One can only suspect some insidious intent – or trolling, if one wishes to call it by its proper name – when the Scottish police force had to rename the operation designed to protect Boris Johnson in his current visit to the country. It now rejoices in the unexceptional title of “Operation Aeration”, but until it attracted adverse publicity, its original name was “Operation Bunter”.
Although a spokesman for the Scottish police said, with tongue so far in cheek that it was astonishing they could speak, “Operational names are auto-generated by computer and can be changed if they are deemed to be inappropriate”, the comparison between the Prime Minister and Frank Richards’ legendary creation Billy Bunter, the “Fat Owl of the Remove” is a far from flattering one.
Bunter is a gluttonous, lazy, dishonest and academically negligible student
In Richards’ stories, Bunter is a gluttonous, lazy, dishonest and academically negligible student at Greyfriars School in Kent, forever attempting to obtain loans from his fellow schoolboys on the promise that a non-existent postal order is going to arrive from his wealthy relatives at “Bunter Court”. It is made clear that, for all his fantasies of wealth and success, Bunter’s home is in fact the considerably more modest “Bunter Villa”, which possesses merely one maid and one cook. Richards therefore invites his readers to condemn Bunter as an arriviste to the English public school system, amongst his many other sins. He is repulsive in appearance, significantly overweight, perpetually dirty and often given to thoughtless instances of racism and xenophobia. And his famous catchphrases – “I say, you fellows!” and, when he is being beaten, kicked or otherwise abused, “yarooh!” – are irritating, rather than witty or charming.
Needless to say, the books that featured him as their lead character were hugely successful for decades, but now, in our more censorious and self-aware image, have fallen into obscurity. None of them are currently in print, and the last time that any of the novels were reissued was in the early Nineties. When the news story about Operation Bunter broke, many papers had to explain exactly who the character was, and why the allusion was apposite. While the milder likes of Jennings and William continue to be much loved by parents and grandparents of a certain generation, Bunter and his fellow denizens of Greyfriars have found themselves condemned to a kind of literary Siberia, and show few signs of coming in from this particular cold. Is there any hope that some literary-minded minister will intervene and aid the Fat Owl’s rehabilitation? Or are the books simply too outrageous and un-PC for our contemporary tastes?
Certainly, they have unpromising literary antecedents. Although Richards claimed that he had based his most famous character on his impecunious relatives and an obese editor he had suffered under, Bunter is clearly derived from a vein of English literary humour that includes such characters as Falstaff, Mr Toad and Mr Micawber, but with their charm and wit systematically removed. He is a remarkably unsympathetic protagonist, a kind of Ignatius J Reilly, if Ignatius had been an imbecile and given to persistent acts of petty theft in order to stuff himself stupid with cake.
There is a malevolence glinting in his piggy eyes, behind his owlish spectacles, and a bitter envy displayed towards his more successful schoolmates
What Bunter lacks is any self-awareness or likeability. There is a malevolence glinting in his piggy eyes, behind his owlish spectacles, and a bitter envy displayed towards his more successful, more likeable and more honourable schoolmates. One could even imagine him as a kind of blimpish Tom Ripley avant la lettre, if Ripley had been more interested in stealing pies and glutting himself on cream cakes than in murder and assuming others’ identities. (A side note: who were these remarkably able pastry chefs employed by English public schools’ tuck shops in the Edwardian era? Were they disgraced chefs from grand country houses forced to make a humbler living after being involved in some scandal?)
One reason for the contemporary unpopularity of the Bunter books is that they are not very good. George Orwell pinpointed their lack of literary merit as far back as 1940 in his famous essay “Boys’ Weeklies”, when he wrote scathingly of Richards’ “extraordinary, artificial, repetitive style, quite different from anything else now existing in English literature”, and wearily complained of the stories’ inability to deal with any social, sexual or political issues in their hermetically sealed world. He famously concluded that:
“The year is 1910 — or 1940, but it is all the same. You are at Greyfriars, a rosy-cheeked boy of fourteen in posh tailor-made clothes, sitting down to tea in your study on the Remove passage after an exciting game of football which was won by an odd goal in the last half-minute. There is a cosy fire in the study, and outside the wind is whistling. The ivy clusters thickly round the old grey stones. The King is on his throne and the pound is worth a pound. Over in Europe the comic foreigners are jabbering and gesticulating, but the grim grey battleships of the British Fleet are steaming up the Channel and at the outposts of Empire the monocled Englishmen are holding the niggers at bay. Lord Mauleverer has just got another fiver and we are all settling down to a tremendous tea of sausages, sardines, crumpets, potted meat, jam and doughnuts. After tea we shall sit round the study fire having a good laugh at Billy Bunter and discussing the team for next week’s match against Rookwood. Everything is safe, solid and unquestionable. Everything will be the same for ever and ever. That approximately is the atmosphere.”
Our PM’s single-minded determination to rise to the top has its own origins in his own relatively humble beginnings
Such, indeed, seems to be the fantasy of 2021 Britain that our Prime Minister occasionally seems to subscribe to. Certainly, the idea of “comic foreigners jabbering and gesticulating” was one of his repeated tropes throughout his Daily Telegraph columns, and Orwell’s encapsulation of an unquestioning, unexamined belief in British superiority and exceptionalism, which even Bunter possesses, is one that Johnson has been repeatedly attacked for. (As, in the interests of balance, Keir Starmer also has, for daring to suggest that patriotic impulses are not merely the preserve of the xenophobe.) And the Prime Minister’s substantial build can lead to sneering comparisons with Bunter, for all of the government’s apparent obsession with telling us how many thousands of calories are contained within the food that we eat, and how unhealthy all of our desired treats are.
The hypocrisy of this has its echo in Bunter’s straight-faced claims of his good looks, charm and charisma, despite abundance evidence to the contrary. Yet there is a more insidious comparison altogether. When the Fat Owl is sneered at for being a greedy parvenu, the reader is expected to join in the laughter. “Oh, Bunter doesn’t really mind”, etc. Because, after all, the fat and poor are not allowed the luxury of feelings.
I cannot help thinking, however, that our PM’s single-minded determination to rise to the top has its own origins in his own relatively humble beginnings, of being the clever but relatively impecunious scholarship boy at Eton who carefully created a persona of the ultimate bumbling upper-class Englishman as a means of deflecting hurtful criticism. His ambition has been concealed under jokes, but nobody has had any doubt as to his ultimate aim: that of being ‘world King’. His own greed – for power; for success; for women – is also bound up with a kind of theft rather more insidious than stealing a cake from someone’s study, that of ideas, or other men’s wives. We are living in the era of Bunter, whether we like it or not. I say, you fellows, isn’t that swell?
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