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Literature / molesworth

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a chiz is a swiz or a swindle as any fule kno.
the gorila of 3b

Molesworth is the collective name for a series of books starring 1950s British schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, the self-proclaimed "gorila of 3b and curse of st custards". The books are written in the first person, and though Molesworth has a poor grasp of spelling and grammar, this does not prevent him from recording his "GRATE THORTS" about school, life, football, cricket, grown-ups, girls, interplanetary travel, and anything else that might occur to him. It could be described as Diary of a Wimpy Kid crossed with Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide, but set in (slightly shabby, fading) Fifties Britain.

Molesworth's jaded and world-weary commentary was originally published as a series of articles in Punch, "fathefully transcribed" by Geoffrey Willans and illustrated by Ronald Searle of St. Trinian's fame, and later collected in four volumes: Down with Skool!, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms and Back in the Jug Agane.

The recurring characters include several of Molesworth's fellow "inmates" (names as spelled by the boy himself):

  • peason, Molesworth's "grate freind"
  • gilibrand, a general's son
  • grabber m.a., Head Boy, captain of every sports team, winner of the Mrs Joyful Prize for Raffia Work, and Miles Gloriosus-in-training
  • fotherington-tomas, a daydreamer whose Catchphrase is "Hullo clouds, hullo sky"
  • molesworth 2, Nigel's younger brother

Other characters include the masters, or "beaks", including headmaster GRIMES (name always spelled in allcaps), sigismund the mad maths master, and of course the school dog. The books also divert into subjects such as The Great British Seaside, complete with British Weather.note 

The "golden prose hem-hem" of our hero has been enjoyed by generations of schoolchildren and often continues to hold its allure into adulthood. Molesworth fans are a rare but rabid breed who recognise each other by use of "secret code phrases" such as 'cheers cheers cheers', 'poo er gosh' and 'as any fule kno'. Molesworth's influence on a generation or two of British humorists was surely immense, if subtle, but he would be too much the realist to expect any credit.

Tales of Molesworth's endeavours have occasionally been told on the radio, most recently in December 2014.

A self-demonstrating version of this article in Nigel's inimitable style can be found heer.

This series provides examples of:

