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6 – OYSTERS IN WONDERLAND

"Like the oysters in Wonderland, ‘Thick and fast they came at last, and more and more and more’," quotes Hamilton in his Autobiography (p189), and never was he happier than when the work was lined up to the horizon. "Frank Richards is no longer as young as he was," he wrote (Letter to Mr. Harlow, 14 May 1949), "but he is, I think, the happiest Old Boy in the kingdom, now that he is once more producing his 25,000 words a week. I really believe that there is nothing like a school story to keep one in touch with youth."
    Ever the glutton, when asked by World Film Publications to create a new school for a forthcoming annual, Hamilton responded with four stories featuring Skip Ruggles, Tom King and Dick Warren of Felgate School who debuted that September in the first annual issue Raymond Glendenning’s Book of Sport for Boys under the Sportsguide Publications banner. The plan, revealed Hamilton, was "to carry on Felgate in periodical form after this volume has appeared, and I have already written the first story, which is called ‘Trouble for Three’. But it is not yet settled what the periodical will be called." (Letter to Ian Whitmore, 24 June 1949)
     This was the second periodical Hamilton was planning. The first was with William Campion (soon to change their name to Mandeville Publications), and it’s editor was happy to open up the doors to any of Hamilton’s fans who felt they might be able to emulate their hero. "We are on the lookout for promising young authors who specialise in the writing of stories for boys and girls," wrote editor Thurairajah Tambimuttu to the reader’s of Collector’s Digest (Vol.3 No.29, May 1949), "stories of school life, speedway racing stories, adventure serials, articles on how to make models, etc. In fact, everything that goes into the making of a popular boys’ and girls’ magazine or annual … If we like any particular serial, it is possible that we would bring it out in weekly or fortnightly parts on the likes of Schoolboys’ Own Library and Sexton Blake."
     Tambimutto’s plans were nothing if not ambitious.
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     Unfortunately, they proved too ambitious. The reintroduction of Tom Merry & Co. of St. Jim’s by Martin Clifford was delayed until May 1949. Alongside Tom Merry in Mandeville’s debut line-up stood Brenda Dickson, "Britain’s most popular schoolgirl" and leader of the Fourth at St. Hilda’s. To give you a taste of James Radford-Evans’ story – The Hoax of a Lifetime – I can do no better than quote Sue Sims and Hilary Clare from The Encyclopaedia of Girls’ School Stories, who say: "In … The Hoax of a Lifetime, girls are slapped by their headmistress (or, as it turns out, a pupil impersonating her), drugged almost fatally and forced out of top floor windows at the end of a red-hot poker wielded by a maddened Fourth-former, who is subsequently beaten to a bloody pulp with a cricket bat." The girls of St. Hilda’s surprisingly survived three full-length novels and an annual dedicated to their violent adventures… or more accurately, most of the girls survived. Some of them were shot dead by a German firing squad. It made the larks and japes of Tom Merry, Gussy and the rest of the gang – and the adventures of David Prince by Geoffrey Webb, also published by Mandeville – seem restrained by comparison.
     The cocktail party of May 17th to launch the titles was notable – certainly to Ian Coster of the Daily Mail – for the absence of Tom Merry & Co.’s author who, from Broadstairs, simply claimed: "I’m too busy to get up to London. I turn out 30,000 words a week and the rest of the time I stick to the piano stool."
     The planned Tom Merry’s Summer Annual had been pushed back to September but when it arrived it was an impressive rival to the majority of Annuals that had survived the war, with 290 pages (a fairly hefty price-tag of 7/6), and a truckload of Hamilton yarns – and a handful of contributions culled from the readers of Collector’s Digest including two from Rex Dolphin, later to make his mark as a Sexton Blake writer. The centre-piece of the annual was an almost 100-page Christmas story of Tom Merry & Co. to which Hamilton added a garnish of two other popular revivals, Rookwood (as Owen Conquest), and Ken King (as Charles Hamilton), an obscure revival (Grimslade, previously in Ranger in the early 1930s), a Carcroft yarn, two Barcroft poems, and the first appearance of Jack Free, better known under the sobriquet Jack of All Trades. 110,000 words of all-new Hamilton stories in one volume was certainly something to write home about, and Hamilton immodestly claimed that "the old Greyfriars Holiday Annual is a poor little "also ran" in comparison" (Letter to Herbert Leckenby, 6 October 1949). Certainly it was the biggest annual published in ten years, and an attractive package to the trade, who immediately snapped up 14,000 copies of Tom Merry’s Annual for the Christmas market a month ahead of publication.
