Seven Books in Seven Weeks – Part Six – Professor Branestawm
… Part six of a seven part series…
Well, you’ve made it this far, so welcome to the penultimate instalment of Seven Books in Seven Weeks. Having covered science fiction, epic fantasy and swashbuckling adventure on the high seas, we return to the world of children’s fiction, with what is possibly a long forgotten classic, The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm, by Norman Hunter.
I don’t recall where I got this book from, it was that long ago, but seeing as how it has travelled with me around the world and halfway back again over the last twenty years or so, I think it is safe to say that it is among my most treasured pieces of literary material.
Professor Branestawm was the creation of Norman Hunter, a man who began his career as an advertising copywriter, before becoming a stage magician, so, in other words, he moved from one type of illusion to another. He was a prodigious writer and racked up more than thirty-five different works in a lifetime that stretched almost ninety-five years. This was made all the more, dare I say it, incredible, by the fact that he took a thirty-year break in the middle of his writing career. Anyway, The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm was the first book in the Professor Branestawm series and was published in 1933. I have a copy of the 1976 version, published by Penguin Books, under their Puffin imprint.
Tales of a time gone past
One of the things that I have always found delightful about the book is the fact that it is set in a time that is completely alien to me, yet also strangely appealing. I have always had a soft spot for the 1930’s and it is quite possible that this was in some way kindled by reading about Professor Branestawm’s incredible adventures at a very early age.
The world of Professor Branestawm is a place of gas-lights rather than electricity, machinery rather than computers and catapults rather than machine guns. It is a place betwixt the old world of steam, coal and manual labour and the modern world of electricity, screens and automation. It is a place that no longer exists, if indeed it ever did, and the professor’s inventions reflect this magnificently, being full of cogs, levers and pieces of string holding press-ganged household objects together. Just look at the Penny Farthing bicycle on the cover of the book, with an oil lamp on the front and a reading attachment on the handlebars. Trying to imagine this sort of contrivance today, when we are surrounded by ultra-bright LED bike lights and clip-on smartphone holders would be almost impossible.
Other inventions are just as outlandish. The professor’s home-made fishing apparatus, the pancake making machine and his burglar catching contraption, are just a few examples of creations imagined, to paraphrase Norman Hunter, by a mind that was so clever that it had no time to think about ordinary things. And all were brilliantly captured in the beautiful drawings of W. Heath Robinson, who provided the illustrations for the book.
Without a doubt, the main character of the book is the eponymous Professor Branestawm. Clumsy and forgetful, because of the all the wonderful ideas he has, he is indifferent to the motivations and social niceties of normal people and possessed by an optimism that is unquenchable in the face of every new disaster that his creations inevitably precipitate. With his balding head and scruffy appearance, he is an archetypal academic and his five pairs of glasses, including the pair he uses to find the other four when he loses them, only serve to reinforce the image of someone who walks among us, but is really living on an entirely different plane of existence altogether.
Then we have Colonel Dedshott of the Catapult Cavaliers. Militaristic, impeccably dressed and possessed of a mind that takes everything at face value, he is the very antithesis of the professor, yet despite this, or very possibly in spite of this, he is one of the professor’s few friends and a very loyal one at that. It is the colonel, who, never being one to run away from danger, bravely battles envelopes and paperwork, brought to life by one of Branestawm’s experiments, with nothing more than a poker grabbed from the professor’s fireplace.
Finally, there is Mrs Flittersnoop, Professor Branestawm’s long-suffering housekeeper. It is she who makes sure that the professor’s more mundane needs are taken care of and is the voice of common-sense and reason when things threaten to get too out of control. Although, on occasion, even she needs to retreat to the safety of her sister, Aggie’s, for a bit of peace and quiet when the professor get too caught up in his work!
Put yourself in the mind of a child for a moment and you will soon see why Professor Branestawm had such appeal to my younger self. You knew from the very first page of each story that things were not going to go as the professor had planned and that you would be carried along on a roller coaster ride, which would culminate with everything turning out alright at the end. None of the major characters would be seriously harmed — the poor soldiers of Squiglatania, in the first story, were less fortunate, after the professor happily rained home-made bombs on them — and you would get to see the latest innovation that the professor had dreamed up turn rogue on him and more often than not, on the much-abused residents of Great Pagwell, too.
Most of Professor Branestawm’s mistakes were the result of simple oversight and there is no reason to think that if he had ever corrected one of his errors in a Mark II version, then a life of fame and fortune would have awaited him. Take, for example, the clock that never needed winding up. Were it not for the fact that the professor forgot to include a mechanism that reset the clock to striking one, after it had reached twelve, then the world would probably have been a very different place, instead of one where every clock got so wound up that it eventually exploded! However, being possessed of such a great and highly active intellect, the thought probably never occurred to him to try and improve on a previous failure. Besides, had he done so, then there wouldn’t have been the need for any more Professor Branestawm stories.
One of the things that I love about Norman Hunter’s writing is the way that he played with words. Consider this excerpt, from the beginning of the first Professor Branestawm story:
On went the machine, but nothing else happened. On and on they whirled, and nothing happened. And it kept on happening over and over again, till everything was so nothing that neither of them could notice anything.
Or this passage:
The clock in Professor Branestawm’s bedroom struck ten to seven the next morning, because it was one of the Professor’s own inventions, and because that was the time.
“That sounds like Tuesday,” said the Professor…
There is a wonderful, surreal edge there, which is coupled with a skewed logic that you can’t help but accept, once you are immersed in the world that Hunter created. Then there are the contradictions. Take, for example, this one line in the second chapter.
“In another moment he had dressed himself with his usual scrupulous carelessness…
‘Scrupulous carelessness?’ Absolute brilliance! Personally, I would love to see the Professor Branestawm stories included in the list of required reading for schoolchildren, because I think that it would do a lot to improve the appalling levels of comprehension and vocabulary that we see in young people today. Hmm, with a viewpoint like that, maybe I would be better off back in the 1930’s? Professor, where are you? I need a time machine!
Another thing that I like about the Professor Branestawm books (and I have more than one of them) is the fact that they are written as discrete short stories. Not only does this make it easy for a child to read, it means that you aren’t bothered with cliffhangers, or interminable bouts of description in order to add body to the story. Each one is simple. The professor has an idea, invents something, it goes wrong and then there is a resolution. It may be formulaic, but it works and more than that, Norman Hunter was a master of the short story. In just a few pages, he could transport you to Great Pagwell and have a fully fledged adventure underway. I have tried my hand at short stories and I can tell you, it is a lot harder to write a good one than it looks.
The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm remains as engaging a read for me today, as it was when I first picked up the book over thirty years ago. Hunter’s storytelling is superb and his characters are timeless, rather than staid or dated.
I think that the book has had a particular impact on me in two ways. First, it engendered in me, a love for short, self-contained stories, which I have tried to emulate in my latest work, a series of fantasy tales with a saucy, culinary theme. Second, it introduced me to a vocabulary and use of wordplay, which although old fashioned by today’s standards, I have found myself incorporating into my writing on an increasingly frequent basis, as you have probably noticed while reading this missive.
So, once again, thank you, Norman Hunter, for bringing us the wonderfully inept and scatterbrained Professor Branestawm to the world. I may only have two pairs of glasses at the moment, but rest assured, I am fast catching up!
Only one more book remains to be reviewed in Seven Books in Seven Weeks. Place your bets and stay tuned for the big reveal, coming soon!