Authors: Richmal Crompton
I came to William Brown late in life. I was forty-odd, and had never read the books or seen any of the TV series, but I had three boys of my own and was always looking for ways
to keep them entertained. They had an older cousin, Marlon, who handed down to them a battered cardboard box stuffed with cherished old cassette tapes. Surprisingly, apart from a couple of Masters
of the Universe stories, they were all Just William tapes. I say surprisingly because, as might be surmised from his name, Marlon was a modern London teenager through and through, cynical,
streetwise and surly. His dad assured me he had loved the tapes, but somehow I didn’t think my own kids would be interested. All they seemed to like were computer games and bizarre
impenetrable American cartoon shows. How could they could possible relate to some schoolboy from the 1930s? But I put a tape on for them one night and left them to it.
Ever since then my two youngest boys have gone to sleep every single night to the sound of Martin Jarvis reading Richmal Crompton’s ageless stories. They must have heard those tapes
hundreds of times – no, thousands. The originals are worn out, replaced and updated from the huge library available. I don’t know if the boys even hear the words any more, or if they
have simply developed a Pavlovian response to Martin Jarvis, whose voice transports them to a safe and comforting world of tea parties, scraped knees and an endless sunny summer’s afternoon
that has lasted ninety years.
Listening with the kids on car journeys and in hotel bedrooms, I’ve grown to love the stories just as much as they have. The only problem is that when I read the originals I can’t
get Martin Jarvis’s voice out of my head, and can’t imagine how Richmal Crompton thought the boy should sound. Martin Jarvis is William Brown.
And I understand now why the stories cast such a spell over my own kids. They are boys and William is a boy, and Marlon was a boy, and boys are the same the world over and have always been the
same, and probably always will be. And we never grow up. William is essence of boy. He has everything a boy could want – a dog, a stick, a penknife, a gang, a den, trees to climb, stones to
throw, sweets in his pocket . . . Also, in these stories there’s a war on, sheer bliss for an eleven-year-old boy, so there’s shrapnel to collect, soldiers to admire, parachutists to
spot, spies to thwart. There is no death and hardship and horror, but the William stories are nevertheless quite tough. William and his gang are always getting into punch-ups and some of his
exploits would be quite alarming to a namby-pamby, overprotective modern parent. Today William would probably be put into therapy and made the subject of a documentary on Channel Five. Except, of
course, William always gets away with it. Despite the trail of chaos and anarchy he leaves behind, he always ends up as the only thing that any boy has ever wanted to be. A hero.
ILLIAM and the sweep took to one another at once.
William liked the sweep’s colouring, and the sweep liked William’s conversation. William looked up to the sweep as a being of a superior order.
‘Didn’t your mother
you being a sweep?’ he said wonderingly, as the sweep unpacked his brushes.
‘N-naw,’ said the sweep, slowly and thoughtfully. ‘Leastways, she didn’t say nothin’.’
‘You don’t want a partner, do you?’ said William. ‘I wun’t mind being a sweep. I’d come an’ live with you an’ go round with you every
‘Thanks,’ said the man, ‘but p’raps your pa would have somethin’ to say.’
William laughed bitterly and scornfully.
fuss if I get a bit of mud on my boots. As if their ole drawin’-room carpet mattered. Have you any little boys?’
‘Yus, three,’ said the sweep.
all be sweeps,’ said William gloomily, feeling that the profession was becoming overcrowded.
of that room, Master William,’ called cook, who, in the absence of William’s parents, took what William considered a wholly unjustifiable interest in him.
William extended his tongue in the direction of the voice. Otherwise he ignored it.
‘I’d meant to be a robber,’ went on William, ‘but I think I’d as soon be a sweep. Or I might be a sweep first, an’ then a robber.’
‘Come out of that
, Master William,’ called cook.
William simulated deafness.
‘I’d like to be a sweep an’ a robber an’ a detective an’ a soldier, an’ some more things. I think I’d better be them about a year each, so’s I can
get ’em all in.’
‘Um,’ said the sweep. ‘There’s somethin’ in that.’
Cook appeared in the doorway.
‘Didn’t you hear me telling you to
out of that room, Master William?’ she said pugnaciously.
‘You can’t expect me to hear you when you go shoutin’ about in the kitchen,’ said William loftily. ‘I just heard you
‘Well, come out of this room, anyway.’
‘How can you expect me to know how it’s done if I don’t stay to watch? Wot’s the good of me goin’ to be a sweep if I don’t know how it’s
‘What’s the good of me covering up all the furniture if you’re going to stay here getting black as pitch? Are you coming out?’