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     There is a story related by Maurice Hall (in I Say, You Fellows, p112) that the Amalgamated Press – whose permission was still sought whenever Hamilton wanted to bring back one of his old characters – did not take kindly to the title Tom Merry’s Annual. Hamilton had earlier suggested it should be called Martin Clifford Annual but Tambimuttu (not surprisingly) wanted to stick with Tom Merry. After the A.P.’s approach, he was forced to retitle the second annual, which became Tom Merry’s Own. Such a trifling change seems unworthy even of the Amalgamated Press’ legal department – it solves nothing – and the truth of the matter is more likely to be that government restrictions were still in place (as they had been since 1940) about the publication of new periodicals. The term "Annual", since it implied a regular publication, was banished from the news-stands; Gerald Swan, who launched many regular titles got around the ruling by calling his annuals "Albums" and even the Amalgamated Press launched the companion title to their new comic as The Knock-Out Book. It seems more likely that Tambimuttu received a warning from some other authority – or a friendly one from someone at the A.P.
     During the summer, Hamilton was also in correspondence with Sale (Manchester)-based publisher John Bevan Allen, the one-time editor and publisher of Home Review, who had invited Hamilton to write a comic strip for his forthcoming Merry-Go-Round magazine. Allan was also side-stepping the periodical rulings by "re-launching" old titles that were already established. Allen had successfully launched two photogravure comics in 1946 named Comet and Sun which, he claimed, were revivals of local paper The Stretford and Gosport Courier and the health magazine Fitness and Sun respectively. These were sold to the Amalgamated Press, who wished to expand, but could only do so by buying up the titles – and therefore the paper quota – of Allen’s two publications.
     Merry-Go-Round was launched on 27 September 1949, a new photogravure weekly to which Hamilton contributed a brief adventure strip serial entitled "Dick and Doris", with the age-old storyline of two children who are seeking their lost father. The stories were brief and simple: they find some hidden money for a widow, foil a bank robber, save a farmer’s son from drowning, and discover a string of valuable pearls. They also did not last long as after four weeks Allen found himself in contention with the Amalgamated Press; his earlier deal with that company over the sale of Comet and Sun had expressly forbidden the launch of any new rival titles, which Merry-Go-Round clearly was. Allen again sold his new paper, this time to Hulton Press who wanted to launch their own new title, a new colour weekly to be called The Eagle.
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     The ambitious Allen had also planned a regular magazine-format title, and under the imprint of J. B. Publications produced The Chums of Lynwood, written by Hamilton in August 1949 and published in October. The 12,000 word story trod familiar turf: the story may have concerned the chums of Lynwood and the girls of High Lynn but the storyline (in which the girls are stranded on a local island) was straight out of an old (1937) Magnet serial where Marjorie Hazeldene & Co. find themselves in a similar position on Popper Island.
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     Allan had plans to launch his own Christmas annual, and Hamilton had written The Fourth Form at Lynwood; the annual – which no doubt risked raising the ire of the Amalgamated Press once again – failed to appear, and the story appeared as a smaller-sized booklet the following February.
     Perhaps the oddest and most obscure of all Hamilton’s new schools created around this time was Cunliffe School which appeared only once in an issue of Feathered Friends, an aviary magazine published by H. Brentnall of Leek, Staffs. This curious magazine began life as In Your Aviary in April 1949, the second issue appearing in October. How Hamilton came to be associated with the magazine was through his long friendship with Clive Fenn, a former Magnet sub-editor who also happened to be a Naturalist and contributor to In Your Aviary. Fenn’s animal stories had appeared in the early Greyfriars Holiday Annuals and he had also contributed to Tom Merry’s Annual at Hamilton’s invitation.