  • Academic Athlete: GRIMES always seems to schedule important conferences on the same day as Wimbledon, the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, a rugby international or something of that nature.
  • Adults Are Useless: The teachers are rules-obsessed sadists and the parents simply don't care. That said, if your son was as troublesome as Molesworth 2 or Peason, you'd probably have stopped caring long ago as well.
  • all lowercase letters: Employed in a very specific way. Molesworth does in fact start his sentences with capital letters, but doesn't use them for proper names.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Nigel describes his younger brother as "uterly wet and a weed and it panes me to think i am of the same blud". Most scenes that feature both Molesworth brothers see Molesworth 2 doing what he can to get on the nerves of everyone around him, especially Nigel.
  • Artistic License – Education: St Custard's is based on reality (Willans was a teacher), but wildly exaggerated for the sake of comic parody.
  • Author Catchphrase: Molesworth is positively Homeric in his use of epithets (coo er posh prose eh).
  • Big Eater: Molesworth 2, according to his older brother, is "always eating"; in the occasional scene set in the Molesworth house, Molesworth 2's dialogue consists entirely of asking for more toast and tea.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The book skewers the sort of textbooks used to teach French and Latin in British schools in the mid-20th century, and provides a reverse bilingual bonus by translating typical conversations in such textbooks into English to show how they are completely unlike any conversation the readers will ever have in any language.
  • Bizarrchitecture: St Custard's was built by a madman, with features including an observatory to study worms and a cupola that serves no purpose at all.
  • Black Comedy: It may all look sweet and harmless, but in a world of bullies, crying, and ice cold baths, this is a Boarding School of Horrors where "LIFE IS PANE" and there's nothing to do but put up with it.
  • Boarding School: In the obvious sense, St Custard's IS a boarding school. More importantly, these books are a cruel parody of the traditional boarding school story, replacing pranks and jolly fun with cynicism and dark observation. Nigel occasionally refers to the old-fashioned school stories, but clearly knows them to be fantasies.
  • Boarding School of Horrors: The teachers are sadistic bullies; some of the younger ones are implied to be Teddy boys who are handy with a broken bottle.
  • Bold Inflation: ALLCAPS gets used for emphasis in fairly random places. GRIMES always has this.
  • Book Dumb: Molesworth is right at the bottom of his class academically, but regularly displays a level of intelligence and insight far beyond what his end of term report suggests.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: If we believe "I Am Going to Be Good" in Back in the Jug Agane, Molesworth might excel academically if he put the effort in, but he sees no reason to care when Headmaster Grimes gives all the school prizes to Grabber at the end of the year anyway.
  • The Bully: Grabber is a classic example; his father is extremely wealthy and regularly gives the staff hefty bribes, so Grabber can do as he pleases, which includes tormenting the younger children.
  • Canis Latinicus: The school motto is quantum ille canis est in fenestra. note 
  • Cassandra Truth: Played with in Back in the Jug Agane when Grimes demands to know which books Molesworth has read over the summer. Molesworth claims to have read Swann's Way, the first book of Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, but Grimes is convinced the book doesn't actually exist and punishes Molesworth with a caning for lying. The book does exist, but Molesworth didn't actually read it and instead memorised a literary critique of it.
  • Catchphrase: Fotherington-tomas will say "hullo, clouds, hullo sky" in almost every appearance.
  • Cheaters Never Prosper: The Molesworth stories parody or subvert all traditional moralistic sports-related tropes at every opportunity, but this one especially is taken to be a lie as a matter of course. Part of the reason St Custard's always lose on the playing field is that their opponents are better at cheating.
  • Class Trip: The pupils' ventures outside the walls of St Custard's include visit to a farm and a trip on the Flying Scotsman.
  • Corporal Punishment: This being a 1950s public school, the boys are caned on a regular basis.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Grabber & Grabber, purveyors of various dangerous-sounding toys to the pupils, and one stop shop for any Bland-Name Product required by the 'plot'. Molesworth occasionally hints that the Grabber family is involved in organised crime.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The St Custard's football team have never won a match or even scored a goal, and they always concede at least six. This may have something to do with Fotherington-tomas being the goalkeeper; he is too busy saying "Hullo clouds hullo sky" to pay attention to the huge centre forward bearing down on him or the shot whistling past his nose.
  • Down to the Last Play: Parodied in one of Molesworth's football-related daydreams.
  • Dreadful Musician -
    • Molesworth 2 doesn't so much play the piano as terrorise it. The poor instrument has never been the same since his rendition of "Fairy Bells".
    • The boys put on a country dance during a parents' open day, dragging the school piano onto the school field to do so. After Miss Pringle finishes the song with a "WAM DUNK RILLY ME REE", the piano "burst into flames".
  • Everybody Hates Mathematics: And Molesworth is no exception, although with a "mad" teacher like Sigismund Arbuthnot trying to drill the subject into him, this is a natural reaction. He tries asking Arbuthnot what the point is of studying maths, and is not convinced by the answer that maths is a language.
  • Fat Bastard: Every school has one, according to Molesworth, and St. Custard's is no exception.
    Every skool hav a resident buly who is fat and roll about the place clouting everybode.
  • Funetik Aksent: Molesworth's spelling of English is rooted in phonetic pronunciation, and this spills over to other languages; when Armand from his French books shows up in Britain in Back in the Jug Agane (and is not at all the wet weed Molesworth thought he was), he speaks English with one of these ("Zis where you live?").
  • Future Badass: In one Imagine Spot, Molesworth imagines what the future might hold for him and his fellow inmates at St. Custard's; he predicts that Fotherington-Tomas will grow up to be a famous space pilot.
  • Future Loser: While imagining what the future has in store for him and his fellow students, Molesworth believes that Grabber will go from bad to worse ("and as he could not be worse now this is joly dificult"), ending in prison.
  • Future Me Scares Me: As part of his Imagine Spot about himself and the other boys as adults, Nigel imagines himself ending up as a fashion designer, and finds the idea alarming.
  • Funny Foreigner: Molesworth spends his language lessons imagining himself as 'molesvitch' or 'Don Jereth Molethworth' in a Theme Park Version of the relevant country.
