Authors: Richmal Crompton
William Brown terrified me. I’d never heard of him when I was growing up in America, but once I’d come to Britain and started writing
couldn’t escape him. Whenever I told anyone what Horrid Henry was like, they invariably said, ‘Oh, he sounds exactly like a modern-day Just William.’
These are words guaranteed to horrify any writer. Who was this William anyway? Had I accidentally copied him? Was I doomed so early in my career? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!
I didn’t dare open a William book until I’d written four Horrid Henry’s. Then I bravely thought it was time. I’d established Henry and his family, and was hopefully safe
from being unduly influenced. So I borrowed a Martin Jarvis recording from the library, and one memorable day, travelling by car to France with my husband and young son, I pressed Play.
And what total joy awaited us. First that Horrid Henry was actually very different from William, who is so much kinder, and often well-intentioned, and not motivated at all by sibling rivalry.
was a great relief. Now I could just enjoy the sheer brilliance and humour of Richmal Crompton’s iconic character.
Why is William so wonderful? First and foremost, he’s hilarious. He is also indomitable, imaginative, fearless, spontaneous, resilient and constantly puncturing the pretensions of the
rigid society he’s trapped in. He is never defeated, never civilized into the proper, conforming little boy his parents long for. (‘He’s a bit – individualistic,’
grimaces William’s hapless father to a schoolteacher who promises – as if – to tame him.)
Instead William is in perpetual revolt against the conventional world his parents are trying to shove him into, sabotaging fetes, thwarting field trips, swapping Christmas gifts (why should the
Infants get smaller gifts than the OAPs?). In the story ‘Finding a School for William’, Mrs Brown thinks wistfully about the bliss of a sedate, shiny-shoed boy with plastered down hair,
instead of her own leaping, diving, tree-climbing, shouting, toe-dragging urchin. We know better. Who wouldn’t want to join the Outlaws ‘on their paths of lawlessness and hazard’
rather than sticking to the paved road?
But why do we all love mischievous, rebellious characters (at least safely tucked within the pages of a book)? Why didn’t Richmal Crompton write about Hubert Lane and his followers? Or
make Georgie Murdoch, from my favourite story ‘Georgie and the Outlaws’, with his impeccable manners and his hatred of mud and dirt and rough games, her hero?
Quite simply, I think William’s imaginative engagement and delight in his world reconnect us all to the liberating energy of the child we once were. He’s the person we wish we dared
to be. We all enjoy reading about people who go against convention, and get a thrill from someone who acts on impulse and never worries about the consequences. In real life if you pass a door
marked ‘No Entry’ you walk on by. William barges right through it. And – joy of joys – we get to enter with him.
ILLIAM and Ginger and Douglas and Henry (known as the Outlaws) walked slowly down the road to school.
It was a very fine afternoon – one of those afternoons which, one feels – certainly the Outlaws felt – it is base ingratitude to spend indoors. The sun was shining and the
birds were singing in a particularly inviting way.
‘G’omtry,’ said William with scornful emphasis and repeated bitterly, ‘
‘Might be worse,’ said Douglas, ‘might be Latin.’
‘Might be better,’ said Henry, ‘might be singin’.’
The Outlaws liked singing lessons not because they were musical, but because it involved no mental effort and because the master who taught singing was a poor disciplinarian.
‘Might be better still,’ said Ginger, ‘might be nothin’.’
The Outlaws slackened their already very slack pace and their eyes wandered wistfully to the tree-covered hill-tops which lay so invitingly in the distance.
‘Afternoon school’s all
,’ said William suddenly. ‘Mornin’s bad enough. But
That morning certainly had been bad enough. It had been the sort of morning when everything goes wrong that can go wrong. The Outlaws had incurred the wrath of every master with whom they had
come in contact.
afternoon!’ said Ginger with infinite disgust. ‘It’ll be worse even than an ordinary afternoon with me havin’ to stay in writin’ lines
for old Face.’
‘An’ me havin’ to stay in doin’ stuff all over again for ole Stinks.’
It turned out that each one of the four Outlaws would have to stay in after afternoon school as the victim of one or other of the masters whose wrath they had incurred that morning.
William heaved a deep sigh.
