How to be Topp – A new author speaks out

A good friend of mine recently suggested that as a new author I should probably write a few book themed blogs, in addition to the myriad of offbeat ramblings that have been my blogging bread and butter to date. Not a bad idea at all, on reflection. After all, it is one thing to be known and loved as a humourist, but not all that helpful if your ultimate aim is to gain recognition as a writer of high quality and entirely absorbing fiction, as is mine. So, without further ado, here it is, my first blog about books… well, one book in particular.

‘How to be Topp’ by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle is one of my all-time favourite books. It has pride of place on the middle shelf of my bookcase and has travelled with me as a prized possession more than halfway around the world and back again. First published in 1954, it provides a wonderful glimpse into the past, specifically post-war, middle-class England, through the jaded eyes of prep-school inmate, Nigel Molesworth. I don’t recall who gave it to me or when, but ever since I turned the first page as a child, I have loved the visions that it conjures up of British education in a time long since past.

Although the book is now over sixty years old, having spent a grand total of three days at an English boarding school in the 1990’s (more about that in a future blog) I can say with hand on heart, that much of it still rings true, for me at least. From those at the top (or should that be topp?) of the tree, i.e. Grabber, the handsome and rugged, yet completely gormless football captain, to the wily survivors in the middle of the pack, such as Molesworth and Peason, and not forgetting the fops at the bottom, e.g. Fotherington-tomas, this book has it all.

What I particularly love is the way that ‘How to be Topp’ is presented as a prep-school survival guide. As such, its chapters aren’t linear, but cover a range of random topics and musings, including: ‘How to Succeed as a New Bug’, ‘How to be Topp in Latin’, ‘Criket’ and of course, ‘All there is to kno about Space’. And while some of the material is no longer of relevance to today’s modern curriculum, e.g. Latin, the book nonetheless retains a wonderful naivety, made all the more charming by the awful phonetic spelling of its protagonist and hero, the aforementioned N. Molesworth.

Gabbitas and Thring - A new author speaks out. Rob Gregory Author

Teacher recruitement 1950’s style!

For me, some of the ideas that Molesworth presents, via the timeless visualisations of cartoonist, Ronald Searle, are pure genius, such as Gabbitas and Thring (see above), two Victorian undertaker-like characters whose sole aim in life is to ensnare unsuspecting young men and take them away to become masters (teachers). Part of me suspects that this might still be the case in some British schools even now. Then there is the dialogue, which even in my middle years can still bring a smile to my lips. For example, in the section ‘How not to succeed’, the following exchange occurs between Grabber, the head boy and a new boarder (bug):

Grabber: You have a face like a flea and could not lift a cucumber.

New bug (with a yawn): You also have a face like a flea and could not lift what the French call a concombre.

Grabber: Do you know who you are talking to?

New bug: Can it be Stalin?

I think that it is fair to say that this book has, in many ways, influenced my own writing style over the years, more subconsciously than deliberately and I suspect from the image below that I might be in good company. You be the judge!

How to be Topp - A new author speaks out - Hogwarts. Rob Gregory Author

Great minds think alike? A mention of ‘Hogwarts’ in the 1963 edition of ‘How to be Topp’.

  1. I have recently found out that ‘How to be Topp’ was actually one of a series of books published between 1953 and 1958, and for renowned cartoonist, Ronald Searle, was apparently something of a reaction to his popular St Trinian’s series, about a boarding school for wayward girls. If you’re interested in following that one up, then my suggestion would be to start with the original film adaptations starring George Cole as Flash Harry and Alastair Sim as the headmistress.

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