When Boys Were Boys

By Hastings, Max | The Spectator, March 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

When Boys Were Boys


Hastings, Max, The Spectator


Many people are suffering a surfeit of reality this week. They turn away in disgust from the television after hours of bombardment from frowning presenters of both sexes, keeping score of the Iraq war with the breathless solemnity normally reserved for a Premier League football match.

Let me propose an antidote. Settle down for some blissful opiate hours with the works of Mr GA. Henty, Victorian master of schoolboy thrillers. Over the past few weeks, after an interval of 40 years, I have been wallowing in The Dash for Khartoum, With Roberts to Pretoria, With Kitchener in the Soudan, Bv Pike and Dyke. There is little danger of exhausting supplies, since Henty wrote more than 50 such tales with prodigious fluency between 1871 and 1901, sometimes at the rate of four a year.

For those unlucky Spectator readers who never encountered the Master in their schooldays, I will sketch the plot of a contemporary Henty yarn, With Bush to Baghdad. Sixteen-year-old Jack Jones, expelled from Eton for beating to pulp a sixth-form Gulf princeling proselytising for al-Qaeda, declines a dreary spell at a crammer and opts for a life of adventure.

Seeing the way the world is going when George W. Bush starts strutting his stuff, Jack embarks on a crash course in Arabic, and makes himself word-perfect before securing a post with Oxfam in Jordan. Once established in the theatre of operations. he takes a bath in heavy-duty walnut stain, buys himself a depressingly tasteless artificial-fibre suit in the bazaar, and slips away into Iraq masquerading as an Algerian purveyor of pornographic videotapes.

In Baghdad he befriends a poor but honest family bitterly hostile to the regime, enlists their youngest son as his projectionist, and insinuates himself and his wares into the ruling circle. Having escaped from the clutches of the secret police with the aid of his devoted Iraqi sidekick, under cover of darkness he paints in whitewash on the roof of the tyrant's bunker SADDAM IS HERE, enabling a Stealth bomber to vaporise the building and its occupant.

Before escaping to a hero's welcome in the allied lines, he is able to discover the access code of a dead Iraqi general's Swiss bank account. On returning to England, after an audience with the monarch he trousers the Zurich hoard, buys the Gloucestershire estate of a disgraced Granada executive, and settles down to a life of honoured contentment, knowing that he has done his bit for Queen and country before reaching an age at which shaving is necessary.

G.A. Henty has been considerably mocked by posterity. Even among his contemporaries some thought that he overegged the pudding a bit. There is a tinge of contempt in the DNB account of his life. I provoked the derision of a former foreign secretary the other night by describing my recent canter through Henty's works. He thought that I would have been more profitably employed reading Jeffrey Archer.

Even we aficionados should acknowledge that the picture of life the author offered to several generations of English schoolboys was a trifle optimistic. First, he taught them to suppose that they could expect justice to prevail. If a boy is accused of stealing a postal order in chapter one, in chapter 24 the stain will assuredly be lifted from his character. Henty's schoolboys who enlist in the ranks of the armies of Marlborough, Wellington, Cortez, etc., are treated with unfailing courtesy by their seniors and invited to describe their exploits to an admiring throng in the officers' mess, instead of being kicked snivelling back to the stables to clean the tack, a more plausible scenario. …

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