ADVENT CALENDAR ’15: Re-reading ‘Jennings’

Jennings

Then: My primary school really got behind World Book Day in my final year there — I think it was one of the first years that it really took off. Everyone was to dress as their favourite book character for the day. Because I hadn’t marked myself out enough as weird, I decided to go for an utterly obscure children’s literature character from five decades before I was born. Certainly nobody within the walls of that school had ever heard of Jennings, including the teachers I think, who were mostly baffled. I went to great lengths for the costume (unlike my best friend, who came in a white t-shirt and jeans as Charlie Bucket, which is the costume equivalent of going out on Halloween dressed as ‘yourself’). Purple ribbon was sewed onto a blazer to create stripes, a colour-coordinated school tie was borrowed and, most authentically, I wore my dad’s actual boarding-school cap (which was normally kept in a glass display cabinet alongside Treacle, his battered teddy bear.) Nobody knew who the hell I was, although the fact that it was a school uniform was enough for my teacher to pair me with a girl dressed as a St. Trinian for the catwalk show (yes, seriously, catwalk show. They really got behind World Book Day.)

I imagine it counts as my first taste of cosplay, and probably my earliest example of specifically engaging with a book above and beyond just reading it, or shamelessly ripping it off in my own fledgling writing. The Jennings books were enjoyed but not necessarily favorites; I’d read seven or eight of them, out of order and without feeling the need to collect them (I was surprised to discover on re-reading there are upwards of twenty of them) but fifteen years later I can still quite vividly remember the specifics of those I did read: the new boys running away, an errant cartwheel, a collapsing hut. Oddly enough, what I don’t particularly remember was them being actually funny. Light, yes, and entertaining, but not actually funny. Quite why I’m not sure, but the best reason I can attribute is that the absurd shenanigans so closely matched the anecdotes my father told of boarding school that I didn’t so much interpret Jennings as comedy, but as social realism.

Now: Turns out they are really funny, actually. As in, reading them in bed with my partner asleep, I had to get up and go to the bathroom because I had wound up in a giggle-loop over a complicated problem involving where to hide a packet of fish, and was shaking the bed with contained laughter. I chose Jennings and Darbishire to re-read, one of the earlier volumes, because I clearly remembered a plot that revolved around a print-your-own-newspaper set, and when I read the book as a child, I immediately requested such a set (though god knows why, given how disastrously it all goes in the book).

But it turns out there are a whole bunch of other set-pieces that are much funnier and more memorable. I did try and summarise a few of the set-ups (eating increasing numbers of donuts at a teashop to hide the fact that they have no money to pay for the donuts, for example) and then had to delete them as, without the benefit of the fractured child logic that moves the plot along, they make absolutely no sense. But Buckeridge has created a sort of nostalgia-topian (a word I am coining right this second) world of curiosity and baffling decision-making skills that builds smoothly when you’re reading it, as all adept situation comedy does.

The only faintly irritating note is that, it turns out, the copy I bought is from a 70s reboot of the series in which it was deemed that children would be unable to understand the boarding school world of several decades earlier, and thus such confusing phrases as ‘Preparatory School’ were excised, alongside (apparently, though I don’t remember any of them) a whole bunch of Latin-based jokes. And really, you have to admire any children’s book series that has the audacity to make Latin-based jokes, even if they do cut them out later.

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