Authors: Richmal Crompton
If William Brown had been able to break free from fiction’s unbreakable time lock and allowed to age along with the rest of us, not only would he have long ago qualified
for his state pension, he would certainly have been the star turn on television’s
Grumpy Old Men
Rereading Richmal Crompton’s wonderfully crafted short stories, one realizes just how grumpy her William was. His world-weary cynicism; his profound distrust of almost all aspects of the
social order; his impatience and impotent fury with authority in all its forms . . . yes, William was the prototype Grumpy Old Man all right, long before he even became a teenager. He stalks
through his rural, middle-class world with a near-permanent cloud of irritability and exasperation floating just above his head.
And yet, and yet . . . William is ever the optimist. William Brown may often be down: he is never out. If he now seems to us a putative grumpy old man, he is also surely a model for
’s Baldrick; William always has a cunning plan.
Fate and grown-ups may conspire against him: William unfailingly meets the challenge. He refuses to kowtow to authority, and his is a very British kind of resistance: polite, almost regretful,
insouciant, but deadly. Pity the figurehead who William decides must be challenged, whether it be headmaster, priest or parent.
Perhaps the real mark of Crompton’s achievement is that so many of us enjoy her William stories as much as adults as we did as children, and we often find ourselves nodding in recognition
at some scenes that could have been drawn from our own childhood. That is an extraordinary thing for any writer to pull off. There is nothing twee, or patronizing, or knowing, or dated (apart from
fascinating and factual period detail) in these pages. Crompton has an instinctive grasp of humour too. Her timing, as she moves from paragraph to paragraph, is beautifully judged. In another life
I’d bet Richmal Crompton would have made a terrific stand-up comedian.
Well, enjoy what follows. Remember that what you are reading was written in another age: forgive some of the inevitable hostages to history. But relish the timelessness of William’s
baffling, frustrating and hilarious wrestling-bouts with what each day throws at him. Enjoy the deceptive simplicity of Crompton’s storytelling.
But most of all, forgive William his trespasses. Whatever the stern, exasperated Mr Brown may think, it is Mrs Brown who is in the right of it. She knows her son is, fundamentally, a ‘good
And so do we.
ILLIAM and Douglas and Henry and Ginger, commonly known as the Outlaws, were coming home from school together. There was violent excitement in the
village. A real, true Archaeological Society was excavating down in the valley and had discovered real true traces of a real true Roman villa. The Outlaws had decided to watch operations. Douglas
and Henry were thrilled by the stories they had heard. William and Ginger were incredulous and rather contemptuous.
‘An’ they’re findin’ bits of broken pots an’ things,’ said Henry.
‘Not much use if they’re broken,’ said William.
‘Yes, but they stick ’em together with glue, I bet.’
‘Pots don’ hold water stuck together with glue,’ said William scathingly. ‘I’ve tried ’em. I don’ see what use findin’ bits of broken pots is
anyway. I could
’em lots of broken pots out of our dustbin if that’s all they want. Our housemaid, she’s always breakin’ pots. She’d’ve made a fine
ancient Roman, she would. Seems to me these ancient Romans wasn’t much use spite o’ bein’ cracked up so – spendin’ all their time breakin’ pots.’
,’ said Henry, exasperated. ‘The pots only got broken with bein’ buried.’
‘Well,’ said William triumphantly, ‘think of that – buryin’ pots! ’S almost as silly as breakin’ ’em. Think of a race of men like what the ancient
Romans is supposed to have been, spendin’ all their time
pots. . . .
there was something fishy about those Romans. Their langwidge is enough
to put you off to start with – hic haec hoc an’ stuff like that – fancy
’ it – an’ then we’re s’posed to think ’em great an’
all they did was to bury broken bits of pot . . . I’ve
liked ’em. I’d rather have pirates or Red Injuns any day.’
Henry felt that William’s eloquence was taking him, as usual, rather far from the matter in hand.
‘Well, they’re findin’ money, too,’ he said, stoutly defending the reputation of the departed race.
money?’ said William with interest. ‘Money you can spend?’
‘No,’ said Henry irritably. ‘
money, of course – they’re findin’ it all over the place.’
‘Breakin’ pots an’ throwin’ money about what other people can’t spend,’ said William with disgust.
But he went with the others to watch the excavations. They were not allowed near, but from their position behind the rope that partitioned off the site of the excavations they had a good view of
operations. Some workmen were digging in a trench where they kept stooping down and throwing pieces of pottery or coins on to a little heap by the side. A little old man with a beard and spectacles
wandered up and down, occasionally inspecting the piles of coins and broken pottery and giving instructions to the workmen.
The Outlaws watched for a time in silence, then boredom settled upon them. The Outlaws did not suffer boredom gladly.
‘I bet,’ said William, slowly taking his catapult from his pocket, ‘I bet I could make every one of those coins in that heap jump into the air with just one knock.’
He took a small stone from the ground and aimed. He missed the coins, but got the little old man in the small of the back. The little old man threw up his arms with a yell and fell head first
into the trench. The Outlaws fled precipitately from the scene of the crime, not stopping to draw breath till they were in the old barn.
