Geoffrey Willans, 1911-1958: As Any Ful Kno

If you know Lennon, you’re going to know McCartney, and if you don’t know Morecambe,  it’s pretty much a given you won’t know Wise.  There are precious few joint operations where, despite equal status on the playbill, one partner is a household name and the other an obscurity,  especially when the work itself remains vital.

Willans falls into that category.  The name alone draws a blank even from people who know and love his work.  Understandable, if tragic.

For one thing, he died relatively young.  For another, his partner was then young Ronald Searle; Searle who illustrated Willan’s greatest creation, Nigel Molesworth, the Curse of St. Custards.

Willans was born in 1911 and schooled at Blundell where he later acted as a master.  Good background for his later work.   During the Second World War, he served as a sub-lieutenant on the HMS Peony  (Flower Class corvettes, a category of war ship only the ever garden conscious British could come up with).    A second tour of duty was an aircraft carrier that spent a good period of time in the US getting repairs.

He had already published two novels by 1939 and was writing regularly for Punch and other magazines.  He had a few early novels as well, slight stuff compared to early Evelyn Waugh.  Milder in tone, less caustic.   He was bemused and entertained by his fellow man but seemed to find their existence punishment enough without having to draw any serious knives.  Crisis Cottage,  a British version of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, a study of Anglo-American naval relations during the cold war,   Admiral on Horseback.

He might have disappeared with the likes of John Wain had he not met Ronald Searle in 1953.  Searle was coming off the success of St Trinians.   As early as 1939, Willans had tossed off a few bits and pieces about a precocious and suspicious schoolboy named  the Terror of St Custards.    The combination was fertile, and the cast grew to include dubious masters and contemptible schoolmates such as the Fotherington-Thomas (“Hello Clouds, Hello Sky!”)  Sales of the first book were admirable.  Three others followed, and also sold well.

Willans created an entire vocabulary of atrociously spelled catch phrases (“as any fule kno”) to delight his followers and baffle everyone else.  He it was who coined the word Hogwarts as the title of a Latin play performed by the students for the enjoyment of the masters.   This fairly inspired throw-away was, of course, later filched by She Who Must Not Be Named for the benefit of some boy wizard who would have been labeled an oik, if not a bit of a Fothering-Thomas, and not have lasted five minutes at St. Custards.

All this, mind, before Monty Python, before Peter Cook, before even the Goon Show.

Willans and Searle knew enough to stop when the joke had run its course.   Another collaboration, The Dog’s Ears Book, was less successful. Still, after some commercial work (The Wit of Winston Churchill and an admiring biography of a still young Peter Ustinov (Willans admired his sense of wordplay) Willans had done well enough to turn to writing full time.

Willans, unlike, say, Waugh, was absent of malice.  He accepted human nature for what it was, probably immutable and certainly entertaining.  Audiences have no problem with this, even if critics are foiled in their desire for blood.  Some of the jokes are topical, but for the most part they are of a  piece, that piece being a wholly invented world instantly recognizable, eminently revistable,  more Wodehouse than Waugh.  Who is Fotherington-Tomas if not the offspring of Gussy Fink-Nottle and Madeline Bassett?  What is his take on St Custards if not a sightly more manic version of  Sir Harry Flashman’s take on Harrow of Tom Brown’s School Days?

Sneer if you like, and plenty are happy to do so, but he and Searle together spread more good cheer across the planet than any number of Booker Prize winning authors you’d care to name.

Willans enjoyed one year only as a full time writer.  He died of a heart attack at age 47, criminally young, and so was eclipsed by his collaborator who lived on to 91.

Molesworth (Penguin Modern Classics)

13 thoughts on “Geoffrey Willans, 1911-1958: As Any Ful Kno

  1. Thanks for this. Wiki doesn’t even give the reason for his death. I am sure Willans would be happy with your simple, admiring tribute and the comparisons you draw with Wodehouse. I think some people, no matter what their achievements, are born to be ignored by the many but appreciated warmly by a few. So be it.

    • Glad you enjoyed.

      Then too, he had the problem of being paired so notably with the giant that was Searle. Sort of like Phiz partnering with Dickens, or Lorenzo da Ponte with Mozart. However good you may be, you will always be second fiddle.

      Alas, but, as you say, so be it.

  2. I have missed Molesworth for many decades when I left school in 1955, but I still love his quotes. I had a mate named Pearson who I called Peeson (they were alike) so he promptly dubbed me Molesworth, but the only likeness was that we both wore glasses. My favourite expression is “I forgive you Molesworth for those uncouth words!” but when I say that to people I get only blank stares, chiz chiz. Where can I buy the book/s?

    • Blank stares indeed. Further evidence of the continuing educational decline everywhere I’m afraid. But chin up – there are others out there who will respond, and positively.

      Part of the problem is that the books are out of print. A crime, but there it is. Fortunately The Compleet Molesworth can be had at Amazon and at prices that range from stratospherically stupid to quite reasonable, actually. And I see that Molesworth (Penguin Modern Classics) is still available quite cheaply.

    • Remembered, re-read annually and the source of many in-jokes over the dinner table. Grandfather? Lucky you. He has provided me (and clearly others) with all manner of pleasure and I am only sorry he did not live longer than he did. It is totally unjust that he is not a household name.

    • Dear Tamsin,

      Pure coincidence I spotted you on here – I was in contact with a fellow Molesworth fan a few years ago and we were wondering about re-issuing the original pieces from Punch (which do not appear in any of the books). However, we ran into a brick wall when it came to discovering who owns the copyright to these pieces. Can you help?

  3. I was given ‘Down with Skool’ as a birthday present by an aunt with anarchistic tendencies. A much-loved part of childhood (and later life, too). My copy was carefully annotated with the names of my own teachers who fit their ‘fictional’ counterparts to perfection. The phrase: “When I asked him the supine stem of confiteor the fool didn’t know” could have been made for our head of Sixth Form.

  4. I didn’t come across Molesworth until after a career as a children’s librarian, and it saved my mental health! I ought to get some of the books now I’m old and need cheering up. Old age is a second childhood, though I’m not convinced I was a grown up anywhere in there…silliness is the English disease and I’m proud of it.

    • Better late than never!
      You can find copies of Willan’s other books from time to time, and while not Molesworth, are still worth while.

  5. Wonderful books. The cover address in ‘The universe’ and the all purpose thank you letter are also part of general culture.

    BTW did not Flashman go to Rugby? I was there in the early 60s where nothing had changed for over a hundred years.

    • Flashman did indeed go to Rugby. Sent down for drinking rather than his many other offenses, if one is to believe Thomas Hughes. Specifically, a beer chaser after rum punch. Not so, according to Flashman: “I knew better than to mix my drinks, even at seventeen.”

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