Sunday, March 26, 2017


Prunes are dried plums. In Marathi they call them जर्दाळू, சரிக்கரை பாதாமி in Tamil, खुरमानी in Hindi and so on. This rendering has to be qualified a wee- bit. Strictly speaking the trio refers to Dried Apricots, whereas Prune is a dried sister fruit aloo-bukhara or Red-plum and what goes under the name Prune in India is an import from California, whereas the former set is produced locally. They share the same alleged health benefits, being laden with Anti-oxidants, bursting with Calcium and all that.

To cut a short story long, the name ‘Prune’ decidedly sounds uncouth and hence in spite of a barrage of press-reports about the newly discovered benefits the fruit confers, sales remained flat in the US. A marketing study identified the appellation Prune as the chief culprit, so the California Prune (not Prude) Board ‘pressured the FDA to change the name of Prunes to the more inviting “Dried Plums”- and it worked’. This is, verbatim as reported on, and not on, and hence one may be pardoned for believing the same.

Names can be quite off-putting. As residents on the North East we always had issues with such a beautiful place being named ‘Guwahati’. Kamrup or even Dispur would have done more justice to the ambience, Guwahati sounds gooey!

The disaffection with the term Prune, in the estimation of YT, basically stems from the ‘disdain’ showed towards the well-intentioned fruit by British Boarding School kids. Other candidates of the ‘disdain’ could be the Broccoli and the Radio Malt which famously, was administered to young Boarding School girls “in an attempt to change skinny young girls into prettier roundness”. For the records, ‘as a fule kno that’, George Molesworth, brother of the protagonist of today’s blog, Nigel Molesworth, loved Radio Malt (which was a sort of treacle sold under the proprietary name Syp Minadex, if seniors will recall).
Nigel Molesworth

Of course ‘as a fule kno that’ is a Deep Purple hit. But as any fule kno, it’s  the refrain of the adventures of the mythical boarding school kid Nigel Molesworth, enshrined in the St. Custard diaries created by the wayward writer-cartoonist duo of Geoffery Williams and Ronald Searle. Searle in fact illustrated the books based on a series Jeff had been writing in the late, lamented Punch magazine, in the late lamented 1940s, he, he, he... ‘Down with Skool- A Guide to School Life for Tiny Pupils and Their Parents’ is the flag-bearer of the series.

A rich genre exists in serious literature about life in British Boarding Schools. This includes depiction of posh boarding schools as in Enid Blyton and Angela Brazil, basically meant for educative purposes, and the satirical or titillating variations considered by the authors of St. Trinians, St. Custards (both Geoffery Williams and Ronald Searle), Harry Potter, Narnia etc. Any number of movies have being made on the subject, some quite serious and haunting like Picnic on the Hanging Rock.

The Nigel series belongs to the mid-1950s, when YT was born. Down with Skool fell into his hands in the School’s History and Culture readings period when the slim volume somehow got mixed up with the 30 identical copies of “Myths and Legends of the Greeks” (not Geeks) which we sleepy kids were supposed to read in order to familiarise ourselves with time-less European contexts like Hercules, Paris, Troy, Athena etc. etc. The passage where Nigel contemplates the ‘Revolt of the Prunes’, a word-play on the revolting taste of prunes left us rolling in the aisle with laughter, leaving class-teacher Miss Parks wondering as to what Act of Greek mythology could be the object of such mirth. We were caught with the book but given the circumstances in which it befell us, she could only say “my, my, what spellings and I don’t think words like ‘chizz’ are there in any dictionary”….

You can buy this book on Amazon today or borrow it from an online library like, but as is said, the exploits of Nigel grow on you and you have to read it at the right juncture of your life to find it hilarious, best when you are sailing through troubled middle-school academic waters.

