Guest Post by Dilip M. Menon
Unlike Salman Rushdie, I did not grow up kissing books, I merely collected them. From provision stores, sidewalks, and from booksellers who were eccentric enough to try and survive by selling second hand books, in the small towns and yet-to-become cities of post independent India. The books came with a fine patina of dust that no amount of smacking against one’s thigh or the flat of one’s palm could get rid of. Kissing them was out of the question. In what was called the mofussil, or the provinces, the detritus of empire and the war that ended it gathered, as the collections of effects of the British who departed, as much as those who stayed on and died, gathered in the auction houses and bookstores.
It was on a summer afternoon in 1973 that I cycled down to the local provision store in Pune and saw beside the sacks of rice, wheat and spices, a pile of books, periodicals and rather lurid posters of European women with very long legs and few clothes on. I had always imagined Europe to be a cold place. In the pile were old Penguins; books by Enid Blyton, Anthony Buckeridge, Capt. WE Johns, Rider Haggard; periodicals like Boys Own Weekly, Gem, and Magnet; and of course the war comics (the staple reading of Allied troops posted in India and South East Asia), from which I learnt my German. At school, during the break, we were always running through the corridors shouting Schnell, Schnell and calling our Kamerads Schweinhunds. But on that summer day, I found two authors that I had not heard of: George Orwell and Frank Richards. The former had written a book about some fat pigs and the latter, one about a fat boy, and being rather plump myself, I was favourably disposed.
I picked up a copy of the Magnet and realised that the book Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School, that I held in my hand, had previous avatars in not only Magnet, but as I was later to discover, in Gem as well. This idea of circulation and serialisation, part of the Victorian longue duree in the colonies, was an idea that stayed with me as lived experience but as I grew older and became an academic, I realised the turf wars that I had entered. There were those who studied periodicals; those, clad in imperial leather, who analysed texts (and increasingly read them like an American white policeman handling a black suspect); and those that did something called book history, treated with mild amusement by the well-muscled academic. What Isabel Hofmeyr and Antoinette Burton’s book (Ten Books that Shaped Empire, Duke University Press, 2015) does is to throw down the gauntlet and call out the lethargy of historians and literary critics in a call to move away from “the book as distinct from or superior to the varieties of imperial print cultures-in-common through which it circulated.” It asks us to be subtle, to explore a “variety of pathways between texts and power” and argues that books in Empire cannot be reduced to books of Empire, because they were sites of “deterritorialized subjectivities”: minds exceeded geographies, and pleasure seeped across border and fixity of meanings.
So back to the Owl of the Remove and the Bunter series which so unjustly has been excluded from consideration in this book, which I dare say, draws sustenance for every argument that it makes from the Magnet, Gem, and Bunter. As with Bunter, even groaning would not fully express my feeling. My feelings, in fact, are inexpressible. But, I shall try. Between 1908 and 1940, there were 1683 issues of Magnet, and Bunter appeared in 1670 of these (more words on him than his contemporaries Winston Spencer and Mohandas Karamchand). Charles Hamilton, the most prolific author ever, (writing as Frank Richards under one of his 25 pseudonyms) wrote over 100 million words in his lifetime between 1876 and 1961, when he died, and therefore could no longer write.
These periodicals and magazines circulated via the Amalgamated Press and DC Thompson and Co. in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Pacific Islands and Bunter himself travelled fictionally to places like Brazil, India and the South Seas. The stories elicited questions about the characters of the novels, their lifestyles, their smoking and romantic habits from across the Empire, from boys and girls and men and women of all races. Bunter was the Harry Potter of his time. And more. Bob Cherry, Frank Nugent, Harry Wharton, Lord Mauleverer and of course, the Nabob of Bhanipur, fondly called Dusky, Hurree Jamset Ram Singh (with his elegant charm, his wily bowling, penchant for chess and elegant manhandling of English) were read and loved wherever the sun never set.
Such was Bunters fame, and the threat that he posed to ideas of good taste and progress, that George Orwell finally had to weigh in with a long essay in 1940 in The Horizon, seeking to stem this tide of corruption threatening to overwhelm the British mind, even as the Nasties led by a man with a small moustache were trying to end Civilization as Europe knew it. Apart from righteous indignation about the tautological style peppered with Yaroohs and Crikeys, he mentioned the debasement of the Dickensian technique; plagiarism (and it is true that Hamilton plagiarised from his 25 pseudonyms); its snobbery (how many children indeed went to public schools, damn it!); the lack of an idea of revolutionary transformation of society, and the fact that it found foreigners funny. “The sentiment of school loyalty”, Orwell observed sententiously, “a thing almost unknown to the real working class, is still kept up”.
But his ire was reserved specially for the fact that sex is completely taboo. Now as George Mikes put it, the English do not have sex, they have hot water bottles, so really I don’t know what Orwell is going on about. But he is on to something here. Ronald Hyam in his work on Sexuality and Empire put forward a startling thesis, that empire happened because the British, as it were, were not getting enough at home. Empire was a huge ejaculation abroad, hence I suppose the number of books on the coming of Empire to distant parts. I strongly believe that it was not the much maligned Queen Victoria who was responsible, nor indeed the Viennese quack, but the man who wrote a 100 million words without mentioning sex.
Bunter and his comrades at Greyfriars were the engine driving the great enterprise of conquest and civilization, precisely because as Orwell put it prissily, “The major facts are not faced”.
Dilip Menon is the Mellon Chair of Indian Studies and the Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.