The miseducation of Molesworth
Updated: Jul 10, 2020
“Skool acording to headmaster’s pi-jaw is like LIFE chiz if that is the case wot is the use of going on?”
– Nigel Molesworth in How to be Topp
Last week, a friend/former classmate and I were discussing the current state of the English language in Indian education: most people who teach it can barely speak it, even at a postgraduate level(!) And yet I wondered, as I often do: is there really such as thing as bad English – or, worse, wrong English?
The (mis)use of anything depends largely on context, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the writings of eight-year-old English schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, self-anointed “gorila of 3b and curse of st. custards.” With his caustic take on a world in which everything and everyone is “wet and weedy," this fictional character is something of an English cultural treasure, no doubt because his most frequent target is formal education – even J.K. Rowling is a fan (a rival school named “HOGGWARTS” and a “scrimgeour kup for good karackter” are mentioned in the books).
Molesworth is the creation of author Geoffrey Willans, himself a former schoolmaster and a product of the very system Molesworth “diskards”, and illustrator Ronald Searle, best known for the all-girls' boarding school satire St Trinian's. The character first appeared in Punch in 1939, and was the protagonist of four books in the 1950s – Down with Skool!, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms and Back in the Jug Agane – that are to the Enid Blyton canon what Harry Palmer is to James Bond (come to think of it, Molesworth's immortal “any fule know that” is probably the correct opposite of “Not many people know that”). Two sequels by Simon Brett updated the character to adulthood in the 1980s, but I’m yet to find them.
Molesworth attends a fictional boarding school called St. Custard's, where his life is in the hands of masters whose sole entertainment is caning their students and confiscating their possessions (as well as a matron “who look like a gunman’s moll in a gangster pikture”). They all claim to have outdone themselves in World War II and vainly try to hide their fondness for beer and pin-ups (“they hav got to hav something in their lives besides Caesar pythagoras and other weeds but i ask you wot could any GURL see in a master? Especially one like bety grable?”) Despite constantly hiking fees, Grimes the headmaster has so little money that he is forced to run a whelk stall on the side: most of the school bling is with “pornbrokers”. The entire situation is, as Molesworth is fond of saying, a colossal “chiz” (“swindle”) – but what else would you expect of an institution whose motto is Quantum ille canis est in fenestra?
It is almost impossible to write about Molesworth without writing like Molesworth, as this TV Tropes page and a supposedly official Twitter account make clear. Molesworth is infamous for writing phonetically, treating words as punctuation (“chiz moan drone poo gosh”), and using allcaps at random to compensate for the fact that he only otherwise uses capital letters to begin sentences (think of the H-dropping Sergeant Samways in Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World, who prefixes the letter to words that don’t need them). Then again, none of this is his fault: he claims that the few who can actually read when they enter St. Custard's “will soon forget after a term or 2 give them time.”
Indeed, Molesworth is extremely self-aware: he constantly draws attention to his use of “peotry” or “grammer” midsentence, and sometimes interrupts his private, unpopular opinions with “curses wot am I saing?” His put-downs, like his frequent daydreams, take the form of highly absurd non-sequiturs: a sneak “will be the hon sec of a tenis club when he grow up and serve him right no fate is too bad;" he disclaims his interview of a cow with “Of corse cows can’t talk but it just show you should not believe everything you read in the papers.”
St. Custard's is a typical educational institution in that it makes such a hash of the job. Maths is a language. History is anything that happened before the pupils' time (i.e. in 1066 A.D., for "the People hav gone on rising ever since like yeast”). And what are Molesworth's thoughts on divinity?
“In fact as mum would sa the whole thing is rather like the news of the world.”
“Fancy a grown man saying hujus hujus hujus as if he were proud of it it is not english and do not make SENSE.”
“Q. What would you find at Hull? "A. Noone but a fool would ask this question. You might find anything at Hull.”
(Lest you think this is only happens in fiction: as a fourteen-year-old, actor Naseeruddin Shah turned in an exam paper empty but for the words “If you know the answers, why ask me? And if you don’t, how do you expect me to?”)
Extracurricular activites fare no better. The school piano has never been the same since Molesworth's younger brother, referred to only as Molesworth 2, subjected it to what he claimed was "brahams etude number 765000 in F flat". Every sports match is lost, thanks to the combined non-efforts of school brain/sissy Fotherington-Tomas (with his constant "hullo clouds hullo sky") and school bully Grabber, who is “head of the skool captane of everything and winer of the mrs joyful prize for rafia work” because “his father a millionaire enuff said”. Films only give the pupils a false sense of reality: “it is only after a long time that you find out that all YANKS are not cowboys and while you are still reeling with disapointment you learn too that they are not all gangsters.” Oh well...
As a Space Race child, Molesworth usually envisions a future of spaceships, complicated physics, and aliens that look suspiciously like his maths master. However, he once builds a makeshift crystal ball and sees, to his horror, that he will become a fashion designer specializing in “squashed muskrat” and “crashed chipmunk”; another time, after Fotherington-Tomas predicts he will be a schoolmaster because he “can frankly never pass an exam and have 0 branes,” Molesworth has the nightmare of his life:
“i am sitting at the master’s desk looking with horor at a see of faces, fat ones, thin ones, contorted, spotty, green, and black ones, there is no doubt of whose they are — it is 3B. “And who is that horid creature dodging behind gillibrand and trying to conceal the fact that he is chewing buble gum? It is me, molesworth I chiz chiz chiz. i am teaching myself!”
Despite his belief that he has no brains (and will consequently get a knighthood), Molesworth has remained a sharp and unfortunately relevant critic of formal education. I shall leave you with this, the last straw:
‘And wot,’ sa GRIMES, ‘hav we all been reading in the hols?’ Tremble tremble moan drone, i hav read nothing but red the redskin and Guide to the Pools, i hav also sat with my mouth open looking at lassie, wonder horse ect on t.v. How to escape? But i hav made a plan. ‘fotherington-tomas,’ sa GRIMES, ‘wot hav you read?' 'Ivanhothevicarofwakefieldwutheringheightstreasureislandvanityfairwestwardhothewaterbabiesand—’ ‘That is enuff. Good boy. And molesworth?’ He grin horibly. ‘What hav you read, molesworth?’ gulp gulp a rat in a trap. ‘Proust, sir.’ ‘Come agane?’ ‘Proust, sir. A grate fr. writer. The book in question was swan’s way.’ ‘Gorblimey. Wot did you think of it, eh?’ ‘The style was exquisite, sir, and the characterisation superb. The long evocative passages—’ ‘SILENCE!’ thunder GRIMES. ‘There is no such book, impertinent boy. I shall hav to teach you culture the hard way. Report for the kane after prayers.’