It was sad to read today that Ronald Searle, the cartoonist who created St Trinians and collaborated on the Molesworth books has died. Molesworth, the Gorilla of 3b, and his motley collection of fellow-pupils at St Custard’s, presided over by the venal Grimes, was a huge part of my childhood; I too attended a minor prep school (at which the Molesworth books were effectively banned – any boy foolish enough to be caught in possession of one would have it confiscated to be returned at the end of term). As a boy one laughed at the spelling and the caricatures of masters; it is only in adulthood that one realises how fully the books capture the atmosphere of the minor public school – the snobbery, the jobbery, the hypocrisy, the philistinism and anti-intellectualism disguised as learning, the endless moral bullshit. Curiously enough the one aspect of prep school life missing is religion – a step to far, perhaps, in 1950s England?
Perhaps the most alarming thing is that Molesworth remains relevant today; it’s about a lot more than nostalgia. Sixty years on, the morality of the English public school system is still with us, and Searle and Willans’ characters still live. Grabber, the school bully, destined for a lifetime of power and influence off the back of his father’s wealth; Grimes, offering the appearance of moral leadership while holding his hand open for backhanders; the playing-field as the crucible of public morality, and putting on a show for parents’ day – the same ethos that characterises Cameron’s comments about the Olympics and the Jubilee in his new year’s message. Above all – especially in Searle’s cartoons – the aura of decay and failure, of corruption and unjustified hierarchy and moral dissembling, dressed up as a fit and honourable set of guidelines for life.
Molesworth and his best friend Peason represent an anarchical vigour that perhaps has found its best expression recently in movements like Occupy and UK Uncut – but what seems clear is that Britain remains in thrall to the values of St Custard’s. Orwell famously wrote that England was like a family where the wrong members were in control; Cameron and Clegg’s England looks increasingly like a decaying minor public school, clinging to discredited values while failing to recognise that the world has passed it by.