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5 – PLUS CA CHANGE

1947 had seen Bunter’s transfer from the storypapers to hardcovers, and Hamilton was elated to see Bunter back in such style. Writing to Herbert Leckenby a few weeks after the publication of Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School, he claimed: "Mr. Richards was feeling, when he wrote that story, like a schoolboy just let out of detention into the fresh air and sunshine for a holiday." (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 17 November 1947). Nor, to continue Hamilton’s analogy, was he letting the summer grass grow under his feet.
     In October, Hamilton was working on a short Bunter story entitled "Billy Bunter’s Birthday Present", to be published in Braille. Hamilton’s own eyesight was poor (and was to grow poorer), and he embraced the idea with exuberance. "It seems to me wonderful with what courage people so afflicted face the inevitable, and make the best of it," he wrote to John Robyns. "I cannot help thinking that the inventor of Braille was one of the greatest benefactors of mankind: and that every Christian should feel it his duty to help on this good work by every means in his power. A Greyfriars story is, of course, the merest trifle: but the widow’s mite was not despised … I have always had a keen interest and sympathy in cases of blindness, partly perhaps because of an experience in very early days. When I was a boy, my little sister, owing to eye trouble, had to have her eyes covered for a period, and I used to read aloud to her for several hours a day. It is more than half-a-century since, but I have never forgotten the impression it made on my mind." (Letter to John Robyns, 17 November 1947)
     The story was written and distributed free of charge when it was published in 1948, and Hamilton – ever fascinated by language – quickly taught himself the principals of writing in Braille. "I have been dabbling in that system of writing on the principal that one is never too old to learn." (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 18 December 1947) "It is a very interesting thing, though rather tough going at first," he admitted elsewhere. "I have devised a system of punching the dots on thin cardboard, and I think the result will be legible for a Braille reader." (Letter to Tom Johnson, 5 December 1947)
     It was suggested that the recently released novel should be translated into Braille, but although permission was given, it at first seemed that the volume of paper needed for such a book – especially thick paper where dots could be punched out in relief – would be too much at that time. The demand, however, was too great, and the following May, Hamilton was pleased to announce "it has been decided to put the first Greyfriars book Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School into Braille. This will be a tremendous business, for, as I daresay you know, Braille print takes at least ten times the size of an ordinary book. I am told that there are more than 25,000 young people in this country who have lost their sight, or perhaps never had it: which is heart-breaking to think of. It makes me feel as pleased as Punch to think that such of them as may have a fancy for Bunter will be able to read him soon, with their fingers." (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 27 May 1948) A second story from Hamilton did appear towards the end of 1948 or early 1949, but whether the Braille edition of the novel ever appeared at that time is doubtful.
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     The paper supply was also causing delays in Charles Skilton’s plans for regular Bunter books in hardcover. By February 1948 Hamilton was looking forward to the Spring release of Billy Bunter’s Banknote (chiefly about Smithy) and had already finished writing Billy Bunter’s Barring Out (a Bob Cherry yarn) which Hamilton hoped would follow the second without too much of an interval. In April through June, Hamilton was hard at work on number four, Billy Bunter in Brazil ("Bunter as usual butting into the title, though he won’t be allowed to steal the show"). Disaster struck from another direction: artist R. J. Macdonald fell seriously ill after an accident in his garden during the spring of 1948 and Skilton only received the completed illustrations in July.
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     But despite the delays, Britain seemed gripped by a fascination with Bunter, with the Fat Owl mentioned on everything from the Monday Night at Eight quiz to ITMA. There was a new effort in May 1948 to bring the first Bunter book to the big screen, but while negotiations seemed to go well they also seemed to go on forever.
     Not that Greyfriars failed to be represented by the arts. Wirral-based composer
Thomas A. Johnson had penned the Greyfriars Suite in 1947, a series of pieces for the piano in six movements ("Greyfriars", "Bob Cherry", "Billy Bunter", "Mr. Quelch", "Alonzo Todd" and "Harry Wharton"). Tom Johnson was a regular writer and broadcaster on music and was in regular correspondence with Hamilton, having been a life-long fan of The Magnet. Hamilton felt it "a great compliment" and had the music recorded. "It really is good stuff, as I was able to judge by the copy he sent me, and I am now having records made of it to play on the radiogram," Hamilton wrote enthusiastically. "One of the things I never foresaw was that Greyfriars would ever be set to music: although I did a Bunter Song that you may have come across in one of the Greyfriars Holiday Annuals. But this chap, Johnson, is really good, and I am looking forward to the records." (Letter to John Robyns, 5 April 1948)
     Hamilton even went as far as suggesting (to Johnson) that the music might be used in the upcoming Greyfriars movie, which was still a possibility: "The negotiations are still going on, but it seems a slow business. Lowe seems to be in Ireland one day and in Sweden the next. But film people seem to have little sense of time. They are always in a terrific hurry one day, and the next, prepared to let six months slip by unheeded. Once upon a time I should have been irritated by this: but in the placid seventies we learn not to expect too much – not, in fact, to expect anything until it actually happens." (Letter to Tom Johnson, 10 July 1948)