The third issue of In Your Aviary saw a change of title to Feathered Friends and contained the first episode of a three-part serial, "Flip of the Flying Trapeze" by Sydney Roberts – almost certainly a Hamilton pseudonym as he was fond of circus stories and had previously used the name Flip. Issue 4 not only contained a photograph of Frank Richards but a word competition by him as well, plus a Christmas story, "Uncle Comes for Xmas". Issue 5 contained the one and only yarn about Cunliffe School, "No Pudding for Podgers", but this was seemingly to be his final contribution.
     In October 1949, Hamilton had just completed "Tom Merry’s Barring-Out" for the following year’s Tom Merry’s Own and was a little reluctant to discuss his next project. "I feel a little shy about confessing the work upon which I am now engaged," he admitted to Herbert Leckenby (Letter, 12 October 1949) "I just love it, but am not quite sure that I shall definitely go on with it. I think you read an article I wrote for the Saturday Book four or five years ago, in which I mentioned that one of my wishes was to write a book on religion. Now, at last, I am setting my hand to it. It seems to me sometimes that such a book may do good, in this age of dreary doubt and unbelief, written by a man who has reached almost the verge of human existence, and whose faith enables him to look calmly into that is to come without a doubt and without a fear. Then again I get a feeling of diffidence, and wonder whether I had better leave it alone. So I don’t know yet whether I shall finish the book. If I do, it will be a short book, simply written, and published at a low price, as I should not care to make money out of it. If it should come to pass, I cannot help wondering how many of my old readers would care anything for it – do you think that many – or any – would? It may seem out of keeping with Tom Merry and Billy Bunter; but it is not really so, for I am certain that but for the influence of religion I should have written very differently. Anyhow, that is what I am writing at the present moment, though whether I shall go on with it I don’t know."
     Leckenby quickly responded, later telling the readers of Collector’s Digest "I replied to Frank Richards advising him to go ahead, for there is not a great gulf between a book on religion and the stories he usually writes. For he must have a bulky file of letters from men paying sincere testimony to the good influence those stories had had on their lives in their adolescent days."
     Hamilton responded with a note (undated): "What you say about my little book is very pleasant and encouraging, and I think I shall go ahead with it. The title I am thinking of at present is "Faith and Hope", which fairly well describes it… It does seem to me sometimes that it may be of use, especially to young people who may be troubled by doubt, which is so easily cleared away in the light of experience and reflection."
     Faith and Hope was indeed completed (I Say, You Fellows, in fact, says that Hamilton had started writing it on September 6th and completed it by the 28th of that month). Clive Fenn, then living in Osterley, Middlesex, had been a neighbour of the Rev. R. R. Borland and when Borland moved to Ramsgate to take over the Christ Church Vicarage, Fenn suggested he contact Hamilton. After visiting him once or twice, Hamilton offered Borland the opportunity to run some of his articles in Christ Church Magazine, the parish magazine. An abridged version of his reply to George Orwell had appeared in 1948 and Hamilton subsequently offered Borland the opportunity to draw material from Faith and Hope. Borland chose two extracts which appeared in late 1949, and Hamilton was pleased for the opportunity to send copies out to many fans who requested them.
     Hamilton’s faith had seen him through some difficult times over the previous nine years, and whilst Faith and Hope might be considered rather simplistic in its outlook, Hamilton clearly hoped that it would be read by the young readers who so admired Frank Richard’s school stories: "I have had the book in my mind for a very long time, but hesitated to write it," he wrote to John Robyns (16 December 1949). "Yet I could not help thinking that the testimony of one who has lived to a great age and has had many experiences, might be useful to others: and I can say with the utmost sincerity that that was the object I had in view in writing the book. Young people especially are easily led astray by foolish talk from elders who ought to know better, and a wholly materialistic view of life and the universe is, to my mind, the very worst thing that any boy or girl could learn. I have never been able quite to understand how any man can be content with life without faith: and all the arguments I have heard on the side of infidelity seem to me utterly puerile. I have tried to show that plain common-sense is on the side of religious belief: as indeed it is, whether I have been able to show it or not."
     Unfortunately, despite his hopes that the book would be published in full the following year, Faith and Hope could not find a publisher, perhaps due to the lack of paper, or perhaps a lack of faith on the part of publishers that the young fans of Frank Richards would especially care to spend their precious pennies on anything but another Frank Richards school yarn – they were, after all, appearing thick and fast. Not many pennies were likely to be left over.

© 2001, Steve Holland

Last Updated: 25 July 2001

 


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