Anne Horner reports from a conference paying tribute to the school story genre
THEY came to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first appearance of the "eager, friendly" prep-school boy Jennings and the best years in the life of the school story.
Generations of children have loved the quintessential 1950s' schoolboy, renowned for his fondness for Latin and the phrase "Gosh, fossilised fish-hooks". The Jennings books may seem old-fashioned now but, to aficionados, that is part of their charm.
Last week saw a conference to honour his creator, Anthony Buckeridge. Called "School Stories from Bunter to Buckeridge", it was held at London's Roehampton Institute.
Macmillan's edition of Jennings Goes to School has sold 25,000 copies since 1990. The Jennings books have been translated into 13 languages and have fans in such unlikely places as Japan and Scandinavia. Thirteen of the 25 Jennings stories are still in print.
However, the conference itself seemed in danger of being hogged by Jennings's famously greedy rival, Billy Bunter, Fat Owl of the Remove and legend of Greyfriars, as speakers paid tribute to the Frank Richards creation which first appeared in 1908.
At least Jennings found himself in familiar surroundings. The conference was a strictly single-sex affair. The morning talks were devoted to boys' school stories, the afternoon to girls' When it came to the girls' turn, there was little nostalgic talk of midnight feasts, pillow fights in the dorm and pashes on the head girl. Instead, they got girl power.
Rosemary Auchmuty, author of A World of Girls: the appeal of the girls' school story, castigated those who dared to speak of "school stories" when they were talking solely about boys' school stories. She peppered her speech with quotations from children's literature experts who were guilty of writing patronisingly about the girls' school story.
"Is the girls' school story a lesser copy or is it a genre in its own right?" she asked. She said the stories had fallen victim to a "patriarchal ideology" which ignores their cultural importance. Jennings and his chum Darbishire might have had trouble with that concept.
Then it was Anthony Buckeridge's turn. He explained how he had come to revise his stories. "I didn't want them updated at all to begin with but I did see that this was sensible. One or two expressions we would not say now that we did say in the 1950s. They have just been slightly updated. I haven't changed the characters."
The frail, diffident author swiftly dispensed with one delegate who questioned the revisions. "It's New Jennings," he quipped.