Reader… be warned. For a continuation of the stringent critical standards proper to Books for Keeps proceed at once to the next pages. What follows on this one is an open fan-letter addressed to a character who’s been going strong since May 1922. No doubt a cool appraisal of William Brown and his onlie begetter Richmal Crompton is entirely possible. But not from me. Not, at any rate, while I’m dazzled all over again by the William books now re-issued in paperback by Macmillan. Like Violet Elizabeth Bott, you can thcream and thcream until you’re thick but William won’t get a word of dithapproval here.
Unlike merely one-off classic creations – Long John Silver, say, or Mr Toad – William is best appreciated in bulk. So the fact that there are now twelve titles available (and more to come?) is cause to rejoice. Lucky for us that the blessed Richmal was as prolific as she was inspired.
Wherein, then, lies the appeal of William? I’d suggest in his status as anti-curmudgeon par excellence. Kingsley Amis, while perfecting his W.C. Fields impression, once declared that he was amazed that adults were so pleasant considering they all began as children. William, after sixty-two years in business, remains the supreme challenge to this view. Considering they all began more-or-less like William, I’m amazed so many adults finish up like Kingsley Amis. Spot the Unlucky Jim in this exchange, for example:
“`You’ve not got much hair right on the top of your head, father,” he said pleasantly and conversationally.
There was no answer.
“I said you’d not got much hair on the top of your head,” repeated William in a louder tone.
“I heard you,” said his father coldly.
“Oh”, said William sitting down on the ground. There was silence for a minute, then William said in friendly tones:
“I only said it again ’cause I thought you didn’t hear the first time. I thought you’d have said `Oh,’ or `Yes,’ or `No,’ or something if you’d heard.”
There was no answer, and again after a long silence, William spoke.
“I didn’t mind you not sayin’ `Oh’, or `Yes’, or `No’,” he said, “only that was what made me say it again, ’cause with you not sayin’ it I thought you’d not heard.”
Mr Brown arose and moved his chair several feet away. William, on whom hints were wasted, followed.
“I was readin’ a tale yesterday,” he said, ” about a man wot’s legs got bit off by sharks -”
Mr Brown groaned…’
As well he might. Whether the laugh is on William or from William it’s always with William. He’s living literary proof that comedy, if it’s good enough, can conquer even such major historical shifts as the demise of Eton collars and domestic servants. After all, videos may come and gobstoppers may go but the guerilla-war between the young and the ex-young continues unabated with William leading the archetypal assault on all who deviate into dignity (himself included).
Which is why I was so delighted, recently, when I discussed these books with a group of today’s eleven-year-olds. The charabancs and dinner-gongs and stockbroker setting didn’t bother them a bit. Straightaway they recognised an ally. Jeans and feminism may have replaced short-trousers and the girl-next-door but, as one likely lass declared, “I wouldn’t mind him for a boyfriend.” Admittedly, she did have a twinkle in the eye which suggested that these days the leader of the Outlaws might have work cut out keeping up with her. But weren’t William’s problems a bit dated, I asked? “Well, he does seem a bit infested with aunts,” said a lad. “Mind you, so am I. Infested with one aunt anyway.” William would have understood instantly what he meant.
In a curious way, of course, changing times may have worked in William’s favour. His school cap and socks like ankle-warmers now have the glamour of period-costume. Even the starker-than-ever contrast between the blandness of the background and the blitz-ness of the boy merely reinforces his right to be considered the junior branch of the Mafia’s supreme hit-man. Nor are stories like Not Much or William’s Christmas Eve a serious handicap. These, you’ll recall, run a terrible risk by confronting William with kids a lot less fortunate than he is. But who can blame William for his romantic belief that backstreet freedom is preferable to his? In 1984 of all years we ought to forgive the Winston Smiths and the William Browns for their touching faith that the answer lies in the proles. If our unease persists, moreover, there’s a simple antidote: try dropping our hero into the sort of ambiance for which, heaven knows, his family intended him – at its best, say, the world of Ransome and at its worst the world of Blyton. Wouldn’t he scuttle at a stroke the entire fleet of Swallows and Amazons? And have the Famous Five barricading Kirren Island to keep him at bay? William subverts social class along with every other convention.
Hence my guess that if ever there’s a World Cup Competition for Kid Lit Comedy, the home team at Wembley will consist of William, Henry, Ginger, Douglas, Jumble, Ethel, Robert, Mr Brown, Mrs Brown and any two others from the four or five hundred short stories of the divine Miss Crompton. Given half a chance I’ll lead the community singing myself.
Richmal Crompton’s William books are published by Macmillan. Hardback £5.95, paperback £1.25.
If he moves quickly Chris Powling will be able to take his enthusiasm for William a stage further by becoming a founder member of the Outlaws Club – organised by Macmillan for William’s fans. New Outlaws get a badge and red wallet containing a letter from William, the William-flavoured rules of the club and the secret password (BfK knows what it is but we’re not telling!). Details of how to join will be in all William paperbacks from October. Something else to look forward to: Martin Jarvis will be reading some of the William stories on Jackanory at Christmas.