Photo by Lars Olsson
Artillery Row

William Brown turns one hundred

“I’ll thcream and thcream and thcream until I’m thick”

Growing up in suburban Bristol in the Eighties and Nineties, my reading matter was of a suitably timeless disposition, even if it seldom, if ever, included any Enid Blyton. Amidst the colonial and deeply un-PC likes of Biggles and Rider Haggard, my trio of preferred characters never really changed: Jennings, Billy Bunter and William Brown. Of the three, Jennings was probably my favourite, being closest to my own life as a prep school boy of a vaguely similar appearance and age, and also because the situations were the most recognisable. Bunter I found uproarious but also rather tasteless and absurd, for reasons that have now, alas, become much clearer. And then there was William Brown: would-be outlaw, committed dog owner and perpetual enemy of soap-and-water, to say nothing of his perpetual nemeses, Hubert Lane and Violet Elizabeth Bott.

Drink a couple, and you too will want to revive the Empire

I enjoyed the books as picaresque stories of bad behaviour without seeing much of myself in William, or indeed his friends. Their author Richmal Crompton’s evocation of invincible pre-war suburbia — not so very far from a benign version of the half-idylls, half-nightmares portrayed by Orwell in Coming Up For Air and Patrick Hamilton in Hangover Square — was certainly compelling, but I was too young to appreciate Crompton’s social satire, itself considerably more piquant than anything that could be found in Jennings and Bunter, let alone the stiff-upper-lip fantasias of English manhood peddled by WE Johns with Biggles, Gimlet and the rest. All of them now sound to me like nothing so much as industrial-strength cocktails. Drink a couple, and you too will want to revive the Empire.

Yet now, a century after the first appearance of Just William, I reassess Crompton’s universe afresh, and so I respond far more warmly to her characters and creations. William Brown himself is an entertaining if undeniably two-dimensional figure, at his most amusing when he is required to fit into the adult world temporarily, as in the story “William’s Truthful Christmas”, when he causes social outrage and misery by offering an honest opinion of the gifts that he has received. But it is the rich panoply of figures around William who give the stories their interest and colour, and which make them as entertaining for adults to read today as they ever might be for their children. If, of course, eleven-year olds can be distracted from their iPads and Netflix and nefarious online activities long enough to enjoy the William books.

Leaving aside the children for a moment, the adult supporting characters in the unnamed village provide endless humour and intrigue. There is William’s neurotic mother, desperately saying of her son that “he means well” even as he is involved in yet another humiliating scrape. His father, meanwhile, is a hard-drinking Conservative whose cynicism at the world sees him reward his errant son with extra pocket money for his more outrageous actions, as long as he is not bedbound with “his liver”. Not for nothing is this stalwart representative of middle England named John Brown.

Then there is William’s would-be romantic elder brother Robert, desperately professing each of his girlfriends “the most beautiful girl in the world” until his eye is taken by another. Mr and Mrs Bott are a pair of arriviste millionaires who have made their money via “Bott’s Digestive Sauce”, a substance that William contends, probably accurately, has been constructed from squashed beetles. Needless to say, they take up residence in the nouveau riche establishment Bott Hall, where their social status irks them. (“We ought to have some ancestors, Botty,” said Mrs Bott. “We’ve got ’em, dear,” said Mr Bott after a moment’s thought. “We must have. Come to think of it, we shouldn’t be here now if we’d not.”) Floating around the periphery is Robert’s friend, the splendidly named Jameson Jameson, of whom Crompton writes, with caustic humour, “[his] parents had perpetrated on him the supreme practical joke of giving him his surname for a Christian name, so that people who addressed him by his full name seemed always to be indulging in some witticism.”

Only the cynical could imagine modern-day equivalents thereof

Leaving aside the fact that such Coward-esque observations are generally not to be found in the contemporary oeuvre of, say, David Walliams, Crompton, an unmarried woman who never had her own family, managed to bring her child characters to life in the most memorable of ways. Chief amongst these is the objectionable Hubert Lane, William’s supremely loathsome nemesis. Crompton writes of him that he is a “large fat boy with protruding eyes, a superhuman appetite and a morbid love of Mathematics”. To say nothing of his habitual “recourse to heavy sarcasm”, “together with his fatness and greediness and spitefulness and cowardice, Hubert had a good share of craftiness, and not infrequently this quality enabled him to score off the Outlaws”. He might almost be Powell’s Kenneth Widmerpool in miniature.

Then, of course, there is Violet Elizabeth Bott, lisping and over-indulged daughter of the Botts and purveyor of the above quoted catchphrase that even those who have never read a word of the William books will undoubtedly be familiar with, if only from Bonnie Langford’s inimitable performance as the character in the late 70s television series. Violet is the epitome of the spoilt child, given to displays of petulance and temper at the slightest opportunity. Crompton beautifully evokes the character of someone who will grow up to expect that their every demand is acceded to without question, or otherwise there will be hell to pay. Only the cynical could imagine modern-day equivalents thereof.

Crompton wrote the books for nearly half a century. Like her contemporary PG Wodehouse, she chose to keep William perpetually in the same state of development, even if she made uneasy nods to progress. Some of the later books acknowledge space exploration and pop singers. Most jaw-droppingly, the story “William and the Nasties”, written in 1935, shows William and his cohorts engaging in some unexpected anti-semitism towards a Jewish sweet shop owner, Mr Isaacs. Somewhat unbelievably, they attempt to emulate the Nazis by forming a posse of “nasties” to force him out of business. Lines like “there came to [William] glorious visions of chasing Jew after Jew out of sweetshop after sweetshop and appropriating the precious spoils” and “I’m jolly well not going to be Herr Hitler…I’ll be called Him Hitler…an’ we four are the nasties” are the unsurprising reason why the story has been excised from future editions by Crompton’s executors, although the curious can still find it online in preserved form.

This rare lapse of taste aside, Crompton’s universe remains one of the most striking fictional achievements that any children’s writer has created in the English language. It seems only right that now, decades on from my first discovery of the books and their characters, I can read them afresh — or, even better, listen to Kenneth Williams’ marvellously acid narration of the stories — and enjoy them for what they are: brilliantly written social satires that never cease to amuse and beguile. Will others be saying the same of the vast majority of what passes for children’s literature in a century? Somehow, I doubt it.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover