Thursday, January 19, 2006

H.F. Ellis: A.J. Wentworth, B.A.

Every so often one comes across what one supposes is a long-forgotten gem, only to find that it is not forgotten at all; it is still in print. And so it is with the work of H.F. Ellis.

A while ago, I was poking through a shelf of secondhand paperbacks when I came across one by H.F. Ellis, entitled A.J. Wentworth, B.A. The publishing history of Ellis's books about his hero Wentworth is a little complicated, so bear with me.

The paperback that I have been reading was published by Arrow Books (UK) in 1981, and seems to be still in print. It incorporates two earlier books by the same author: The Papers of A.J. Wentworth, B.A., first published by Evans Brothers in 1949, and A.J. Wentworth, B.A. (RET'D), published by Geoffrey Bles in 1962. There appears to be a third book in the series, The Swan Song of A.J. Wentworth, published by Arrow in 1982. And there is a recent reissue of the first in the series, The Papers of A.J. Wentworth, B.A., published by Prion Books in 2000.

Older readers, who live in the UK, may remember that the first Wentworth book was serialised by ITV, with Arthur Lowe in the lead (1982).

Now the first and most important thing to be said about Ellis (who died in 2000) is that he was an English humorist. His character Wentworth reminds me very much of Mr Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody; in fact, both characters first appeared in the weekly magazine Punch. In other words, what we have here is very quiet, dry, English humour about a man who is self-important, more or less completely incompetent, and who, if one wishes to be kind, might generously be described as accident prone. If you like that kind of humour, H.F. Ellis is not to be missed. But if you live in California and are a big fan of the Farrelly brothers' movies, it may not be quite the thing for you.

When we first meet him, Wentworth is working as a mathematics teacher in a prep. school for boys, somewhere in England. Prep. schools in those days (and today) took boys from the age of about 7 to 13, and 'prepared' them for entrance to one of the so-called public schools, which in England means a private, fee-paying school for the sons (and daughters) of those who can afford the substantial fees.

If you were educated in such a prep. school, or taught in one (I confess to that crime), then the atmosphere will be instantly familiar. But I dare say that those without personal experience will soon get the hang of it.

Wentworth is one of those schoolmasters who believe that they effortlessly control the boys, but who frequently fall headlong into the cunning little bastards' traps. Here, for example, is a passage quoted by Miles Kington in his obituary of H.F. Ellis.

This morning IIIa were unusually quiet when I went in and I at once glanced at the front legs of my desk. Once or twice since I first came to Burgrove I have hurt myself rather badly through my desk falling off its dais the moment I have leant my elbows on it. I shall always believe, though I have never been able to prove it, that this must have been the work of the boys. . . However, the desk looked all right today, but I was still uneasy.

Every schoolmaster knows how unnerving it is when the boys sit quietly in their places and watch you in that silly expressionless way they have, and I do not mind admitting that I stood quite still in the middle of the floor for a full minute waiting for something to happen. Nothing happened at all, except that I distinctly heard Mason whispering, "Rigor mortis has set in".

I at once strode to the desk to get my punishment-book, but when I opened the lid a pigeon flew out, nearly knocking my spectacles off and giving me a very nasty shock. . .

The pigeon, when captured, turns out to have a message attached to its leg. It says 'Fly at once. All is discovered.'

Later in life, Wentworth serves in the army (WWII is won despite that). And in retirement he occupies himself with amateur dramatics (providing an unintentionally comic turn which is the hit of the show), and escorting two schoolboys on a trip to Switzerland (their excursion into Italy unaccountably goes wrong).

At the very end of the book, there are signs that Mr Wentworth might, just conceivably, enter into matrimony with a friendly widow. I think I really must get hold of The Swan Song of A.J. Wentworth and find out.

Warmly recommended. If you like that kind of thing.

10 comments:

kitty said...

Dunno if I'd care for the books or not, but I certainly loved your write-up!

Bernita said...

Vaguely reminiscent of Stalky & Co.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

Self-important and more or less completely incompetent.
Oh how I completely identify with that,myself a creator of literary disasters.
As the Inspector Cluseau of local literature I have made more mistakes in print than than should be due any poseur. The foray into journalism was fiasco, as I repeatedly reported people dead who were not, invented stories of geese who fell in love with passing commuter trains (something sexy about the gold logo on our GO trains--made the geese go all feathers)and a disastrous career as a war correspendent who repeatedly had to go to police stations to find out where his hotel room was, for he had no idea what country he was in or what time it was.
I do believe a long-dead Canadian poet wrote about a fellow like this in a novel titled Topsy Turvey.
Yes, A.J. Wentworth, B.A.
Try Ivan Prokopchuk, M.A.
Who invented my life?

James Morrison said...

There was a nifty edition of this book that came out a few years ago, a nice little hardcover, which I came across and read, and really enjoyed. It was published by Prion in their 'Humour CLassics' series, along with stuff by Twain, Delafield, Bemelmans (sp?) and so on. All the ones I read I liked. I have a suspicion, though, that Prion either went out of business or got swallowed up by a big company a year or two ago - they seem to have vanished from the web.

Anonymous said...

I first read HF Ellis in Punch in the 60's; I discovered Wentworth as a result of reading Kingston's obit. I was able to obtain a copy of "The Papers ...." and was reading it in bed; Wentworth's account of reclaiming his umbrella from the boot room produced the most convulsive bout of laughter I ever had - woke my wife (who can sleep thru earthquakes).

Anonymous said...

Interesting, and very useful reading. - Thanks.
Merry Christmas, and a
Happy New Year ! Best Wishes, J.D.M. in Norfolk, U.K.

kadugu said...

H F Ellis's Wentworth stories are great classics of humor. That they were written in first person and that the 'hero' was a poor old bumbling soul make the stories really enjoyable. Though deprecated, we all love laughing at a person skidding on a banana peel.
I know it is very difficult make fun of yourself in the stories. As a tamil (an Indian classic language) I also wrote several stories with myself as the pitiable and pathetic "hero" with a domineering wife and a 'pain in the neck' brother-in- law.
Recently I downloaded The Diary of Nobody from Gutenburg site. The the stories were written in first person and also as diary entries make them a great humour treat!

===Kadugu

Anonymous said...

Readers may also be interested in the ITV production of A.J. Wentworth from the early 1980s that starred the incomparable Arthur Lowe in the titular role that was his last (He died shortly after filming and the 6 part series was shown posthumously).

It was again adapted, this time for radio in 2005, and serialised on BBC radio 4.

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