

Another wartime story with political implications is Coker’s Special Constables (1915). Coker is a rather dim but very bossy senior member of the school. In this story, the War gives him an excuse to exercise his bossiness by organising a group of special constables to combat German spies and so forth. He is imitating his form teacher, Mr Prout, who is an official special constable (and very self-important about it.

Coker has wonderful fantasies about what his force can achieve:

“In case of a landing of the enemy, we are going to oppose him and drive him off, if possible…
At present we have no official recognition. All the officials in this country are silly idiots, excepting Kitchener… If we capture dangerous German spies, even the War Office will wake up and see that we are worthy of recognition.”

At a time when portions of the media were encouraging popular anger against anyone with a foreign-sounding name, The Magnet puts these words into the mouth of Coker, one of its most idiotic characters:

“Then there are the naturalised germans. We’re going to keep an eye on them. The Home Office is a jolly deal too easy with naturalised Germans. Of course, they get naturalised so as to be able to spy more easily. I sha’n’t have any mercy on them.”

(On the other hand, the later story His Highness, about a naturalised German who becomes a pupil at the school, will take a much more negative line about Huns.)

Coker’s vigilantes are easily tricked by Harry Wharton and friends into believing that an actual German invasion is taking place. They run back to school and start a panic. Mr Prout, the teacher who is an official special constable, believes in the panic because it fits in with his fantasies too. He loads his rifle and is prepared “to shed his life-blood to the last drop in defence of King and country, hearth and home, the flag, the soil of Britain and the Empire.” His self-importance grows:

“I have never been wholly satisfied with the military arrangements. I have often considered that I could give Lord Kitchener valuable advice…”

During the panic, two of the Remove form go and hide in terror. One is Bunter, always a coward. the other, interestingly, is Fisher T. Fish, the American pupil. I presume that this is a comment on American neutrality at this stage in the War.

The story is good fun, but makes serious fun of the self-important people who were using the War and its panics to boost their own sense of self-importance. You could say that the story is a bit like Animal Farm. It takes the school as a microcosm of the wider society, and shows that when an opportunity arises for someone to take power, the people most likely to avail themselves of the chance are those with a liking for power.

But strikes and Fascism? Well, schoolboy strikes and rebellions were a frequent feature of the stories (e.g. The Sit-In Strike at Greyfriars, 1937, but there are other examples.). Often these stories featured discussions about the ethics and tactics of revolt among groups composed of the righteously indignant, the cautious and the hot-headed. As for Fascism, I see from the contents list of the Magnet in 1934 that stories printed during that year included:

1390 A Tyrant Rules Greyfriars!
1392 The Greyfriars Storm-Troops
1396 The Dictator Of Greyfriars!
1397 The Brotherhood Of Justice!

I’ve not seen these issues, but it hardly looks as though the subject was totally ignored.

Orwell was fascinated by popular literature, and also by politics – but he tended to exaggerate the distance between the two. In his essay In Defence Of P. G. Wodehouse, he takes Wodehouse’s claim “I was never interested in politics” a bit too literally, and ignores The Code of the Woosters, where the appalling Spode organises a Fascist group, the Black Shorts. Wodehouse makes Bertie Wooster speak for England:

The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”

3 Comments

  1. Posted March 23, 2008 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    There’s an interesting discussion of very similar issues in relation to the Second World War in Owen Dudley Edwards, ‘The Battle of Britain in Children’s Literature’, in P. Addison and J. Crang, The Burning Blue: A new history of the Battle of Britain’ (London, 2000), 164-190.

  2. Posted March 23, 2008 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll take a look at the article.

  3. Posted March 24, 2008 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Tom Deveson has alerted me to a piece he wrote on an Orwell newsgroup a while ago, about a Magnet mentioning the Spanish Civil War.
    It’s available at:
    http://groups.google.co.uk/group/alt.books.george-orwell/browse_thread/thread/420242d5b42dad55/0c1ca3c47d8e5322?hl=en&lnk=gst&q=franco+cherry#0c1ca3c47d8e5322


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