‘No,’ said William exasperated, ‘I’ve
stay an’ learn. It’s just the same as Robert goin’ to college – my stayin’ to watch the
sweep. Wot’s the
of me bein’ a sweep if I don’t learn? Folks prob’ly wun’t pay me if I didn’t know how to do it, and
‘Very well, Master William,’ said cook with treacherous sweetness, ‘I’ll tell your pa when he comes in that you stayed in here with the sweep when your ma said most
speshful you wasn’t to.’
William reconsidered this aspect of affairs.
‘All right, Crabbie,’ he said grudgingly. ‘An’ I hope that I jolly well
your chimney when I’m a sweep with not knowing how to do it.’
He wandered round the house and watched through the window. It was a thrilling performance. He was lost in roseate dreams of himself pursuing the gloriously dirty calling of chimney sweep when
the sweep appeared with a heavy sack.
‘Where shall I put the soot?’ he said.
William considered. There was a nice bit of waste ground behind the summer-house. He looked carefully round to make sure that his arch-enemy cook was nowhere in sight.
‘Jus’ here,’ he said, leading the sweep round to the summer-house.
The sweep emptied the sack. It was a soft grey-black pile. William thrilled with the pride of possession.
, isn’t it?’ he said.
‘Well, it’s not
,’ said the sweep jocularly. ‘You can ’ave it to practise on.’
He left William smiling proudly above his pile.
From over the wall behind the summer-house William could see the road. He waved his hand effusively to the sweep as he passed on his little cart.
‘I say,’ called William.
The sweep drew up.
‘Does the horse an’ cart cost much?’ said William anxiously.
‘Oh no,’ said the sweep. ‘You can get ’em dirt cheap. I’ll lend you this ’ere of mine when you go into the business.’
With a facetious wink he drove on, and William returned to the contemplation of his pile of soot.
Soon a whistle that he knew roused him from his reverie and he peeped over the wall.
Ginger, William’s lifelong friend and ally, as earnest and freckled and snub-nosed as William himself, was passing down the road. He looked up at William.
THE SWEEP EMPTIED THE SACK. WILLIAM THRILLED WITH THE PRIDE OF POSSESSION. ‘THAT’S MINE, ISN’T IT?’ HE SAID.
‘’Ello,’ said William, with modest pride. ‘I’ve gotter bit of soot in here.’
But Ginger had a rival attraction. ‘They’re ratting in Cooben’s barn,’ he said.
William weighed the attraction of ratting and soot, and finally decided in favour of ratting.
‘All right,’ he called, ‘wait a sec. I’ll come.’
He completely forgot his soot till tea-time.
Then, as he was going out of the house, he met Mr and Miss Arnold Fox coming in. They were coming to call on Mrs Brown. Both were very tall and very thin, and both possessed expansive smiles
that revealed perfect sets of false teeth.
‘Good afternoon, William,’ said Mr Fox politely.
‘Afternoon,’ said William.
‘A rough diamond, our William,’ smiled Mr Fox to his sister.
William glared at him.
She laid her hand on William’s head.
‘Manners maketh man, dear William,’ she said.
She then bent down and kissed William.
Mr Arnold Fox took off his hat and playfully extinguished William with it. Then he laid it on the hall table and went into the drawing-room, leaving William boiling and enraged on the
That reminded William of his soot.
William and Ginger sat lazily upon the wall watching the passers-by. Absent-mindedly they toyed with handfuls of soot.
They were cheered by the sight of Mr Arnold Fox going down the road – his forehead beneath his hat suspiciously dark.
take some washing,’ said William.
‘Look!’ said Ginger, excitedly, leaning over the wall.
Along the road came three children in white, Geoffrey Spencer and Joan Bell with her little sister Mary. Geoffrey Spencer, in a white sailor suit, walked along mincingly, holding Joan
Bell’s little bag-purse for her. Mary, toddled along holding her elder sister’s hand.
William admired Joan intensely. Occasionally she condescended to notice his existence.
‘Hello!’ called William. ‘Where you going?’
‘Posting a letter,’ said Geoffrey primly.
‘Come in an’ play,’ said William, ‘we’ve got some soot.’
‘No,’ said Geoffrey piously. ‘Mother said I wasn’t to play with you.’
‘You’re so rough,’ explained Joan with a little fastidious sniff.
William flushed beneath his soot. He felt that this reflected upon his character. He was annoyed that anyone, even so insignificant as Geoffrey, should be forbidden to play with him.
‘Rough!’ he said indignantly. Then, ‘Well, an’ I’d rather be rough than an ole softie like you – you an’ your ole white suit!’
‘Come along, Joan,’ said Geoffrey with a superior smile. ‘I’m not going to talk to him.’
William rolled white, angry eyes in his black face.