Two minutes is generally all it takes. "I know," she said, "How about Just William."
"I haven't read any Richmal Crompton since I was a boy," I said. They were always a firm favourite then, especially if I was off school with a mild temperature. Pure bliss, a glass of lemon barley water on the bedside table and a 'William' to read. Many of these books which I'd have read around the mid-sixties were published by Armada with new illustrations. These are more cartoonish than the charming originals by Thomas Henry and the collections of stories themselves were cobbled together from several books and given new titles. This wouldn't have bothered me as a boy, but as a man I like to read things in the order they are written and how an author intended. The book guru was on the case and returned from our back bedroom (yes, books in every room!) with a hardback copy of Just William that bore the inscription:
With Best Wishes
Although Wynne went on to become a distinguished professor of Mathematics, I doubt he was writing in such a well practised hand, being only two years old in 1957 as I was! Now here's an interesting piece of synchronicity; the last time I saw Wynne was at Theatr (no E in Welsh version) Gwynedd, Bangor, North Wales when I was performing with The Welsh Drama Company in the late seventies. However, I received a message from him completely out of the blue only yesterday - he'd found me through this blog and used the website Contact Form to email me! Now isn't that incredible - that I was currently reading a book with his name in it? Reconnecting with people I'd lost touch with has been the unexpected great bonus of keeping this blog and website going.
Anyway, back to Richmal Crompton (1890 - 1969) and the William Stories. She was born in Bury, Lancashire, the daughter of a clergyman. She graduated in 1914 from The Royal Holloway College, part of The University of London, with a BA in Classics, and was involved in the women's suffrage movement. In 1923, after contracting polio, she lost the use of her right leg, which seems to have precipitated giving up her teaching career to write full time. She wrote all-told thirty-nine William books throughout her lifetime, the first being Just William (1922) and the last William the Lawless (1970, published posthumously). She wrote over a hundred other books, many for adults, but it is the William books that she is remembered for.
And what was it like reading Just William again? I can only describe the experience as sublime. For someone who never married and didn't have children of her own, Richmal Crompton manages to get right under the skin of an eleven year old boy in a way that no one else, to my mind, has ever done better. These highly amusing stories about force of nature William Brown and his band of pals who call themselves The Outlaws are pure delight. For the past week the guru can testify to the fact that there has been a good deal of chuckling and a few whoops of delight coming from my side of the bed. Incredible to think that Just William was over forty years old when I first read it, and is now over ninety. We read the stories to our son when he was small and he lapped them up. They have a sense of period obviously, and are of the time when they were written, but they haven't really dated. Maybe this is because she knew her subject so well and eleven year old boys haven't really changed very much. I mean to say what's a mere ninety years in the evolution of boys! Four hundred odd years ago William Shakespeare wrote:
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.
So, no change there then!