The second piece with which Malcolm found himself in enthusiastic agreement was Giles Foden in the Review section of Saturday’s Guardian (on manly page three, no less). His argument hung on the peg of renewed interest in Rider Haggard:
King Solomon’s Mines is currently being edited for Penguin Classics by Robert Hampson in its first full scholarly edition, and She is one of six “boy’s own books” being reissued by the same publisher.
Foden continues by asking:
what is Penguin doing, bringing it out now along with five other “epic tales of adventure and bravery”, namely Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands, John Buchan’s The 39 Steps and GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday? And why is Headline Review bringing out its own set of boy’s tales next month, including The Lost World and The Man Who Was Thursday.
The simple answer is that they hope to capitalise on the success of The Dangerous Book for Boys, Conn and Hal Iggulden’s guide to scrapes and derring-do. This is obvious from the deep-dyed, embossed covers of the Penguin books, whose livery imitates the Igguldens’, which itself owes much to the way boy’s own titles by the master of the game, GA Henty, were marketed in the late 1880s and after.
He adds, quite properly:
the imperialist ethos is certainly there, more or less explicitly, in the books Penguin has chosen to remarket in this way. But their continuing appeal cannot simply be explained away as retro-imperialism
His critique then trails off into observations on Henty, Conrad and Madame Bovary. En passant, what is it about the Guardian and Bovary? A google of the two terms shows over 54,000 hits. And then there’s the delicious Gemma Bovary over and above! Foden’s conclusion was what particularly linked to Malcolm’s own thoughts:
It must be better that boys take a risk with literary adventure than numb their minds with screens and headphones. The mind-befogging potentiality of electronic media is the real doom now. That’s what must be escaped from, not into.
Malcolm would demur from that only in so far as “screens and headphones” do not always, necessarily get in the way of involvement in literature, as Sony, Microsoft and Palm seem to agree. What odds that an electronic hand-held toy would do more to up the reading quotient of school-boys than any class library? It’s the “golf-bag” effect: the steeper the entry fee, the more desirable, the glitzier the activity. Essentially, though, the conclusion holds.
Once upon a time, when the world and Malcolm were younger, there was a definable reading route for boys of his generation. It went from
- the Hotspur and the Wizard, and (for the upwardly-mobile) the unbeatable Eagle
- through the collected words of Captain W.E. Johns, then a shufti into
- Paul Brickhill particularly Reach for the Sky (which would, today be sold as a “film tie-in”), Pierre Closterman’s The Big Show, and the like; which in turn could lead to
- Nevil Shute and the early Ian Flemings.
- And from there, as they say, the world was your lobster.
Moreover, all of this had some kind of street cred. Alongside this, it was still “normal” to read the popular classics which were handed out as school prizes and granny’s occasional gifts, and which had a counter to themselves in Woolworths. As a result, and which we can now recognise as an obvious way to discriminate “class”, the 11-plus (at least in Norfolk) had an “English Literature”, which amounted to knowing the names of these authors.
This brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to … Rider Haggard, himself a good Norfolk boy.
Malcolm looks with some interest to see if modern editors feel it necessary to bowdlerise Haggard’s anti-semitism and racism (both, admittedly, more a social disease of his period than active malevolence). And whether the “deep-dyed embossed covers” will override the heaviness of some of the prose. As for the plotting, Malcolm will quite happily go along with that.
After all, what’s wrong with encouraging covetousness for jewels “the size of pigeon’s eggs” in Little Englanders, if they discover a love of reading in the process? At least in Haggard the sex-and-violence comes closer to the surface than with that Indiana Jones bloke.