Something funny going on…

Let’s take a complete story from an issue of Chums at random, shall we? Hmm, No 736 from October 1906 looks good…

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‘Twixt Jackson and Barker

It’s the typical boarding school tale of the time. A boy called Jackson has some important news for his friends when his eye falls in a great new bicycle just received by one of them called Barker.  After admiring it he wishes he had such a machine: “what wouldn’t i do for a mount like that!“. Barker asks him what he would do for it, Jackson asks him to name his terms, these are:

-To climb to the top of the cathedral in the nearby town

– To persuade the timid science teacher to tackle a local ‘tough’, an ex-sailor called Jem Starbottle

-To cycle from Arlington to Greatthorpe, a distance of 5 miles, in 15 minutes

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A short story this, it’s only over two pages. Mind you the pages of Chums are pretty big. The illustration on the second is a cartoon and not related to the story.

The first challenge passes easily enough. Jackson and co. climb to the top of the acessible steps in the cathedral and then sneak out onto a narrow parapet. Jackson then climbs above this and stands up on the ball right at the top of the spire, with only the lightning conductor for support! He then descends but misses his step and has to circle the entire spire to find it again (this scene is not too well described XD). The first challenge is over, his friends say it was the easiest one but he says he wouldn’t do it again for a thousand sovereigns. His friend Burgess says he wouldn’t even watch the feat again for two thousand!

The next challenge is more difficult. Jackson, on the next half-holiday (a day with only half the amount of school work and the other half given over to sports/hobbies/free time, as these were boarding schools the pupils could not go home for short holidays) Jackson agrees to accompany the science master, “Smiley” on one of his long and invariably boring nature rambles. Meanwhile another of the friends named Timmins rushes off to find Jem Starbottle and tell him that a licking awaits him at such-and-such a place.

As Smiley comes to the end of the ramble, composing a poem about a Dandelion watched by Jackson and, unknown to him, the others hidden in a haystack, Starbottle comes along looking for his “licking” …and gets it! Much to the astonishment of all concerned. Jackson later explains that on the same afternoon the bike arrived the science master gave him a lesson in boxing: “You should have seen his arms – wire ropes!

The final challenge awaits, Jackson is lent the bicycle and travels down to the starting place with Timmins, who has synchronised his watch with Burgess who awaits at the finish line with Barker. He is a bad cyclist and knows it, he doesn’t expect to actually finish the course in the alotted time, to make matters worse the road is very bumpy. Still he decides to have a try at it, and sets off.

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As soon as he is out of sight Timmins is accosted by a local farm-hand, advising him: “Oi’d go b’train ef oi ere you, Wi’ Capt’in Symons tiger loose, the roads bean’t safe after dark“.  Timmins takes the advice. He’s no coward but the road is dark and “Tigers are tigers!“. Meanwhile Jackson is in the depths of despair, he has done the first mile and is already behind time and worn out beyond beleif. However suddenly the tiger leaps out behind him and starts to chase him. With this ‘encouragement’ he rushes the rest of the course and finishes it in record time, winning the bike! Towards the end the tiger, seeing the lights of the town approaching, gave up the chase, leaving Jackson wondering if he had imagined the whole thing.

That was a pretty good story. I’m in the mood for some AP now, lets turn to an issue of one of thier “Big (in size!) Three”, The Boys’ Herald – No 215 from August 1907.

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The Feats of Tony McTurk

By L.J. Beeston, this is a typical boarding school story of the time. A boy called Pilberry has just received a new camera from his uncle, with all the latest improvements up to the very hour. The only one not enthusiastic about it is Pilberry himself, his only photographic expedition resulted in pictures of his coat. Well how he was he to know which way around it went?

Along comes Tony McTurk, a pupil of the same school who does like photography, but who could never afford such a “snapper” as this. He instead says “There’s nothing worth doing that I wouldn’t attempt to win that spanking camera“. With the gauntlet on the ground Pilberry decides to name his terms:

-To call the headmaster, Dr Twelvetrees, a giant of a man with a fierce temper, an ass to his face.

-Persuade the French master to leap from his study window, twelve feet off the ground.

