Childhood stories: what I used to read and why

August 23 2004 / New Statesman

One warm evening earlier this summer, on a visit to see my mother, I went up into the attic of the house where I once lived. I was searching for a box of cricket balls with which my father had returned many years ago from one of his business trips to India, and which I’d forgotten about until a chance remark by my mother that evening made me think of them all over again: the smoothness of the leather and the stitched stiffness of their seams.

For Philip Larkin, in several poems, an attic was a metaphor for coldness and sterility—and for all that is shut away and regretfully past. The never-returning moments of our lives. But the attic of my mother’s house is not like that. It is, rather, full of warm riches—artefacts and curiosities—that serve to reconnect you to childhood and adolescence, and to the person you once were: full of inchoate longing.

I never found the cardboard box of cricket balls, individually wrapped in plastic bags, perhaps because I didn’t search hard enough. I found something far more interesting instead—the comics I used to read as a very young boy in the early 1970s. More specifically, I found old, deteriorating copies of the Victor, thickly dust-covered and roped together in eight separate bundles, covering the years 1970 to 1977. For the rest of that evening and long into the next morning, I reread many of these old Victor comics, their pages time-yellowed and fragile, held by the memories they evoked.

The Victor was the first proper publication—words on paper—that I ever read. For many years, and despite the protests of various teachers and the encouragement of my parents, I read little else, and certainly never books. The Victor was a self-described boys’ adventure paper, not a comic, and even at its launch in 1961 it seemed already out of time, speaking more to the past than to the urgent present. In theme and content, with its stories about war and sport, it took its inspiration from the once popular boys’ papers Adventure (1921), Rover (1922), Wizard (1922), Skipper (1930) and Hotspur (1933), which, like the Victor, were all published by D C Thomson of Dundee. Indeed, some of the characters from those earlier publications, such as Alf Tupper, “the tough of the track”, and Morgan the Mighty, “the world’s strongest man”, enjoyed a radiant afterlife in the Victor long after the papers in which they originally appeared had closed.

Alf Tupper was an archetypal Victor hero, perhaps the most popular of them all. He was poor. He lived with an unsympathetic aunt (his gentle mother had died, I think, in a fire) and then alone in dishevelled rooms beneath a railway siding. He worked as a welder and ate nothing but fish and chips wrapped in old newspaper. Nothing remarkable about Tupper, then, except that he was a superbly gifted middle-distance runner, a working-class warrior who would compete against and invariably beat smarter and more privileged athletes, the toffs of the track, as well as any number of challengers from eastern Europe—as a patriotic Englishman, he greeted all foreigners with suspicion. Tupper had no car and, having worked a morning shift as a welder, would have to find his own way to race meetings, even if it meant running part of the way there. En route, exciting things would happen to him—once he even pulled a man from a burning plane that had crashed in a nearby field—which meant that he usually arrived late for his race. And no race was simple for Tupper. He would be tripped, pushed, barged and spiked. He would sometimes fall. But most of the time he would still win.

Tupper, like all the best comic-strip heroes, occupied a kind of perpetual present: time did not diminish him, nor wither his enthusiasm. His dark hair was cropped military-short and worn in a tufty, Morrissey-style quiff, which may have been fashionable in the mid-1950s but certainly wasn’t so when I first began to read about him in the Victor. Yet that scarcely mattered, because you didn’t read the Victor for a realistic representation of contemporary society; you read it to be inspired, to be carried into a Manichaean world of pure adventure. You knew who the enemies were (Germans, the Japanese, the very rich), who was on your side (Australians, Kiwis, Canadians) and which virtues (loyalty, bravery, honesty) would eventually be rewarded.

Rereading the Victor, I was surprised to find that the narratives I had most enjoyed and still sometimes thought about—“The Lost Warriors of Tartary”, “Captain Neilson’s Floating Mine”, “Three on a Terror Trail”, a football story called “Behind the Crimson Door” and something featuring an Australian soldier called Harry Garrett in the Arabian desert—are all to be found in issues from 1970, the year I first began to read the Victor. Or, rather, to have the Victor read to me, because I would have been too young to read them myself. Perhaps that is why I remember these particular strips so vividly: they may well have been the first complex stories I was ever told.

