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Gosh, fish-hooks, Jennings is 50

That jolly decent prep-school boy is to have a conference dedicated to him, reports Anne Horner

The trusty Darbishire is ordering oodles of tuck, Mr Carter is bracing himself for practical jokes. And all because that rapscallion prep-school boy Jennings with the brown hair and wide-awake look in his eyes is to be 50 next year .

As an act of homage to Anthony Buckeridge's prep school anti-hero, the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature has dedicated its 1998 conference to School Stories from Bunter to Buckeridge. Mr Buckeridge, now 85, will be a special guest at the event on May 2 at Digby Stuart College at London's Roehampton Institute.

In the days of politically-correct children's fiction the "eager, friendly" Jennings - who made his first appearance in a story broadcast in 1948 - may not have aged well. The stories, set in Linbury Court Preparatory School, may seem elitist today.

However, generations of children have loved Jennings, the quintessential Fifties schoolboy. To his many fans a quick mention of his catchphrase "Gosh, fossilised fish-hooks" is enough to make the eyes mist over.

He even has his followers among today's schoolchildren. The Daily Telegraph's agony aunt Anne Atkins's daughter Lara "Bink" Atkins - who made national headlines when she briefly disappeared earlier this month - is a fan.

But Jennings traditionalists say the books - which were updated by Macmillan in 1994 -may not be acquiring as many new fans as they deserve.

Dr Kim Reynolds, director of the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature, said: "They were reprinted and modernised, and lost quite a lot of the things which made them funny and interesting.

"In Jennings Goes to School, Jennings is bemused when he arrives at school by all the Latin which is spoken. He can't understand the prayers. But in the modernised version the puns and the humour associated with this are lost.

"Some of the modernisations were minor, such as the decimalisation of the pounds, shillings and pence, but even that seems unnecessary. Why pretend that a book does not belong to the past?" Nicholas Tucker, co-organiser of the conference with Dr Reynolds, said: "Some of Jennings's greatest fans are in Japan where there are no boarding schools. The children who don't like the stories so much are the ones who have been to boarding schools.

"There's no malice in the books. School stories these days are much more in your face - about bullying, sexual harassment. The Jennings stories were really escapism."

The conference will look at the differences between school stories for boys and those for girls. And it will examine the state of the school story in the 1990s.

Dr Reynolds added: "We will be looking at more recent school stories which have been written post-Grange Hill and at the different qualities expected in children's fiction now such as loyalty, not to school but to individual friends. In the Jennings stories you had the pupils pitted against the masters but now everyone in the school community is shown to be working together. "

All "jolly decent" as Jennings might say, but not the sort of antics you would expect from him or his associates Darbishire and Venables . . .

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