Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Boys' Weeklies by George Orwell.

Billy Bunter.
Boys' Weeklies is an essay by George Orwell first published in Horizon in March 1940. In this he discusses the politics of boys' magazines. It begins,
You never walk far through any poor quarter in any big town without coming upon a small newsagent's shop. The general appearance of these shops is always very much the same: a few posters for the Daily Mail and the News of the World outside, a poky little window with sweet-bottles and packets of Players, and a dark interior smelling of liquorice allsorts and festooned from floor to ceiling with vilely printed twopenny papers, most of them with lurid cover-illustrations in three colours.
Except for the daily and evening papers, the stock of these shops hardly overlaps at all with that of the big news-agents. Their main selling line is the twopenny weekly, and the number and variety of these are almost unbelievable. Every hobby and pastime — cage-birds, fretwork, carpentering, bees, carrier-pigeons, home conjuring, philately, chess — has at least one paper devoted to it, and generally several. Gardening and livestock-keeping must have at least a score between them. Then there are the sporting papers, the radio papers, the children's comics, the various snippet papers such as Tit-bits, the large range of papers devoted to the movies and all more or less exploiting women's legs, the various trade papers, the women's story-papers (the Oracle, Secrets, Peg's Paper, etc. etc.), the needlework papers — these so numerous that a display of them alone will often fill an entire window — and in addition the long series of ‘Yank Mags’ (Fight Stories, Action Stories, Western Short Stories, etc.), which are imported shop-soiled from America and sold at twopence halfpenny or threepence. And the periodical proper shades off into the fourpenny novelette, the Aldine Boxing Novels, the Boys' Friend Library, the Schoolgirls' Own Library and many others.
He goes on to argue that the newsagents is the "best available indication of what the mass of the English people really feels and thinks", which is, I might add, not something I would agree with (I'd say if I was feeling particularly left wing that it's more an indication of what the 'establishment' for the want of a better word want us to think). D. C. Thomson & Co. is his target in this essay and he presents his reasons for why boys' weeklies had such a ring-wing slant and are more often than not unchanging:
The stories are stories of what purports to be public-school life, and the schools (Greyfriars in the Magnet and St Jim's in the Gem) are represented as ancient and fashionable foundations of the type of Eton or Winchester. All the leading characters are fourth-form boys aged fourteen or fifteen, older or younger boys only appearing in very minor parts. Like Sexton Blake and Nelson Lee, these boys continue week after week and year after year, never growing any older. Very occasionally a new boy arrives or a minor character drops out, but in at any rate the last twenty-five years the personnel has barely altered. All the principal characters in both papers — Bob Cherry, Tom Merry, Harry Wharton, Johnny Bull, Billy Bunter and the rest of them — were at Greyfriars or St Jim's long before the Great War, exactly the same age as at present, having much the same kind of adventures and talking almost exactly the same dialect. 
These stories are wholly unrealistic according to Orwell and have very definite ideas on behaviour - 
The ‘good’ boys are ‘good’ in the clean-living Englishman tradition — they keep in hard training, wash behind their ears, never hit below the belt etc., etc., — and by way of contrast there is a series of ‘bad’ boys, Racke, Crooke, Loder and others, whose badness consists in betting, smoking cigarettes and frequenting public-houses.
What of their readership? Orwell admits he doesn't know the figures and circulation, but nonetheless records some of his own observations:
Boys who are likely to go to public schools themselves generally read the Gem and Magnet, but they nearly always stop reading them when they are about twelve; they may continue for another year from force of habit, but by that time they have ceased to take them seriously. On the other hand, the boys at very cheap private schools, the schools that are designed for people who can't afford a public school but consider the Council schools ‘common’, continue reading the Gem and Magnet for several years longer. A few years ago I was a teacher at two of these schools myself. I found that not only did virtually all the boys read the Gem and Magnet, but that they were still taking them fairly seriously when they were fifteen or even sixteen. These boys were the sons of shopkeepers, office employees and small business and professional men, and obviously it is this class that the Gem and Magnet are aimed at. But they are certainly read by working-class boys as well. They are generally on sale in the poorest quarters of big towns, and I have known them to be read by boys whom one might expect to be completely immune from public-school ‘glamour’. I have seen a young coal miner, for instance, a lad who had already worked a year or two underground, eagerly reading the Gem. 
As for the politics of them, it's quite simple: "nothing ever changes, and foreigners are funny". There is no other overt mention, but plenty of suggestion:
The working classes only enter into the Gem and Magnet as comics or semi-villains (race-course touts, etc.). As for class-friction, trade unionism, strikes, slumps, unemployment, Fascism and civil war — not a mention. Somewhere or other in the thirty years' issue of the two papers you might perhaps find the word ‘Socialism’, but you would have to look a long time for it.
If there was, Orwell doubts the success of it, saying it would invariably be dreary, "under Communist influence", or preoccupied with singing the praises of Soviet Russia, which essentially means no one would ever wish to read it.

This essay goes on and is fairly detailed (it can be read in full here), but this is a brief synopsis and it concludes,
I am merely pointing to the fact that, in England, popular imaginative literature is a field that left-wing thought has never begun to enter. All fiction from the novels in the mushroom libraries downwards is censored in the interests of the ruling class. And boys' fiction above all, the blood-and-thunder stuff which nearly every boy devours at some time or other, is sodden in the worst illusions of 1910. The fact is only unimportant if one believes that what is read in childhood leaves no impression behind. Lord Camrose and his colleagues evidently believe nothing of the kind, and, after all, Lord Camrose ought to know.
It's an interesting one and quite an attack. It's interesting how having a socialist bias be it in comics, newspapers, or television news is greatly alarming, yet the right wing Conservative bias is portrayed as perfectly acceptable and even welcome. These days, were I in control of the press, I'd much sooner some neutrality but I'd say that was very unlikely especially in the current climate. How refreshing it would be though for the hard right to quietly and calmly question their assumptions and biases and ask themselves why it necessary to seek to prevent people coming up with their own informed conclusion instead of foistering their views on to the electorate and bringing the country down as a consequence.

And that was my 49th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Later in the week, the final short story of the challenge: The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen.

2 comments:

  1. I know what you mean! In our country alone, there is a massive effort to re-write history and expunge what is seen as the leftist interpretation of the past. The only problem is that now, we are being subsumed with ultra conservative right wing nonsense! How about free and neutral writings which then allows people to decide their leanings, be it right or left! I mean I always thought that is what makes Democracy better? But I guess, to the victor belongs the narrative, unfortunately and that kind of overrides everything!

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    1. The media does undermine democracy, I think. Was reading the latest - apparently David Cameron struck some deal with Murdoch in order to secure the support of the Sun, the Times, and Murdoch's other press. Pretty grim if it's true...

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