As it turned out, I had misremembered the title of “Captain Neilson’s Floating Mine”: it is called “Neilson in the Floating Mine” and is about a lone naval captain, Tom Neilson, who operates a British secret weapon during the Second World War—a “one-man submarine disguised as an ordinary sea-mine”. There is very little dialogue in the Neilson stories because he works mostly alone, and because so much of the action takes place inside his head, to which you have access through the glorious comic-strip innovation of the thought bubble—something Private Eye continues to use so well on its celebrated covers.

The title of the Harry Garrett narrative is, I discovered, “The Man with the Brazen Mask”, and it, too, has a war setting: this time we are in Mesopotamia (which, we are helpfully told, is “now known as Iraq”) during the First World War. A group of Australians, led by Garrett, has been sent into the desert to find and assassinate a German spy, Huth, whose mission is to “incite the Arabs to join forces against the British”. Huth, purporting to be the ghost of an Arab king, wears dark robes and the brazen mask of the title: he has as much contempt for the Arabs he is seeking to agitate into conflict as he does for his Australian pursuers, one of whom is a young Aborigine called Billy Tuesday (as opposed to, say, Daniel Defoe’s Man Friday).

There was, I understand now, something irredeemably nostalgic about the Victor. The stories are underscored by a simple, unquestioning patriotism and by a sense of imperial longing. Many of the best plots, published long after the end of empire, turn on threats to the stability of that empire in distant lands, as if it would have been too mundane to set stories of such extravagant adventure in England.

Yet in “Three on a Terror Trail”, the empire returns in the form of three turbaned Sikhs, “the Dacoits”, who have come to England to murder Sir Stanley Brand, a former high-ranking police officer in Khandan, a small British protectorate in the Himalayas. The Dacoits, the terrorists of the title, are in possession of something called koiroot, “a deadly, slow-acting poison”, fragments of which, on the voyage to England, were eaten by three rats. Far from killing the rats, the poison caused them to grow alarmingly in size; they are now hungry for even more koiroot. So the Dacoits who are pursuing Sir Stanley and his son are themselves pursued by the giant rats: this is the wonderfully preposterous set-up of one of the Victor’s finest stories.

There is no doubt, in retrospect, that the Dacoits are orientalised—portrayed, like the Japanese in many of the war stories and the Arabs in “The Man with the Brazen Mask”, as culturally alien and programmatically other. They are sinister and treacherous, and their dark skin and turbans only exacerbate their strangeness. And yet, bafflingly, we still empathise with their struggles and want them to escape from the voracious rats, if not to kill Sir Stanley.

In March 1940, George Orwell published an essay on boys’ weeklies in Horizon magazine. He read ten weeklies, including Wizard, Rover and Hotspur (this was before they had reinvented themselves as comics, publishing exclusively in strip format), and observed how contemporary history was carefully excluded. “It is worth noticing,” he wrote, “that in papers of this type it is always taken for granted that adventures only happen at the ends of the earth, in tropical forests, in Arctic wastes, in African deserts, on western prairies, in Chinese opium dens—everywhere, in fact, except the places where things really do happen. That is a belief dating from 30 or 40 years ago, when the new continents were in the process of being opened up.”

Orwell was troubled by this evasion of the contemporary and saw it as a form of covert political control: boys have a need to read adventure stories at certain ages and “they get what they are looking for, but they get it wrapped up in the illusions which their future employers think suitable for them”. Most people, he continued, are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth ... from this point of view the worst books are often the most important, because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life. It is probable that many people who would consider themselves extremely sophisticated and “advanced” are actually carrying through life an imaginative background which they acquired in childhood ... If that is so, the twopenny weeklies are of the deepest importance. Here is the stuff that is read somewhere between the ages of 12 and 18 by a very large proportion, perhaps an actual majority, of English boys, including many who will never read anything else except newspapers ... [and] there is being pumped into them the conviction that the major problems of our time do not exist, that there is nothing wrong with laissez-faire capitalism, that foreigners are unimportant comics and that the British empire is a sort of charity concern which will last for ever.