  • Girls Have Cooties: Zigzagged; Nigel isn't keen on the idea of coeducational classes, as he believes the girls would be stiff-backed teacher's pets who would make the boys look abysmal by comparison in both academics and discipline, and he claims that he intends never to get married as he finds girls "uterly wet and weedstruck", but in Back in the Jug Agane he tells the reader that he's no longer quite so insistent that girls are disgusting.note 
  • Gratuitous Latin: In keeping with the 1950s public schoolboy stereotype, Molesworth never refers to his or anyone else's parents as "Mum" and "Dad" or even "Mother" and "Father", but by the Latin words "mater" and "pater".
  • Henpecked Husband: In scenes set at the Molesworth house, Mrs Molesworth is always nagging Mr Molesworth for one thing or another, such as his undistinguished service record in World War II.
  • Homage: Various day-dreams and pictorial interludes feature the adventures of 'interplanetary clot' Captain molesworth in the style of Dan Dare and similar contemporary "Daring Space-Aces". The sheer number of such characters at the time is Lampshaded by the complaint that none of the various Parody Named Expys of the villains, such as the PUKON and his TREENS, are ever free for thwarting, being booked up till next year.
  • Incessant Music Madness: DAVEE, DAVEY CROCKETT!
  • It Came from the Fridge: One of the most fondly remembered sequences is "The Prunes are Revolting!", in which the prunes served at the school rise up and defy the pupils and staff in a campaign styled on British accounts of the Indian Mutiny. This was more of a comment on the taste of school dinners in British schools at the time of writing than on their state of preservation, though.
  • Jerk Jock: Grabber is Head Boy and captain of every sports team (although Molesworth regularly implies that he is actually terrible at sport and is only captain because his father is bribing the school), and will beat up anyone who so much as gives him a funny look.
  • Last-Name Basis: As in actual British schools of The '50s, pupils and teachers alike are almost always addressed by last name only, though we sometimes see a first name (most frequently, Fotherington-tomas' name is revealed as Basil, while Peason is occasionally referred to as Timothy). Even Molesworth's own brother is only ever called "Molesworth 2" (an exchange in Back in the Jug Agane hints that he may be called George).
  • Mad Mathematician: Sigismund Arbuthnot, “the mad maths master,” is one of the staff. However, he appears simply to be a somewhat eccentric teacher whose subject happens to be maths.
  • The Münchausen: The masters at St Custard's don't need much persuasion to talk at great length about their alleged war heroics, but Molesworth says that if they had done even half of what they claim, the war would have been over by 1940. Gilibrand, as a general's son, is good at Spotting the Thread that causes their stories to unravel.
  • Nobody Likes a Tattletale: Molesworth has no time for 'snekes' (sneaks), for whom he considers no fate is too bad, even growing up to become the honorary secretary of a tennis club.
  • no punctuation is funnier: Molesworth never uses apostrophes (except in the name of st custard's), although he does end sentences with a full stop.
  • Off to Boarding School: It is implied that many of the students at St Custard's were sent there for annoying their parents too much.
  • Precocious Crush: Hinted at, despite his general attitude, whenever Molesworth mentions Prudence Entwhistle the glamorous under-matron.
  • Quicksand Sucks: Molesworth mentions in passing that this is a danger in the muddier parts of the football field.
  • Right Way/Wrong Way Pair: Parodied by one illustration: 'Are you an Eric or a Nigel?: A smug chart for sissies'. Eric (unlike Nigel) sits erect and chews his food at leisure because "the weed hav got up early".
  • Rouge Angles of Satin: Molesworth is a terrible speller, resulting in many words being spelled phonetically and in frequent confusion between similar-sounding or similar-looking words. Even the other characters' names are misspelled; not only does he omit the second H in Fotherington-Thomas' name and the second L in Gillibrand's name, but "Peason" is almost certainly actually called Pearson, and Molesworth neither hears nor writes the non-rhotic R.
  • Sadist Teacher: Grimes probably includes this in the job postings for teaching jobs at St Custard's, as every one of them is a strict disciplinarian who delights in making the boys' lives a misery and canes them at every opportunity.
  • Santa Claus: Referred to as "Father Christmas", these being British stories, and thoroughly subverted, as Molesworth is old and, more to the point, cynical enough to know the truth. One Christmas Eve, he can hear his parents arguing with each other as they try to get the presents under the tree.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Grabber's father is very rich, and every year he writes a big cheque to Grimes and the masters and sends Matron a bottle of beer, so that his son, despite being thick as two short planks and completely incompetent at sport, is named Head Boy and captain of every sports team. Since the only thing for which he has any talent is raffia work, the school has invented and played up the importance of the Mrs Joyful Prize for Raffia Work.
  • Self-Deprecation: Amongst the swots, thugs, oiks, and useful football players of St Custard's and similar schools, Molesworth knows his limits and freely acknowledges them.
  • Sketch Comedy: In literary form. Molesworth's thoughts on school and other subjects were originally published as short articles in Punch magazine, and only later collected into books. As such, the books are anthologies rather than overarching stories.
  • Slasher Smile: In the illustrations, Molesworth only ever has three expressions: a cynical, almost apathetic half-frown; a broad beam when posing for photographs - and a wide, savagely gleeful grin when preparing for some act of violence (such as setting a huge, spiked man-trap for Santa Claus.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Molesworth and Peason smoke, although it makes them feel sick. Apparently so do the other boys:
    Just count the cig. ends behind the skool potting shed. It look as if the skool gardener must smoke 500 a day.
  • Thin-Skinned Bully: Deconstructed. According to Molesworth, standing up to bullies just makes them try harder:
    Everyone sa stand up to bulies they will run away but do not believe it. A lot of them stand still and then where are you eh? i will tell you you are in the duck pond and it is joly freezing.
  • Toy-Based Characterization: In a flashback, Nigel depicts himself as a young child, smashing a model train to pieces with a hammer. This is of a piece with his self-characterisation as a "huge lout with 0 branes."
  • Two-Teacher School: Nigel occasionally mentions his teachers in such subjects as history, geography, French, and Latin, but the only teachers who are ever named are Grimes, the headmaster, and Sigismund Arbuthnot, the maths master.
  • Unnecessary Roughness: Any sporting match involving St Custard's has a good chance of devolving into a punch-up before long.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Nigel may not be entirely unworthy of pity, but as a product of his time, he is given to frequent bouts of cynicism and the occasional outburst of violence.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Molesworth and Peason may argue a lot and get into fights on a regular basis, but they are still "grate" friends.