The old adage “never judge a book by it’s cover” certainly held true for two i recently read. Both of them were bought in Lincoln, where i went to university and recently had to return to to sort out some odds and ends. Lincoln has many great book shops but, unfortunatley, the best one is closed on Wednesdays and i completely forgot until i was about 5 steps from the door. I also discovered another good one has been replaced by a kitchen shop. Between that and the loss of BMC this recession hasn’t been a good time for old book lovers… but the show must go on!
The Fellow Who Won
This book is from “Nelson’s Travel Series” and has a cover depicting a Canadian mountie or Australian bushman…
“You forgot about the Kiwi’s, mate”
So obviously the story is about… a public school, in England. To be fair there is a small amount of “travelling” done in the first few chapters. The heroes of the tale, kept in detention for not paying enough attention to their latin, escape from the window and ‘borrow’ a boat belonging to a nearby baronet, only to be left stranded on an island in the middle of a river that runs through his estate.
The story mainly concerns the ups and downs of two boys at the school, John Richard Duncan – Ned to his friends – and Edwin Field. Ned is the adopted son of the headmaster, and expected to take over the school one day – a prospect that doesn’t fill him with joy, as he is no good at “books” and much prefers sport, being captain of all the school teams. Field on the other hand is distantly related to the head.
Over the course of the story’s fifty chapters, they- yes, fifty.
Anyway, over the course of the fifty chapters Field is determined to get his revenge for a prank Ned plays on him right at their very first meeting, when he and his friends throw Field into a tree. Soon field is overtaking everybody in their studies, annoying the headmaster even more with the contrast to Ned. Ned remains popular with the school in general, and nobody can touch him at sports, so Field resents him even more and tries various plans to ruin him… including throwing a sheet of notes with forged handwriting onto Ned’s desk at exam time, causing the teachers to think he is “cribbing”. Ned escapes this charge and narrowly passes the exam, however.
Most of the chapters deal with this rivalry between the two boys, but there are also some extra amusing short stories thrown in, such as Ned and a friend called Ranger getting lost during a “fox chase” (a fake hunt after human ‘foxes’ laying a trail with paper) and falling in a canal, Ned’s determination saves both their lives. There’s also a chapter about a young boy with toothache being too scared to see the dentist (the waiting room is described as having paintings of battles on the walls “to prepare the patients for the horrors to come”!), so some others attempt to extract his tooth themselves using home-made chloroform! But it is too diluted and has no effect, so he decided to go and see the real dentist after all.
The story then jumps forwards two years, and Field has become a terrible bully. Ned finally snaps and gives him the caning of his life… despite the fact Field is in fact in the form above! Ned escapes expulsion simply because he has nowhere to go, but a fake letter and other circumstances arranged by Field makes him decide to run away from the school and consider emigrating to Canada – which is as close as the story comes to what is on the cover!
The baronet from the beginning of the story steps in at the last minute and Ned returns to the school, in time to save Field’s life during a gale. After this he convinces the head to hand over the school to Field, who is much more intelligent, and let him start out on his own in the world. The tale ends with Ned and Field meeting again on a ship ten years afterwards… and that’s all i’ll say about the ending should anybody out there be interested enough to want to seek out this book for themselves.
Anyway i was actually originally going to blog about this book for an entirely different reason to the misleading cover. In fact for the reason i bought the book in the first place, just look at this:
And people say those things “devalue” books!
The Schoolboy Speed Kings
After reading that book, i started on this one. As i read it i discovered that again the cover was barking up the wrong tree…
And a Mountie again, this time dropping by parachute!
So clearly the story is about… a public school in England. But with boys that are interested in… er, racing cars. Not a flying machine in sight! This time it is a school called Spandrels, located a few miles from the real-life racing track Brooklands (which is now, ironically, an air museum). Some senior boys, including the prefects and a boy called Slade, who figures heavily in the story to follow, break bounds and sneak into the circuit by an overhanging tree to watch the racing.
As they watch one of the cars flies off the track and right over them, to crash nearby. All pretence of secrecy forgotten they rush over to help the driver, but he is OK.
Nice soft heather to land on! The binding is still pretty good so i needed to hold the pages open with something.
To their horror they see the headmaster and some strangers in the milling crowd around the crashed car, but luckily they sneak away. However on the way back the strangers, in their fine sports car, stop and ask directions to the school.
One of the strangers turns out to be a new boy named Herman. He is of some sort of mixed race and doesn’t ‘think’ like a Briton, though most of this is down to the influence of his father and an Italian gangster named Mocatta who appears later. In one part, however, he laments the fact that he, a citizen of the empire, has been refused service in London resturants because of the colour of his skin.
Later various people, including a pair of adventurous junior boys and later on Slade, follow him as he sneaks out of the school at night. His father and Mocatta have hidden a racing car in a cave near the school and he test drives it around the local roads at night! The car is to be entered in “The Gold Cup”, an important upcoming race. Further inside the cave, as the juniors and later Slade discover, is a factory for dismantling stolen cars, printing fake money and various other illegal practices.
Slade is caught prowling around by Mocatta and is forced to join the gang eventually. They have built another car and enter both of them in the Gold Cup – Herman in the Speed King and Slade in the Speed Queen. The other boys break bounds to watch the race and all are caught by the headmaster this time. However Mocatta and Herman SR are on the scene and placate him. Then later Slade is asked by the gangsters to pick up and drop off ‘certian packages’. Another boy called Price is in on the secret (slipping in and out of the school and spending whole nights roaming around outdoors seems to be a common practice by this point!) and rides with him in the car. On the way back they are chased by a policeman for speeding, so Price throws the packages out, the larger one explodes with an earth-shattering roar and leaves a huge crater in the road!
At this point the story rather abruptly ends, as some Scotland Yard men show up at the school, and helped by some of the other boys who have decided to stay in bed and not prowl around the countryside (fancy that) round up the Mocatta gang and the Hermans, who they have “been watching for some time” and who prove to have their fingers in nearly every dirty pie.
The ending then briefly explains that Slade became the head prefect of the school (somehow escaping prosecution for speeding, handling stolen goods, drug trafficking and throwing a bomb at a policeman!). The headmaster retires and somebody else takes over the school, who puts Brooklands within bounds and introduces driving and motor engineering into the school’s lessons. Mocatta is deported and the Hermans leave the country voluntarily. A better ending might have been for Herman JR to stay at the school, shake off the criminal ways he was bought up to follow, and become a decent member of society. Oh well, this was the 30′s! (well the book is undated but motor-cars seem commonplace in it, and it’s certainly pre-war, so that decade seems a good bet).