Inspiring Young Readers
The Fat Owl of the Remove and me : how Billy Bunter blighted my life
I was born in the early 1950s and until my late teens I was a very overweight child. I don’t know the statistics but, unlike today, I think childhood obesity was much less common – which was probably a result of wartime rationing and the unavailability of fatty and high sugar foods. Anyway, I bucked the trend in just about every way, not only was I overweight but tall with a broad large-framed physique which also marked me out as I towered over and eclipsed my peers.
To their eternal credit, my classmates never ridiculed or bullied me because of my size but that didn’t mean that my childhood years weren’t full of misery. As it was, being bullied was hardly necessary embellishment because my own capacity for self-loathing was pretty well-developed from quite early on and I would watch the world through lens of the freak or the outsider – I felt permanently ‘other’. The unintentional and casual cruelty of children and adults seemed to be part of the fabric of my life – even then people tried to avoid the flat brutality of ‘fatty’ in favour of ‘chubby’, ‘tubby’, ‘big-boned’, ‘fond of his food’ but the accumulation of euphemisms simply served to cut me to the quick every time.
I wasn’t much of a book reader until I reached my mid-teens but I did love comics of all kinds – and comic world could be extraordinarily harsh on the overweight child. When a fat child appeared in a magazine or weekly paper it was nearly always for comic effect. Achievers and heroes had lithe and athletic physiques that allowed them to have adventures, climb trees, win football matches, impress girls and look raffish even in school uniform. Overweight characters ate a lot, were positively predatory when it came to ‘feasts’, only succeeded at sport because of some freakish capability and were made to sit on villains while the slim boys went to fetch the police. Let’s just say I don’t have any examples of characters that boosted my self-esteem ( and I wonder if that’s still true today?).
However, the character that most blighted my life in those early years was Billy Bunter. Bunter was a product of the comic writer, Frank Richards, who came to fame through his creation of the Greyfriars School stories in The Magnet comic. These stories were standard public school tripe that involved a lot of upper-class high jinks and brushes with cane-wielding teachers that had pretty much ceased publication by the end of 1940. Even then it was recognised that these absurd stories were throwbacks to an Edwardian colonial Britain that had no bearing on the post-world war environment. However, Bunter, who had been quite a minor character in Greyfriars had taken on a life of his own and had, in some way, insinuated his way into British popular culture – to the point where it became commonplace to refer to any overweight person as ‘Bunter’.
With the creation of Bunter, Richards, wittingly or unwittingly, had stumbled on the creation of the ‘anti-hero’ who would shape social attitudes to overweight children for years to come. Here was a character described in Wikipedia as “[gluttonous] obtuse, lazy, racist, inquisitive, deceitful, slothful, self-important and conceited”. He is also astonishingly self-regarding and self-delusional, constantly casting himself as the heroic champion, the hero of the hour. His absurdity of character is only matched by his extraordinary fatness. His mutant physicality is an outward manifestation of his inner crassness and stupidity – hence his sobriquet ‘the fat owl of the Remove’ . Of course making him wholly bad wouldn’t allow for the necessary sympathy required for the reader to care about what happens and so he also has redeeming qualities – primarily, it seemed to me, his quite idiotic optimism and boundless joviality.
As if his comic existence wasn’t enough to blight the lives of every overweight child, his adventures were deemed hilarious enough to merit a television programme staring Gerald Campion as Bunter which ran from 1952 – 1961 – conveniently paralleling my first 8 years of life. The demands of television meant that the farcical and idiotic simply got even more enhanced. Television was very much a social activity in those days – the small number of channels meant everyone saw the same thing and all programmes scheduled into children’s slots were the stuff of playground chatter – or should I say, playground torture.
There has been lots of discussion in recent times of enhancing diversity in children’s literature and a pleasing recognition that there is a dearth of books that adequately reflect real world differences in ethnicity and gender and fail to acknowledge the experience of disability. I have yet to see a similar call being made to recognise the historical discrimination towards and under-representation of different body shapes. I have a horrible feeling that overweight children are still infrequently represented as a common part of the diverse child population and if or when they do appear they are either there for comic effect or to problematize them as a ‘health issue’ we are storing up for the future. It must surely be time to put an end to this and to have all children and all body shapes accepted as part of the real world and reflected as such in the world of children’s literature – or are we happy to condemn another generation to the solitary misery of seeing their ‘otherness’ paraded for comic effect?