Sunday 8 May 2011

John Christopher Timothy Jennings

John Christopher Timothy Jennings is a name I fondly associate with my childhood. He was mentioned to me again recently and I was reminded of the fact that, unlike Richmal Crompton’s William Brown and Frank Richards’s Billy Bunter, his name is unknown to many people, despite the usually Midas-like Stephen Fry having recorded audio versions of some of the Jennings books which are still broadcast relatively regularly on Radio 7.

Although I have not read Crompton or Richards for some years, I do still revisit Anthony Buckeridge’s books and, as a result of the comment, thought I would try to consider their appeal. In short, I believe that Buckeridge provides a realistic perspective on the thoughts, behaviour and actions of a group of 11-13 year old boys. As a former preparatory school teacher, he was ideally placed to observe the lives of his charges and does so in a way which combines an adult’s insightfulness with a youngster’s unbounded enthusiasm.

When I first encountered the Jennings books, I (like the eponymous hero) was a boarder at a preparatory school. I feel that it is the realism of the situations coupled with the tendency of incidents to develop one step further than one would imagine that makes the stories entertaining while retaining an important authenticity. Critics have acknowledged Buckeridge’s good understanding of how boys talk, but what seems more convincing to me is Buckeridge’s understanding of how small boys think. One early example is the explanation as to why Temple, whose initials are CAT, is known as ‘Bod’.

As Temple’s initials are CAT the other boys obviously call him Dog; however, that was felt to be to long-winded so they call him Dogsbody for short. When Jennings points out that Dogsbody is, in fact, longer than Dog, Venables’s simple response is that it therefore needs shortening to Bod, succinctly summarising it as ‘Bod short for Body and Dogsbody short for Dog.’

Apart from the glorious schoolboy illogicality, this moment also demonstrates Buckeridge’s insight. The explanation is given to Jennings over the first meal the pupils share at the start of his time at Linbury Court and his naivety in the matter is greeted scornfully by the other boys, including Atkinson. Buckeridge’s understanding of the behaviour of the boys is shown when he tells the reader:
Atkinson, as a new boy, had asked exactly the same question less than a year before, but his manner implied that he had been born with preparatory school jargon on his lips.
From experience I know that such details are true to life and that such concerns are real and it is entertaining (and potentially reassuring) to see them written down. Reading them today they also serve to bring a wry smile to one’s lips as previous preoccupations are remembered affectionately, doubtlessly through rose-tinted spectacles, and with a light heart.

If I do have a criticism of Buckeridge it is for writing two more Jennings books in the 1990s, some fourteen years after the previous book had been published. One of them, Jennings Again!, is concerned with the fashionable green issues of the late twentieth century and, as a result, makes it feel, ironically, more dated than texts first published in the 1950s. However, if these can be overlooked as aberrations, I would heartily encourage anyone to make John Christopher Timothy Jennings’s acquaintance.


  1. I heartily endorse your recommendation. The question of appeal is interesting; I was never a boy or a boarder, but enjoyed Jennings enormously as a child and when rereading the first for the book group this week (the source of the above mentioned mention?) I'd forgotten how funny they are. Or is it just that it's a dry understated humour that I missed back then? Anyway, wizard post, Shakeshaft!

  2. An endnote in Kimberley Reynolds' 'Radical Children's Literature' (p185):

    I conducted an informal survey through the pages of the Society of Authors' newsletter, the findings from which suggest that Victorian and Edwardian writers continue to influence the current generation of writers for children. The authors mentioned most frequently as influences on their own work were Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Kenneth Grahame, Charles Kingsley, C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald. Some volunteered specific titles: the Alice books, 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' and 'Little Women'. Influential genres were myths, legends, hero stories and fantasy. Comics were mentioned as both a genre and a format by several respondents. The author and texts to be mentioned most frequently were C.S. Lewis's Namia Chronicles; however, one respondent provided the following interesting information on the basis of research he did for a possible programme to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Anthony Buckeridge's first Jennings book:

    "I conclude that a whole generation of comedy writers (aged between 40 and 60 - Alan Ayckbourn, Jonathan Coe, Robert Leeson, Susan Hlll, Stephen Fry, Griff Rhys Jones, Victoria Wood) were influenced by the surreal humour of Linbury Court School and its pupils." (e-mail correspondence with Lee Pressman, 21 March 2005)