Beano had a kind of love

12th March 2004 at 00:00
A spell of looking after my brother's house and two fine nephews brings an unexpected literary bonus. Technically, I am spending the school day beavering away at the next novel, with cultural interludes at the local museums; but given the younger lad's matchless collection of old Beanos, I have to admit that a considerable amount of time has been spent lying on the sofa reacquainting myself with the noble and timeless canon of DC Thomson's masterwork.

The Beano is just as I remember it. Incredibly, children in this knowing, neurotic, stress-obsessed, streetwise age are still offered the carefree macho mischief of Dennis the Menace and the low cunning of Roger the Dodger.

The couch potato generation is taken back to an era of home-made go-karts and grubby knees. Little girls, normally enjoined by every shopping mall and horrid moppet-magazine to dress like miniature hookers and bat their eyes at boy bands, are still supplied with the alternative robustness of Minnie the Minx and Ivy the Terrible. The sons and daughters of the empathetic, rights-heavy, child-centred education age are still buying and reading The Bash Street Kids, and entering their world of authority-baiting and mayhem, atavistically braving the swishing of canes and the thundering of headmaster. I find this all strangely reassuring. Psychologists could explain it: even the most pampered child suffers a sense of powerlessness, and the Beano gang offer a brief blessed escape into a parallel world of bouncy revolt.

I have to admit, though, that I had my own spell of revolt against the Beano in my children's first years at primary school. They read it, but I was uneasy. The Bash Street Kids quite seriously upset me then: what I saw were gentle loving children in a gentle loving village school, where the teachers were not mortarboarded foes from Planet 1950 but just another set of caring friendly adults, aunts and uncles and mentors. When a French primary class was held hostage by a gunman, and it was on the news that the teacher had chosen heroically to stay with her charges, my eldest (aged about seven) said with scorn "Of course she stayed, she was the teacher".

Teachers to him were good: they led and protected you. So the Beano vision of ragging and raging seemed to me, for that brief idyllic period, a downright insult.

Now I look afresh, and understand the need for caricature and rebellion.

But there is something else there too which I had never noticed. The Bash Street Kids and their longsuffering Teacher are bound together in a way that is not entirely negative. The real enemy, frankly, is the Headmaster, before whom Teacher has to grovel; often his rampaging kids actually step in to save his face.

In one episode, the scene opens on a normal day when the Kids have hung Teacher up from the ceiling by his ankles and are bouncing footballs off his head and fighting on the desks, with Smiffy bashing Plug's nose (Ouch! Ooof! Splat!). A lawyer comes in and informs Teacher that he has inherited a castle in Scotland, whereon he resigns joyfully; but the Kids - desperate to see it - start dusting him off and buffing his moustache with a clothesbrush and pleading to be taken there. And they are: the whole mob of them, although it turns out to be only a bouncy castle and poor Teacher has to go back to work.

In another story he wins the lottery, slaps a note on the Headmaster's nose saying "I quit! YAHOO!" and drives off in a gold-plated car to fly to the sun. Inevitably, the Kids have stowed away in the overhead luggage lockers - they must stay with Teacher, they cannot conceive of life without him.

After a lot of fighting and chaos (Thud! Boot! Biff! Swoosh! Wahey!) the whole lot of them are strapped together and thrown out of the plane on to a desert island, their fall mercifully broken by Teacher's stuffed wallet.

Here, resourceful as ever, they catch fish and make a fire and build a shelter.

Teacher, as a matter of course, shares the tent they make out of Fatty's shirt, says "Well done!" when they get the campfire going, and relishes the fish dinner (Guzzle! Slurp!). Unfortunately, it turns out that Smiffy lit the fire with the million pounds in banknotes, so they send a message in a bottle and poor old Teacher has to go back and grovel to the Head yet again, to get his tough old job back.

But you see what I mean? Teacher and Kids are bound together, they belong together, they are a tribe. There is loyalty there, a devil-you-know attachment, a sort of love. They are in competition but not in mutual contempt. It's not such a bad picture, really. Splat! Oof!

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