-Cycle from the town of Claythorpe to the school, a distance of 5 miles, in 14 minutes.

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Three days pass in which Tony racks his brains for ways to complete these tasks. He evidently thinks too hard at them because he ends up working too hard on his French… so hard the one night his friends are awoken by monotonous chanting in thier dorm room… he’s sleep walking, and studying French while doing it! Fearful of waking the sleepwalker, they instead follow him… until he stops outside the headmaster’s door, his French verbs becoming louder and louder. The headmaster is roused to anger at first, but them realises what is happening and starts to gently shake the boy in order to wake him. This seems to bring Tony round and he remembers another task: “you – are – an – ass” he mumbles to the headmaster, before being woken up. “You were walking in your sleep, McTurk” the Headmaster tells him “You have been studying too hard, i will see that you have a holiday to-morrow!“. First task completed, and he escaped annihilation into the bargain. His friends aren’t impressed… but they can’t deny he did it!

Now he has to work out how to get the French master, Monsieur Duport to leap from his study window. A few weeks later a half-holiday rolls around and his friends are told to wait beneath the window for something to happen.  The Frenchman is annoyed by boys hanging around beneath his window and repeatedly tells them to leave, only for them to return soon after. As he ponders this he is visited by an inventor of explosives (another of the French master’s interests). This melancholy man is looking for funding for his new high-powered explosive, the stick of which he is carrying would obliterate the school. When the rather extravagant funding is not forthcoming the inventor wonders what the point of living is, and throws the explosive into the fire! Duport leaps! After a few minutes he realises maybe the “explosive” wasn’t so explosive after all. Of course the “inventor” is long gone… who was he? If any of the boys know, they aren’t telling!

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And now for the final challenge – the ride! Now, Tony is by his own admission not a very good cyclist, and also the road is in rather bad condition and has a couple of stiff hills. But he decides to try it all the same and, started off by a friend called Weekes, who has synchronised his watch with Pilberry. Tony begins the race… and as Weekes turns to walk back to the school he is informed by a farm hand to take the train instead… for a Jaguar which escaped from Bunkum & Barnaby’s circus is still on the loose! Now Weekes isn’t a coward, but “Jaguars are jaguars!“.

Meanwhile, Tony is already tired out, and behind schedule. The Jaguar on the other hand, is watching him closely… it hasn’t eaten all day and this strange whirling creature coming down the road seems just the ticket! It leaps to attack the creature from behind… Tony, glancing back, see’s it and starts to pedal like mad to escape certain doom!

At the end of the course, his friends are waiting with the stopwatch… will be do it in time?… listen, here he comes! Meanwhile, the Jaguar, tired out from chasing this strange, fast creature, dives through the hedge and disappears.  Tony crosses the finish line with seconds to spare, and wins the camera! After the race he wonders if he had been chased by some imaginary creature… but later reads of the eventual shooting of an escaped Jaguar… and trembles!

So, what’s going on?

Well, the first and most likely explanation is that the two stories were written by the same man – L.J. Beeston. However the earlier Chums story is uncredited, so this can’t be confirmed. While some papers undoubtedly had ‘staff’ writers, there must also have been a vast pool of freelancers. (for instance Harry Blyth, who created Sexton Blake for Amalgamated Press, also wrote for Chums, then owned by Cassell’s) This was, remember, the golden age of publishing, and to my mind the golden age of British comics! There was a bewilderingly vast array of titles all crying out for stories to fill their pages. With imagination and a typewriter there must have been a decent living in it… You didn’t even have to be particularly good (just read pretty much any Halfpenny Marvel for proof!). I only wish i had lived in that era.

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(The other alternative explanation, especially if these stories were not written by the same writer, is downright piracy!)

So, which is the better story? For my money it’s Tony McTurk! It’s quite a bit longer for starters (filling 3 pages and most of a column in the Boys’ Herald’s large tabloid size) and has more illustrations. The descriptive details are much better written (even the Jaguar is a character!) , the challenges and their solutions are much more imaginative and, of course, it’s a great deal funnier! The sleepwalking sequence in particular.

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