Richmond Line 2000: Billy Bunter Lives On

They were sitting in the seat behind me. He was recounting his exploits in defiance of teachers at school, to which she listened appreciatively, perhaps with a little diffidence. His tales, oddly, were the classic schoolboy japes of the first half of the twentieth century —pranks designed to disconcert and humiliate the teacher and give the boys a laugh ¾ a bucket of water propped above the door and sousing the entering schoolmaster, tacks on his chair, string tied to the duster to whip it away just as he reaches for it. It went on, a virtual monologue, from Blacktown to Town Hall. It was all so outrageous that I was disinclined to believe any of it. I felt it must be fantasy.

One segment of his narrative intrigued me, however, as a departure from these traditional tales, more attuned to today’s failures of authority which reflect less a physical exuberance in the happily underdog than a zeitgeist denial of the possibility of unequal status of pupil and teacher. According to his story, he was in the habit of arriving at school early, and making himself a cup of coffee in the still deserted teachers’ staff room. Even at this I felt unsettled, for in my childhood the teachers’ room was sacrosanct. Teachers came to the door to speak to us and no pupil was ever invited inside. I recalled an occasion when I walked home from school rather than retrieve my lost purse from on top of a cupboard where it was in full view from the doorway of the empty room, so strong was the taboo. But he was surely revolutionary even for today. When eventually challenged by a teacher, his repartee, as he recounted it, was a model of insolence, protesting his perfect right to whatever the teachers had.

I would have liked to check out his appearance, but I could not see either of them without very obviously twisting round for just that purpose. I pictured him, from his rather uneducated accent and his boasting disdain for the classroom, as an early school leaver, perhaps unemployed, in jeans and flannie (flanellette shirt); and her, from her reserved manner of answering, as probably older, an office worker. So I was quite taken aback when, after hearing her bid him good-bye, I saw pass me, on the way to the stairs, a young girl neatly dressed in school uniform and hat (probably a private school) with her hair childishly in bunches. This prompted me to turn and look at him. Equally unpredictably, he was a young man, well into his twenties, in full office garb with tie.

I was left wondering curiously as to what could have motivated him to fantasize those high-jinks-of-schoolboys tales from the school-story literature of half a century ago — William, Billy Bunter, and all that. Possibly they never happened anywhere, anytime, but they still apparently had a hold on at least one modern young man’s imagination.

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