The Joyzine Book Club: MJ Hibbett on ‘Down With Skool’ by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle

Musician, playwright, comic and now author, MJ Hibbett would seem to be the perfect candidate to re-kindle our Book Club.  We caught up with him to talk about his debut novel Storm House and asked him to recommend a favourite story.

You seem to be adding more and more strings to your bow – musician, playwright, comedian and now author.  What drew you toward trying your hand as a novelist?

A while ago I did an MA in Screenwriting and Playwriting, and then spent a year trying to become a professional scriptwriter, but found it incredibly frustrating, as it was almost impossible to get anything sold if you didn’t already have a track record and/or didn’t know anybody already working in the industry. I read an article that said that there were thousands of unsolicited scripts sent into the film industry in America every year, and only about three of them ever got made, and I didn’t fancy those odds very much! Storm House was originally written as a screenplay for my MA, and when I’d sent it out to production companies the main feedback I got was that it was far too expensive to ever make, so my girlfriend suggested I turn it into a novel. This turned out to be ENORMOUS fun, as I could do what the heck I liked and stick extra jokes in!

Give us a quick insight into Storm House – what’s it about?storm house

It’s a science fiction story about a team of museum workers who are secretly trying to protect the country against aliens, monsters and general weirdness. I tried to write it as the sort of thing I’d like to read, so it’s pretty action packed, has a whole heap of big/daft concepts, several jokes, and a cast of characters who I’d quite like to hang around with. It’s also quite short, which is something I always appreciated in a novel!

Have you found that your experience of writing in other contexts helped in writing the novel?

Writing a novel is quite similar to doing solo gigs, in that I can write and say whatever I like without anyone stopping me. That’s different from when I play with the band – who will object  if there’s something they disagree with, or if they feel the quality isn’t high enough – or when I’ve written plays that actors and directors have performed in and added their own interpretations too. I do love doing collaborations, so I miss that aspect of it, but hopefully the twenty years I’ve spent shouting my thoughts at audiences has given me some vague idea of what might work. I think that all means that the novel is quite similar in approach and themes to my songs, so if you like them you’ll hopefully like this too!

What have you got planned next?

I’m currently doing the plot for the sequel to Storm House, then I’ve got an idea for a novel about the flooding of the UK called The Office Of Odd Socks. There’s a couple of new songs stockpiling for the next Validators’ album, and Steve and I have talked about doing another Fringe show at some point, this time about wrestling. I like to keep busy!

MJ Hibbett Recommends Down With Skool by Geoffrey Willans & Ronald Searle
This book changed my life when I first read it as a tiny in approx 1978. I picked it from the school book club – I think it was the Puffin Readers’ Club or similar, a newsletter which we all received on a regular basis with a list of books we could order for 50p. I can smell the newsletter and the new books as I type this! I got loads of books through that club, but this is the one that I’ve kept and, as you can see from the picture, have read a LOT.

It’s the story of Nigel Molesworth, the self-styled “gorilla of 3B”, a pupil at St Custard’s, a private boy’s school in the 1950s. Nowadays people seem to be obsessed with children reading books that relate to their own experience, which I generally think is DAFT, but coo er gosh this book SPOKE to me. Like Molesworth I was at a boy’s school (although mine was very much NOT a public school, minor or otherwise!) and knew assorted weeds, tics and toughs like Fotherington-Thomas (“Hullo clouds hullo sky he sa”), Grabber (the suspiciously David Cameron-esque head of school who wins everything because his parents are rich”) and “my grate friend Peason”. Like Molesworth we thought we had the measure of the STAFF and imagined their exploits in the smoke-filled staff rooms. Like Molesworth I didn’t like school dinners very much, and also fancied myself something of an INTELLECTUAL, putting on the mask of joining in with boyish games of running down corridors but secretly a deep thinker, giving to musing on schoolyard events in terms of moments of history hem hem.

The main thing about this book though is it is BLOODY HILARIOUS, both in the way it is written, from Molesworth’s point of view with a wisdom that, as he would say, “belies his tender years”, and in the accompanying pictures by Ronald Searle. He’s more famous for St Trinian’s these days, but the drawings of St Custard’s and its denizens are action packed and full of attitude, even when he is drawing an army of PRUNES planning their takeover of the school canteen.

The stories were originally printed in The Young Elizabethan, and 1950s periodical for children that sounds terribly IMPROVING (goodness knows what Molesworth was doing in there) and later collected, with the 1970s version being one that seems to have introduced a whole other generation to St Custards. When Whizz for Atomms and Back In The Jug Agane appeared in the school newsletter I SNAPPED them up (NB when I talk of the GRATE influence these books have had on me you need only look to my use of CAPITALS for evidence) thinking that was THE LOT. Imagine then my delight nearly ten years later when I found a copy of How To Be Topp in a second hand bookshop in Leicester – I’d read the originals so many times I knew them off by heart, but here was a whole heap of new (to me) stories. They were GRATE!

You can now buy all of the books collected together in The Compleet Molesworth which I would recommend to you wholeheartedly.  They are very very very funny, even though the world of prunes, cowboy shows on TV, and school dogs has long gone, the humanity, hilarity and daring dreams of Nigel Molesworth and his friends is as fresh and necessary as it ever was.

Interview by Paul Maps

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