Entry updated 26 March 2021. Tagged: Author.
Working name of Herbert Geoffrey Willans (1911-1958), UK schoolmaster, author and journalist who served in the Royal Navy during World War Two. He is best remembered for his comic squibs and sketches narrated as by the archetypal 1950s schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, memorably illustrated by Ronald Searle (1920-2011) in the vein of the artist's St Trinian's girls'-school cartoons though with less savagery and more whimsy. Molesworth made his debut in Punch in 1939 (without Searle); his exploits are assembled in the four profusely Searle-illustrated volumes Down with Skool! (1953), How to be Topp (1954), Whizz for Atomms (1956; vt Molesworth's Guide to the Atommic Age 1956) and – published after Willans's death – Back in the Jug Agane (1959) [see Checklist for subtitles and omnibus editions]. Young Molesworth's cynically dyslexic style, strewn with RANDOM CAPITALIZATION and idiosyncratic catchphrases ("as any fule kno ... he is uterly wet and a weed ... he hav a face like a squashed tomato ...") is a vehicle for much effective Satire of contemporary relationships both within and outside the crumbling pile of St Custard's School for Boys. Daydreams and future extrapolations are frequently shaped by nuclear Physics, by visions of Space Flight and by sf – in particular Frank Hampson's Dan Dare saga in the Eagle Comic, whose inimical Little Green Man the Mekon becomes the PUKON while his vassals the Treens have entered the language in their own right: Searle's drawing of an unwell-looking lad who has been smoking a pipe in Whizz for Atomms is captioned "You hav caught me, sir, like a treen in a disabled space ship." The same volume imagines St Custard's in the Far Future where boys and masters are egg-shaped beings composed mostly of brain – as in H G Wells's essay "The Man of the Year Million" (6 November 1893 Pall Mall Budget) – and enjoy Flying with gyro-packs; but otherwise all too little has changed. Further sf props include a planned Spaceship and "electronick brane" (see Computers) in Down with Skool!; the recasting of "Sigismund arbuthnot the mad maths master" as an sf super-Villain surrounded by his sycophantic rhomboids in How to be Topp, which also features a Disintegrator ray and confident nonsense about Life on Other Worlds; and a spider-Monster with the face of Molesworth himself ("Nearer and nearer crept the ghastly THING"), a home-made plutonium reactor and First Contact with mushroom-shaped Moon-dwellers in Whizz for Atomms. Readers exposed in youth to the Humour of Molesworth's diaries remember them fondly as adults and can then enjoy their insights even more.
Works by Willans alone include the novel The Whistling Arrow (1957), whose eponym is a then-futuristic aeroplane. [DRL]
Herbert Geoffrey Willans
born England: 4 February 1911
died 6 August 1958
works (highly selected)
- Down with Skool! A Guide to school life for tiny pupils and their parents (London: Max Parrish, 1953) with Ronald Searle [first appeared in Punch from 1939: Nigel Molesworth: illus/hb/Ronald Searle]
- How to be Topp: A guide to Sukcess for tiny pupils, including all there is to kno about SPACE (London: Max Parrish, 1954) with Ronald Searle [Nigel Molesworth: illus/hb/Ronald Searle]
- Whizz for Atomms: A guide to survival in the 20th century for fellow pupils, their doting maters, pompous paters and any others who are interested (London: Max Parrish, 1956) with Ronald Searle [Nigel Molesworth: illus/hb/Ronald Searle]
- Back in the Jug Agane (London: Max Parrish, 1959) with Ronald Searle [Nigel Molesworth: illus/hb/Ronald Searle]
- The Whistling Arrow (London: Hutchinson, 1957) [hb/]
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