Sweet and scum-kneed childhood, like shy adolescence and even bickery elder-age, touts certain requisite activities. When one is about eight, it’s morally reprehensible not to spend a portionable amount of wet afternoons in rubber boots kicking up mud puddles. Skipping – in different patterns, no less – is also very important, and may even supplant other varieties of locomotion as the dominant form of foot transport. Chocolate milk has its role, as do old-school roller-skates, or maybe even those new-school sneaker-roller hybrids the under-ten crowd is lacing up these days. The suburban/urban kidhood needs neighborhood parks, neighborhood pets and neighborhood pals. And all kidhoods, town and country alike, need arcane knowledge of card games to inflict upon unwitting adults.
Thus far, no polemics. So here’s the controversial bit: Add to the mix of childhood objective- and active-musts a certain disreputable sort known in certain circles as William Brown. As self-respecting robber-chief, pirate-king and eleven-year-old, William would prefer never to be found with clean knees and certainly never in the company of an ominously sweet six-year-old named Violet Elizabeth Bott. He and his posse of schoolboy cut-ups, aptly self-dubbed the Outlaws, have episodic adventures chronicled in a series of short stories collected into books. The stories go on indefinitely. Inside the cover of “William—In Trouble” (book eight, according to its spine) MacMillan lists a meaty thirty-seven other William books purchasable. Amazon, as Amazon is wont to do, trumps MacMillan by proffering a slender 366 William-related products available for consumption. William is giant. William is mammoth.
That is to say, William should be mammoth. In America. He should be an acknowledged need of childhood, as much as chocolate milk and whooping cough inoculations. William is giant, alas, only in certain corners. That is, in this peculiar little rainy country, that the English like to call England. William is a Brit.
The Nassau Weekly would never disparage the bigs of BritLit by name. But let it be said that if these great ones were all sitting around a trestle table – perhaps in Bloomsbury or the Bird and Baby – drinking milk tea (or something stronger) and they decided to leave William’s creator, Richmal Crompton, out of their literary party, they would be doing something very silly indeed. Crompton did write the stories originally in serial publication for magazine-buying adults, but their honest portrayal of pied childhood and their verifiable hilarity endeared them to generation upon generation of both grown-ups and those yet growing. William does not, as is observed explicitly in one story, “trail clouds of glory.” William has fist-fights with Hubert Lane and his Laneite cronies. He destroys gardens. He takes compromising pictures of Mr. Bott on a new exercise plan. He pretends to be a descendent of Shakespeare for the benefit of a hapless and very pretty tourist. (He also kindly designates Ginger and Henry and Douglas – the other Outlaws – as famous writerly relatives in that story.) He falls asleep in boredom, listening to a conceited violin virtuoso giving him a one-on-one performance in a field. He never plods, he always plots, and he pulls lots of pranks. Ah, William!
The admiration for William and the adulation of his antics is widespread on his home turf. Go up to the generic tweed-cap man on any narrow, cobblestone, UK street and ask about “Just William,” the first of the William books, and watch for his nod, or his smile thinly-veiled. Last weekend, a group of twenty-something brass-band males all nodded knowingly in response to such a query. “Oh, yes,” they nodded. “Yes, of course.” Generations of Brits. Swarms of ‘em.
But enough of this appeal to popularity. Let’s go to the source for a bit of quality control.
Excerpted from a story, appropriately enough for this medium, in which William and the Outlaws decide to start up a newspaper:
“William swung along the road. It was still raining. His gait alternated between swagger and caution, according as the role of world famous editor or creeper through an enemy’s lines in search of provender for his starving comrades, was uppermost in his mind.”
Masterful. If William Brown isn’t real, you want him to be. Another:
“‘Newspapers don’ only say news,’ contributed Ginger with an air of deep wisdom, “they – they sort of say what they sort of – think of things.’
‘What sort of things?’ said Henry.
‘They sort of write about things they don’t like,’ said Ginger rather vaguely, ‘an’ about people doin’ things they don’t like.’
‘We could easily do that,’ he said.”
So the newly minted editorial staff write bits about people doing things they don’t like: overpricing ‘sweets,’ assigning homework, and washing things in general. But, oh dear, here approaches the nemesis:
“Violet Elizabeth had trotted happily down across the field over the stile and into the main road, intent upon a career of crime.”
This is fine writing. Of course, it’s not quite all here. Read the full stuff for the full effect, or alternately – and perhaps preferably – locate from Amazon (or Amazon-equivalent) recordings of Martin Jarvis reading William stories. Jarvis carries a members’ card for the acknowledged Pantheon of voice actors: he lisps Violet Elizabeth into six-year-old feminine glory, oils up Hubert Lane with accurate eleven-year old brown-nosings, flutters William’s sister Ethel to the height of haughty coquetry, and of course, brings William’s schoolboy brogue to pitch-on life. One word:
But before these gushings destroy your belief that William might be any good at all, let me raise my hand, bow my head, and acknowledge writerly bias. To explain: as a schoolgirl of ten-turning-eleven, I lived a year in England, in Oxford. Oxford played backdrop to many stories, much crumpet eating, and my momentous meeting with William in his Jarvis recorded incarnation. Since that year, I’ve passed many a happy hour listening to William stories. So many hours, in fact, that parts of William stories will pop into my thoughts as cross-references to life. This happens for some people with Paradise Lost. I do not envy them.
My profusions should be doubly excused, anyway. For one, they’re justified. I challenge you, Nass reader, to read William and challenge me. For two, this has been a sentimental school year. Last spring, I decided to return to Oxford for my junior year, probably for largely poetic pretensions: chasing the shades of my childhood; actually getting inside the Bodleian library; trying to figure out the whys and wherefores of a life of scholarship. So here I am, overlooking the Thames, visiting student of Hertford College. Recently, especially when wandering through the meadow where Lewis Carroll would also wander, I’ve been thinking a lot about William. He is so much twined up with my other Oxonian year, my year of kidhood. And I thank the literary Gods for that.
For many of you, it’s too late. You can’t go back to the days of rubber boots, or chocolate milk, or whooping cough vaccinations. But you can pretend. You can compensate for years of William deprivation by setting yourself the pleasant task of tracking down Crompton stories. Let it be written, let it be said that William is a British Cultural Icon. Yet his nationality should not limit his exposure. In the sweet and scum-kneed pursuits of delinquency, there’s something universal about that kid.
You can hear Martin Jarvis read a lengthy snippet from a William story, “The Christmas Truce,” by clicking on an audiofile link at: