One hundred years ago, in May 1922, the first Just William book by Richmal Crompton was published. The daughter of a vicar, conservative and oh so English, her 385 stories were collected into thirty-eight books, written over five decades, translated into seventeen languages and at one stage were outsold only by the Bible.
I read the hilarious books as a child and still have a wallow every few years. William is an eleven-year-old anti-hero who, like Bart Simpson, remains the same age through the decades. His creator is the JK Rowling of her day. The books are a satirical take on life in a ‘quiet’ English village, with its ostensibly ‘normal’ inhabitants and ‘ordinary’ activities. Hypocrisy and self-importance in the adult world are exposed through William’s exploits.
Being helpful was William’s aim in life. Not all the recipients of his help were grateful. He would have given much thought to helping organise a centenary celebration in his village, should that ever be necessary. He might have had the brilliant idea of a party for all the children of England but after discussion with his mates, the Outlaws, that would have probably been reduced to all the children in the village. Except Hubert Lane, his sworn enemy and Arabella Simpkin, a thorn in his side. He would have liked to exclude the domineering Violet Elizabeth but he knew that would not work.
Other centenary specials William might have thought of, could have been a trip to the moon (how many people could fit in the rocket? said the Outlaws), round the world in a pirate ship (we thought you didn’t like the sea, said the Outlaws – no, only the sea-side, said William) or offering the Society for Giving Decent Grown-Ups a Good Time, a good time. He tried this once, by including Aunt Florence in his Red Injun game, but it back-fired, with Aunt Florence having morning tea with Hubert Lane’s mother!
The books were not written for children; the language is sophisticated and obviously for grown-ups. When it became clear that children had discovered the books, Richmal Crompton didn’t change her style or write down to her younger readers. I remember, as a twelve-year-old, asking my mother what ‘ejaculated’ meant. ‘Exclaimed dear, exclaimed!’ I wondered why she seemed embarrassed.
A telegram from the Queen? Who knows? By 2122, William may still be very much alive and well and planning even more centenary celebrations.
(I read my uncles’ William books as a kid and loved him! Would William make it on telly I wonder? Ed.)