Chiz chiz chiz
Having foot-slogged all around the city in what for me is flaming heat, coughing and spluttering courtesy of allergic rhinitis, and visiting temp agencies without any success whatsoever (“we’re not registering anyone. ANYONE!” “Try again after the Summer.” “NO!”), I was in dire need of a proportion adjustment. The small matter of how precisely I am to identify practical means of continuing to exist could bloody well come later. First of all, an embrace, some understanding and food for the mind and soul. Napoleon’s armies might have marched on their stomachs – as do I, as do we all – but even la Grande Armee‘d need the heart, the will and the incentive first of all, wouldn’t they?
So I went to visit a new acquaintance, whose uncertain moods (early stages of vascular dementia?) can make her challenging company. However, allowed to talk, she remains relatively pleasant – albeit rather tiring and unsatisfactory, as she skitters along the surface of her subjects: “How I love this!” and “How I adoooore that!” and “dear, dear Jane Austen!” And so she talked. How she talked! Of course, with such a personality it is never a good idea to disagree: doing so only yields an aggressively defensive “Well, I like X!” or “X is brilliant!” End of argument … Discretion, if it can be achieved (usually with difficulty) is always the better part of valour when dealing with this kind of person. Luckily my patience paid off – although there’s something strangely restful about letting a self-obsessed gasbag rattle on – and I left clutching a copy of the collected works of Nigel Molesworth*.
I turned to the latter first, taking it to bed to read that night. And laughed out loud at its sophistication and unerring satirical aim. Those characters – they are still around. All of them. Take a look at our public servants; take a look around you and, those who are parents, cop a butcher’s at the other parents at the school gates.
Given the original books at Christmas by an older cousin (herself a teacher), I’d laughed at them then. Now, in my 50s, I laughed again. For different reasons, but still with the same measure of hilarity – although with heightened recognition and amazement that anybody could be quite so astute. Prescient, even.
For then, last of all, I read the introduction – by that master of sense, sensitivity and precision, Philip Hensher**. It begins: ‘The other day, a former Conservative cabinet minister was being sent away to prison, for doing whatever it is that former cabinet ministers do. Asked by the newspapers how he expected to cope with all the misery and deprivation, he answered, “I’m sure I will cope. I lived through Eton.”‘ Inadvertently providing a neat echo of Molesworth’s cynical, world-weary conclusion that there is no difference between St Custard’s and Wormwood Scrubs.
Now that hasn’t really changed, has it, as our MPs attempt to bluster and bully their way out of trouble and into well-cushioned early retirement? They can’t lose, really. Just as He Who Shall be Nameless emerged from gaol to take up a new life, reborn – apparently in all respects. They can’t lose; the losers are … us. All the same, Molesworth’s power endures. These volumes continue to make me – and many others – laugh, while appreciating the levels of skill and talent of both writer (Geoffrey Willans) and illustrator (Ronald Searle). The books make us think, too. So perhaps it’s time for us to do as Nigel suggests, and ‘uterly tuough up’ our embarrassingly venal leaders – who, all too evidently, are ‘uterly wet and weedy’. And not one of them is worthy of ‘the Mrs Joyful Prize for Rafia Work’, not a single one. Personally, I would set the skool dog on them. But I fear he is – according to the captioned illustration showing him in all his ghastliness, lurking in the undergrowth, planning ‘to dash across the pitch and pinch the cricket ball then bite the umpire in the leg’. Which, come to think of it, might also be a good idea – time to unleash the dogs of, er, uterly tuoughing up wets and weeds.
Again, Molesworth 1 to the rescue:
‘Gosh, chiz here’s a fine state of afairs, eh? I mean, look at the world it is worse than big skool after one of our super rags … Wot would everyone say if we skoolboys behaved like the nations of the globe? I will tell you. They would sa we were stupid, crass, ignorant, hopeless, wet, weedy and sans un clue. And yet it still go on. It is time I took over.’
I almost wish he could. What he can do is hold a mirror up to us all. As he suggests ‘it is a strange, lonely world when you are GOOD … People seem to avoid me …’
High time we paid him some attention, then, shining the mirror on Parliament and then turning it to face ourselves.
* Molesworth, Geoffrey Willans & Ronald Searle, Penguin 1999 Edition.
* * If you haven’t read Philip Hensher’s novels, please do yourself a huge favour and try him.