Book review: The Lost Diaries of Nigel Molesworth, by Geoffrey Willans (ed. Kirkpatrick)

Paul Magrath
6 min readMay 10, 2020

I have a friend who signs all his emails to me “Molesworth”, addressing me in turn as “Peason”. I am sure this is not unique. There is a generation of us who grew up with the anarchic school stories about Nigel Molesworth, his annoying brother Molesworth 2, his friend Peason and his classmate Fotherington-Thomas, invariably described as “uterly wet and a weed”. The books are the source of a number of badly spelled catchphrases, “as any fule kno”, as well as the insult “girly swot” which has recently been triumphantly repurposed (“chiz, chiz”).

The four books, Down with Skool!, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms and Back in the Jug Agane, written by Geoffrey Willans with illustrations by Ronald Searle, were published in the 1950s. Willans and Searle seem to have been made for each other, like Gilbert and Sullivan, and Searle, who also created the anarchic St Trinian’s girls’ school brand, contributed an unforgettable gallery of grotesques and eccentrics to match the characters in Willans’s writing.

The books have remained in print ever since, their boarding school setting as familiar to readers brought up on Harry Potter as it must have been to those brought up on Tom Brown, Billy Bunter or Jennings. What many of their fans may not be aware of is how the stories began, in a series of spoof diary sketches in the humorous magazine Punch, during the darker days of World War II.

My friend who signs himself Molesworth is actually called Robert J Kirkpatrick. He’s an expert on school stories, whose last book was about the relationship between the fictional school Dotheboy’s Hall in the novel Nicholas Nickleby and the real life Yorkshire Schools, visited by Dickens, on which it was said to have been based. Now he has collected together for the first time all the old sketches from Punch and published them, as The Lost Diaries of Nigel Molesworth, with a foreword by Gyles Brandreth.

“Sept 3. War declared. 3 tuoughs arrive from Bermingham who are put in Spare room thay are awful. They pute out there tongues at me so when mum not looking i scrap them. Chiz.”

Anyone familiar with the books will recognise the style, but the first thing to note about the diaries is that they are set in specific historical context. The books belong to the genre that they satirise, but while they do occasionally mention contemporary events, they are deliberately vague as to time and place. The diaries were, perhaps, a reaction to the circumstances under which they were written. They exploit this to good effect:

“May 12. Ferce air rade and wizard bombs drop. Germans all tuough and detmined to extermanate mrs trimps pink hat which important milertary objective. mr. trimp say Take courage all no danger and all house maids faint including Lily (fat cook). Deaf master apply first ade to cook who scream and sa she never so insulted in her life.”

The spoof diary is itself a well developed genre, often used in Punch and, more currently, Private Eye. In this case it allows Willans both to develop his characters and to comment humorously on the privations of wartime England. Evacuees are foisted on the family, the boys are sent off to first one school and then another, and at one point the two Molesworth boys are even sent to a girls’ school to be near their father’s regiment, providing an opportunity for another sly observation:

“July 11. No one here to tuough up chiz. All girls haf pash on miss Fish (games misteress) and sa weedy things e.g. I sa joan isn’t it ripping i had a simply topping walk beside her in the crock toda.”

There is also much more here about Molesworth’s own family, including the rakish Unckle Bingo, whose parrot’s risky vocabulary may be depended on to cause embarrassment, and about life during the holidays. At school there is Mr Trimp, the headmaster; a matron, a succession of gym mistresses and a deaf master who provides material for humour.

“Nov 1. Grate consternation rains as deaf master called up for duty at listning post. Mr trimp sa he feel there haf been some mistake.”

The deaf master makes a fleeting appearance in the books, but the full cast of characters seen in the books has yet to appear in the diaries, as indeed has St Custard’s and its headmaster, Grimes. Instead, we have Mr Trimp of St Cyprane’s, (among other establishments, including that girls’ school). Unlike the books, the diary sketches seemed to have been aimed primarily at an adult readership, which explains their sometimes more knowing humour:

“Nov 16. New misteress come instead of miss pringle. Coo she is just like ginger rogers with lipstick and everything. Tell this to matron who sniff and say she thought her very ordinary girl. She also give me stiff dose of mixture so will not mention agane.”

Soon afterwards Peason confesses to having fallen in love with the new mistress, though it seems he must compete for her affections with the deaf master. This sort of thing would not happen in the books. In fact there is not much in the diaries that reappears in the books, in terms of plot; it’s more that the diaries are a sort of sketching out of the idea and setting. This makes the diaries worth reading for their own sake, of course, and not merely as a literary curiosity.

One incident I can recall as having been reworked.

“August 15. Rain and haf to stay indoors chiz. Fat lade miss boothroyd aktually read us weedy poem worse than gran’s chatterbox e.g. there are faires at the bottom of our garden and rabits stand about and hold the lights. molesworth 2 say there is a dirty old rubish heap at the bottom of his and miss boothroyd severly browns him off.”

This is reworked more deftly in Down with Skool! where Molesworth 2 is introduced:

“Gosh chiz this is molesworth 2 my bro he is uterly wet and a weed it panes me to think i am of the same blud. He is always eating and cheeks everybode. You know when fotherington-thomas sa there are fairies at the bottom of his garden molesworth 2 sa there is a dirty old rubbish heap at the bottom of his then zoom away dive bombing sparows worms the skool dog and other poor dumb creatures. i diskard him.”

The diaries continue until 1942. Towards the end Willans appears to want to work some transformation on the character of Molesworth, and embarks on a rather unconvincing attempt to make him repent his cynicism and become a good person in the manner of the hero of Eric, or Little By Little, a classic Victorian school story whose sentimental morality would repel most readers today and probably did then. Molesworth reads this book and attempts to follow its dictates. It doesn’t really work. Perhaps Willans or Punch thought the diary idea had run its course. A better way of ending it might have been to rely, once again, on the war:

“Sept 12. Mum haf letter with mr trimp (headmasters) weeky scrawl and she sa gosh. molesworth 2 sa splosh tosh posh and get browned off (2 lines copybook i.e. rat a specis of rodent). Mum then anounce NEWS St. Cypranes haf been BOMBED cheers cheers we faint with joy. Mr trimp and skool pig all safe but luftvaff haf established ascendancy in the air over mrs trimps pink hat and given it severe hamering hem-hem.”

At the age of 11 when I first read and loved the books, we were still obsessed by the war and spent much of our recreation time making Airfix models of Spitfire and Messerschmitt fighter planes, staging dog fights with them in the common room, or drawing tanks in the back of our exercise books. England has taken a long time to escape its own blimpish mythology about World War II, as the recent celebrations for the 75th anniversary of VE day demonstrated only too well. When he came to write the Molesworth books a decade after the war, Willans probably welcomed the chance to say goodbye to all that, as it were, and include instead the stuff about sputniks and space travel: something, in other words, a bit more “whizz for atomms”.

Enuff said. You can buy The Lost Diaries of Nigel Molesworth by Geoffrey Willans, published by Robert J Kirkpatrick, with cover by Uli Meyer, for £10 from Amazon.



Paul Magrath

I'm Head of Product Development and Online Content at ICLR - the leading supplier of law reports for England and Wales.