Let’s return to the book’s last chapter Revolt of the Prunes. Nicholas Lezard, fellow Molesworth enthusiast writes in the 1st October 2005 number of Independent: ‘The school prunes, weary of the disdain they encounter among all schoolboys stage a revolt’. Nigel in his nightmare conjures up the following:
Prunes plan attack

“The chief prune was a regular soldier and the moment the Revolt broke out, he did what all generals do. He burrowed underground and established his head-quarters. He had lot of relations and made them all staff prunes”.

Lezard continues: ‘It is not, it may strike you, the most sophisticated of satires. But if you read it at the right age, the Revolt of the Prunes- and just about any flight of fancy on Down with Skool!...will stay with you until your deathbed…whoever was behind the works, they knew what was going on in the mind of a 10 to 12-year-old schoolboy..”

Contempt for his younger brother George makes whimsy appearance even here:   George is referred to as molesworth 2 in the diary, and about his eating habits, prune number 4 says “ imagine being inside molesworth 2 with all those common lozenges spangles carots radio malt and all other things he hav pinched”. Note the parsimony showed towards the comon comma…

So Nigel uses phonetic spellings while writing the St. Custard diaries, doesn’t capitalise initials of names, is very economical with punctuation marks, but still often sounds sage beyond his years, though his interpretation of words and events is sometimes misplaced. Needless to state, these are all reflections of the rebellious mental make-up of Jeff, the original writer. But the misspellings are so endearingly natural: foopball, peotry, anebode, lunatick, fast blower (i.e. fast bowler)…look more authentic than the actual spellings!

Nigel’s take on the subjects:

 History: "History started badly and hav been getting steadily worse”
 Literature: "Peotry is sissy stuff that rhymes. Weedy people say la and fie and swoon when they see a bunch of daffodils."
 Botany:"Boo to birds beasts crows trees grass flowers also cristopfer robin and wind in the wilows. Charge at the tinies and mow them down."
 Geometry: "To do geom you hav to make a lot of things equal to each other when you can see perfectly well that they don't."

Pythagoras who uniformly comes in for criticism gets mixed up with  Archimedes of the famous “eureka” episode. Nigel writes : “ Whenever he found a new thing about a triangle Pythagoras who had no shame jumped out of his bath and shouted ‘Q.E.D.’ through the streets of athens it’s a wonder they never locked him up.” Then, critical of the Bible, he remarks “Cain did his bro Abel which is enuff to give me an idea occasionally about molesworth 2.”

Incidentally this juvenile, cocky wisdom reminds one of the misinterpretation protagonist Holden Caulfield places upon the phrase ‘catcher in the rye’ in the eponymous book. As you’ll recall, Holden believes the phrase to mean ‘saviour of innocent children’, in which role he fancies himself, the imagery being hundreds children playing in rye fields, and Holden saving kids from falling off a cliff as they play in abandon… In reality the 1782 poem by Robert Burns “Comin’ Through the Rye” is a middle-English poem with sexual overtones. Similar cocky wisdom is also displayed by Huckleberry Finn when he describes his encounter with ‘the widow’: “After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses…I didn’t care no more about him anymore because I take no stock in dead people”! Incidentally, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye are considered the three most perfect books in American Literature by top American critics…

About the illustrations by Ronald Searle in the series, Lezard writes..”I can think of no work except perhaps Alice in Wonderland. Where illustration and content are on such good terms with each other…take a look, that’s the way to go:
Maths with Pythagoras on my side
Bet the images match your conception 

A Word about Aldous Huxley

(wiki on St Trinians, another landmark):

St Trinians was a British gag cartoon comic strip series, created and drawn by Ronald Searle from 1946 until 1952.[1] The cartoons all centre on a boarding school for girls, where the teachers are sadists and the girls are juvenile delinquents. The series was Searle's most famous work and inspired a popular series of comedy films that has outlived the short-running cartoon series.
Irresistible charm of St Trinians'girls'hostel

Peace loving St Trinian girls!

So persuasive!

Leading St Trinians' initiatives


cdiane said...


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