     This, of course, was not Hamilton’s first experience of the film industry. In around 1936/38 he had been contacted by Gainsborough Pictures and asked to supply a scenario, which Hamilton did (entitled The Lost Loot). The contract was signed, the cheque (for Ł25) cashed, then … "Just nothing! By the time I was done they had changed their minds, and apparently did not mind the least chucking their money away for nothing at all. Business on these lines is just incomprehensible to my ancient and staid Victorian mind. However, I shall hope that our present producer is a little more realistic. I had a very pleasant talk with him when he came down here to see me about it, and he seemed very keen." (Letter to Tom Johnson, 10 July 1948)
     Keen or not, the film didn’t happen.
     Hamilton kept busy. "I think I told you about the hymn I wrote last year: words and music by Frank Richards," he wrote to Herbert Leckenby (16 August 1948). "I have lately been giving it some finishing touches, as there is a hint that paper may be found for it in the not too distant future. I wonder how many old Magnet readers would expect anything of the kind from the author of Billy Bunter!" A few weeks later, he informed Leckenby (1 September 1948) The title is the first line, "Help me, O Lord, to keep Thy holy way!" Several people have liked it: though of course no one should hope to produce anything so good as "Abide with Me", or "Nearer my God, to Thee". We humbler folk must be content to follow the masters at a respectful distance."
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     Charles Skilton managed to issue Billy Bunter’s Banknote and Billy Bunter’s Barring Out in October in time for the good Christmas sales. "Both sold very well," Skilton later told Maurice Hall (I Say, You Fellows, p101). "In fact, we had to reprint Billy Bunter’s Banknote in 1949, although the number of copies was governed by the paper shortage." Skilton received some unexpected help from Monty Haydon of the Amalgamated Press who "was very helpful in getting me the ‘black-market’ paper for the Bunter books."
     That same month, Hamilton was able to report that "A delightful publisher proposed to issue Tom Merry in book form, somewhat on the lines of the Bunter books; so in the near future St. Jim’s will be on the map again. This has made Martin Clifford as happy as Frank Richards – quite a pair of Cheeryble Brothers!" (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 29 October 1948)
     The "delightful publisher" was Messrs. William Campion Ltd. of 26 Manchester Square, London, W.1., set up by Thurairajah Tambimuttu, a poet from Ceylon who had arrived in London almost penniless in 1938 but who quickly established himself with the London literary scene around Soho and Fitzrovia. With Dylan Thomas, Anthony Dickins and Keidrych Rhys, Tambimuttu (better known as Tambi to his colleagues) conceived the influential Poetry London, which was launched under his editorship in February 1939. Tambimuttu remained as editor for the first 15 issues (the latter dated May 1949) before leaving to concentrate on his new publishing venture, now renamed Mandeville Publications and shortly after to move base to 55 Victoria Street (with a trade address at 75 Gloucester Road).
     That fifteenth issue of Poetry London also featured a lengthy poem by Frank Richards. During the war, Hamilton had started a volume of verse, The Barcroft Ballads but, "like Schubert’s celebrated symphony it remained unfinished – the War came to an end, so the volume of verse did not." (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 21 December 1948) Several of the ballads, however, were completed, and the 19-verse "Briggs Major Sarcastic; or, the Value of a Classical Education" was published by Tambimuttu in his last issue before handing over to new editors Richard Marsh and Nicholas Moore. Hamilton’s advice to fans was to "look at his half-crown twice, or even thrice, before expending it on the same" (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 19 May 1949) of the ballad of Charlie Grigson, who attends Barcroft School but somehow manages to learn nothing: "He slacked and ragged – his record was a bad one," records Frank Richards, and eventually, Charlie can only earn a dreary and pitiful living as a sandwich-board man, a warning to all chaps "who slack, who loathe their prep, and jib at earnest study."
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          By Christmas, Hamilton was announcing plans for Mandeville’s first production: Tom Merry’s Summer Annual and had just completed a Rookwood story, "Lovell on the War-Path". More than that, the success of the Bunter books meant that the Fat Owl’s sister Bessie and her author Hilda Richards were about to be revived: "I don’t suppose that charming young lady will make her appearance before next October; but Hilda is very happy to be writing about Cliff House School again. It’s a jolly old world, isn’t it?" wrote Hamilton (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 21 December 1948)
     It seemed almost impossible that Billy Bunter, Bessie Bunter, Tom Merry, Jimmy Silver & Co., and even Ken King (of the Islands) were swarming out of Hamilton’s typewriter again. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more life changed for Hamilton the more it started to resemble the old days.
     The Mandeville programme of releases called for Tom Merry & Co. of St. Jim’s to be released in March, with The Secret of the Study to follow in May or June; Tom Merry’s Summer Annual would be released in July or August and there were plans for a 1/- monthly, to be entitled Tom Merry’s Own.
     This was an extremely ambitious schedule. Hamilton’s ability to complete his side of the task was beyond doubt; the fact remained that although the paper supply had improved, it was still far from easy to obtain. Yet in the early months there seemed to be no dulling the enthusiasm of either Hamilton or his publisher. "How exhilarating it is to have all the old characters jostling one another on the typewriter – Bunter one day, Tom Merry another, Rookwood another, then Carcroft, and King of the Islands." (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 22 February 1949) Billy Bunter Among the Cannibals was already underway (it was completed in June 1949) and a seventh Greyfriars ("I think Wibley – if you remember him – will be somewhat to the fore," said Hamilton – and indeed he was, in Billy Bunter’s Benefit) already being planned. "They say that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy – but in my humble opinion all play and no work is a good deal worse. But I am a very lucky man, in that what I call my work is play to me."

© 2001, Steve Holland

Last Updated: 18 October 2001

 


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