William The Conkerer
In a world where everyone in media is searching for intellectual properties coming out of copyright, here’s a character who has hardly ever been away.
Writers of children’s books have to tread a fine line. They need their lead characters to be interesting and a little wayward, but if they’re too wild the wrath of parents and librarians will be incurred. Too soft, and their target audience will lose interest.
Certain schoolboy heroes from the past have fallen from fashion, the victims of changing attitudes; the once hugely popular Billy Bunter books, about a fat food-obsessed schoolboy, have been expunged from history. Happily, several of Richmal Crompton’s ‘Just William’ books are available in reprint, although they are now a minority taste that probably appeals to older fans with a pronounced sense of nostalgia.
This is a shame, for they’re far better than you’d expect them to be. In a recent poll of favourite children’s books by five children’s laureates, the good-hearted scruffpot William trounced Harry Potter, who did not feature at all.
Most readers thought Richmal Crompton Lamburn was a man (her name combined both her grandparents’ names), and so shy was the author that she did not disabuse them of the notion. Born in Lancashire in 1890, she trained as a school teacher, but gave it up after losing the use of her right leg through polio (she still joined the Fire Service during the war though). The first William story appeared in Home magazine in 1919, and she continued writing them throughout her life, the last being published in 1970, after her death.
The image of an anarchic, disruptive schoolboy shown with his cap askew and tie undone graced nearly forty volumes of exploits. Crompton wrote for adults too, but her lasting claim to fame is William Brown, whose adventures were populated with a gang of rebels called the Outlaws, including Ginger, Henry, Douglas and the awful frilly, lisping Violet Elizabeth (catchphrase; ‘I’m going to thcream and thcream until I’m thick!’) who was appropriately played in the television adaptation by Bonnie Langford.
There’s something touching about a writer who never married producing books beloved by children. With a certain amount of boring inevitability, Crompton’s books were later attacked by critics for being irrelevant and middle class, as if being able to write well was itself a liability. One reader points out that nowadays the books aren’t a very easy read for preteens because they are peppered with neologiosms and words like ‘epicurean’, ‘apoplectic’ and ‘discoursing’, to which I say, ‘Look ’em up’.
But ‘Just William’ hadn’t been aimed at children, at least not at the start. There’s one story now regarded as politically sensitive (in fact satire on the war) involving Nazis and a Jewish shopkeeper, that gets docked from republication.
To his distant, weary parents William is an eleven year-old alien whose every motivation is a mystery. He’s a wild child, a powerhouse of misdirected energy, hurtling hither and thither, hacking down his mother’s plants to give to a favoured teacher, failing maths because when a question starts; ‘You give your best friend £100…’ his immediate reaction is to explain that he only has thruppence.
But of course, William’s rebelliousness – performing a conjuring trick with an egg that goes wrong, trying to arrange a marriage for his sister or planning to sell Ginger’s twin brothers as slaves to raise money – are still mild compared to the minefield of cyber-bullying dangers facing modern parents. But perhaps an updated version, ‘William and the Crack Dealers’, featuring an amphetamine-high schoolboy wielding a sharpened screwdriver instead of a catapult, might rob the books of their childhood charms.