‘I s’pect you killed him,’ said Douglas the pessimist. ‘Now we shall all get hung an’ all your fault.’
‘No – I saw him movin’ afterwards,’ said Ginger the optimist.
‘Well, he’ll write to our fathers an’ there’ll be no end of a fuss,’ grumbled Douglas.
‘It’s all those beastly ancient Romans,’ said William gloomily. ‘I never did like ’em. Well, who else in the world’d have a langwidge like “hic haec
The nest day was a half-holiday, and most of the school was evidently going to watch the excavations.
Benson minor had great hopes of seeing the Roman soldier who figured in the illustration that formed the frontispiece to Cæsar IV. dug up whole and entire, and Smith minor thought that
with luck they might come upon a Roman eagle. Smith minimus accompanied them under a vague impression that the ghost of Julius Cæsar was going to arise from the earth at a given signal. The
Outlaws would have liked to watch the excavations too. It was a hot day and there is a great fascination in standing in the shade and watching strong men digging in the heat.
But the Outlaws dared not again approach the scene of the excavations. Douglas was gloomily certain that the little, white-haired old man was dead, in spite of Ginger’s assertion that he
had ‘seen him movin”. He had decided that all the Outlaws must sportingly share the murderer’s fate and was already composing touching last messages to his family. But whether the
old gentleman were dead or not, it was certain that his underlings must have seen and marked the perpetrators of the crime, and that a second visit would be unwise.
Yet so full was the air of Roman villas and excavations that pirates and Red Indians seemed tame and old-fashioned in comparison.
Then William had one of his great ideas.
‘Let’s find a Roman villa ’f our own,’ he said. ‘I bet we can find one as good as that ole place, anyway.’
Their gloom lifted. The Outlaws had a pathetic trust in William’s leadership which no amount of misfortunes seemed able to destroy.
They assembled as many gardening tools as could be filched from their various families’ gardening sheds without attracting the attention of their rightful owners. William had a real
gardening spade. He had had an unfair advantage, because he knew that the gardener had gone home and that his family was out, so he had boldly fetched the largest tool he could find. The cook
certainly had seen and objected. She had come to the door and hurled vituperations at William. But William wasn’t afraid of the cook. He had marched off, his spade over his shoulder,
returning the vituperation with energy and interest as he went.
Ginger had a small trowel. He had secreted it in his overcoat pocket under the gardener’s very eyes.
Douglas had a large and useful-looking fork and Henry had his little sister’s wooden spade.
Henry had found the gardener working in the potting shed among all his tools, and Henry’s family’s gardener was a large and muscular man with whom one dealt carefully. Henry had hung
round for a long time hoping that the gardener would be called away on urgent business. He had mentioned to the gardener casually that he had seen his wife that morning and that she looked very ill
indeed. The gardener did not, as Henry had hoped, hasten home at once. On the contrary, he seemed quite unmoved by the news, and after a humble request for the loan of the big spade
‘jus’ for a few minutes’, which was brusquely refused, Henry wandered indoors.
He had chosen and already taken the most murderous-looking of the morning-room fire-irons, when his mother met him going out with it and ordered him to put it back. He did so murmuring
pacifically that he was ‘only jus’ lookin’ at it’. He then went up to his small sister’s nursery and finding her unattended, seized her wooden spade and ran downstairs
with it before her yells of fury could summon assistance. He was proud of having achieved his object but aware that, compared with the others, it savoured of the unmanly. He anticipated any mockery
of it, however, by stating at once that he’d fight anyone who laughed at it, and so the excavators, who did not wish to waste their time fighting Henry (a thing they could do any time),
abstained from looking at it more often than necessary.
They set off, proudly carrying their tools over their shoulders – except Henry, who carried his very unostentatiously down by his side.
It was William who chose the site for the Roman villa, down in the valley not far from the white-haired gentleman’s preserves. There was a ploughed field by the roadside and here the
Outlaws began operations.
Ginger and Henry and Douglas set to work with energy upon the soft soil. William walked to and fro beside them in the manner of the white-haired gentleman, examining with a stern frown and an
air of knowledge, the stone and chips they threw up as ‘finds.’ William had brought with him six halfpennies which, having been previously buried, were discovered by the diggers at
intervals. He had also brought some broken pots, to obtain which he had deliberately broken two flower-pots. These, previously deposited in the soil, made excellent ‘finds’.
This performance could be seen distinctly from the real site of excavation. Things were rather dull, there. Spectators were roped off to an inconvenient distance from the scene of action, and no
coins had been found since yesterday and very few pieces of crockery.
The audience – consisting chiefly of school children – was growing bored. They began to turn interested eyes to where William in the distance strode to and fro issuing orders to his
perspiring trio of workers. A group of three detached itself and went slowly over to William’s preserves. William saw them coming and hastily buried all the halfpennies and bits of broken
pottery again. William’s spirits rose. He loved an audience.