By the time I was reading the Victor, in the era of power cuts, mass industrial unrest and the three-day working work, when we were frozen deep in the coldest of wars, the British empire was in advanced retreat and the English were leading the world in nothing so much as decline. Our national football team even failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, a trick repeated in 1978 to show that the first failure was no unlucky aberration.

Yet the Victor continued to ignore the problems of our time, political or otherwise, returning instead to the old certainties of the war years and to the period of our great imperial adventures. The cover story each week would be a true story of heroism or bravery from the Second World War. Inside, there would be the usual fictional mix of sport and war. So the imaginative landscape of my boyhood was serious, softly nationalistic, melodramatic and only rarely satirical: the Victor had none of the robust comic unreality of the Beano or the Dandy, which survive to the present day.

The original boys’ weekly was founded in 1879 and published by the Religious Tract Society. The Boys’ Own Paper published adventure stories with imperialist themes, but also short essays on eminent Britons such as Charles Darwin. Like the Boy Scout movement, its didactic purpose was to prepare its young readers for a life of duty and imperial service. One notable Boys’ Own hero was a sailor from a poor family in the East End of London called Jack Travers Cornwell. A former delivery boy, Cornwell, at the age of 15, enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1915. On 31 May 1916, during the Battle of Jutland, he was injured while waiting for orders at his post. All around him men lay dying, but Cornwell, though severely injured, refused to leave the gun turret at which he was positioned until the end of action. He died from his injuries on 2 June and was buried quietly in a cemetery in Grimsby.

As the story of his brave defiance aboard HMS Chester became more widely known, a cult of Cornwell gathered momentum: an artist’s impression of him, stricken and alone at his post, was published in the Boys’ Own Paper, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross; and in September 1916, he was reburied at the City of London Cemetery, Manor Park, a funeral attended by many thousands of people. “Cornwell has set an example of devotion to duty which will be an inspiration to British boys for all time,” wrote Admiral Lord Beresford to the readers of the Boys’ Own Paper. “It will not fall to every boy to prove so devotedly his obedience, discipline and self-sacrifice; but every boy can endeavour to live up to his example by practicing discipline and being obedient in small things. In this way character is formed, and we are able—when a crisis arises and there are big things to be done—to do them.”

When Orwell began to research his article on the boys’ weeklies, he visited a small newsagent’s shop in a poor quarter of an unnamed town. “Probably the content of these shops is the best available indication of what the mass of the English people really feels and thinks,” he wrote. This week, I visited several small newsagents in towns in Lancashire and Essex. These cluttered shops, with their porno mags and women’s weeklies, their specialist magazines and celebrity glossies, had nothing on their shelves for boys to read, and certainly nothing that Orwell would have recognised.

What happened? The short answer is that the future happened, a future that the Victor, retreating inexorably into the past, never saw coming. Today a young boy’s bedroom is less a secret den of imaginative adventure than a pleasure dome of televisual and high-tech gadgetry, from where he communicates with the world via texting or e-mail.

The 1,657th and final issue of the Victor was published by D C Thomson on 21 November 1992. I stopped reading the comic in 1977, when it cost 5p. Looking back at some of the issues of that year, I can understand why I lost interest. Though Alf Tupper is still there and the cover is reserved for a true story of men at war, too many of the supporting stories feature elements of the supernatural: miraculous happenings, invaders from other planets, prehistoric monsters. The classic Victor story may have been exotic to a young reader living in suburban Essex, as I did, but it was never about other-worldly fantasies; it was resolutely rooted in the real, in this world.

The Victor was the last comic of its kind there ever was to be, not least because, since its launch on 25 February 1961, it had absorbed most of its rivals, including Wizard, Hotspur, Rover and Adventure. When the Victor folded, there was nothing for a young boy to seek out in its place. There was nowhere for him to go. The world had changed too much. And yet, what could be less reprehensible than a boy’s own adventure story?