‘Makes me feel
,’ he said. ‘Miners havin’ Trades Unions an’ Strikes an’ things to stop ’em doin’ too much work an’
havin’ to go on an’ on an’
till we’re wore out. You’d think Parliament’d stop it. People go on writin’ in the papers about people needin’
fresh air an’ then ’stead of lettin’ people
fresh air they shut ’em up in schools all day, mornin’
’ afternoon, till – till
they’re all wore out.’
‘Yes,’ said Ginger in hearty agreement. ‘I think that there oughter be a law stoppin’ afternoon school. I think that we’d be much healthier in every way if someone
made a law stoppin’ afternoon school so’s we could get a bit of fresh air. I think,’ with an air of unctuous virtue, ‘that it’s our juty to tr’n get a bit of
fresh air to keep us healthy so’s to save our parents havin’ to pay doctor’s bills.’
Ginger ignored the fact that so far no one in all his healthy young life had ever paid a doctor’s bill for him.
‘I’ve a good mind to be a Member of Parliament when I grow up,’ threatened Douglas, ‘jus’ to make all schools have a holiday in the afternoons.’
’ the mornin’,’ added Henry dreamily.
But, attractive as this idea was, even the Outlaws felt it was going rather too far.
to keep mornin’ school,’ said Douglas earnestly, ‘’cause of – ’cause of exams an’ things. An’
school-masters’d all starve if we didn’t have
‘Do ’em good,’ said Ginger bitterly and added, darkly, ‘I’d jolly well make some laws about schoolmasters if I was a Member of Parliament.’
‘What I think’d be a good idea,’ said William, ‘would be jus’ to have school on wet mornin’s. Not if it’s fine ’cause of gettin’ a little
fresh air jus’ to keep us healthy.’
This was felt by them all to be an excellent idea.
‘The rotten thing about it is,’ went on William, ‘that by the time we’re in Parliament makin’ the laws we’ll be makin’ it for
an’ too late to do
‘An’ it seems hardly worth botherin’ to get into Parliament jus’ to do things for other people,’ said Ginger the egoist.
They were very near the school now and instinctively had slowed down to a stop. The sun was shining more brightly than ever. The whole countryside looked more inviting than ever. There was a
short silence. They gazed from the school building (grim and dark and uninviting) to the sunny hills and woods and fields that surrounded it. At last William spoke.
to go in,’ he said slowly.
And Ginger said, still with his air of unctuous virtue, ‘Seems sort of
to go when we reely don’t believe that we oughter go. They’re always tellin’ us not to
do things our conscience tells us not to do. Well,
conscience tells me not to go to school this afternoon. My conscience tells me that it’s my
to go out into the fresh
air gettin’ healthy. My conscience—’
Douglas interrupted gloomily: ‘’S all very well talkin’ like that. You know what’ll happen to us tomorrow morning.’
The soaring spirits of the Outlaws dropped abruptly at this reminder. The general feeling was that it was rather tactless of Douglas to have introduced the subject. It was difficult after that
to restore the attitude of reckless daring which had existed a few minutes before. It was William of course who restored it, swinging well to the other extreme in order to repair the balance.
‘Well, we won’t go tomorrow mornin’ either,’ he said. ‘I’m jolly well sick of wastin’ my time in a stuffy old school when I might be outside
gettin’ fresh air. Let’s
Outlaws. Let’s be
Outlaws. Let’s go right away somewhere to a wood where no one’ll find us an’ live on
blackberries an’ roots an’ things an’ if they come out to fetch us we’ll climb trees an’ hide or run away or shoot at ’em with bows an’ arrows. Let’s
go’n’ live all the rest of our lives as Outlaws.’
And so infectious was William’s spirit, so hypnotic was William’s glorious optimism that the Outlaws cheered jubilantly and said, ‘Yes, let’s . . .
‘And never go to school no more,’ said Douglas rapturously.
‘No, never go to school no more,’ chanted the Outlaws.
They decided not to go home for provisions because their unexpected presence there would be sure to raise comment and question.
And as William said, ‘We don’t
any food but blackberries an’ mushrooms an’ roots an’ things. People used to live on roots an’ I bet we’ll
soon find some roots to live on. It’ll be quite easy to find what sort to eat and what sort not to eat. An’ we’ll kill rabbits an’ things an’ make fires an’ cook
them. That’s what real Outlaws did, an’ we’re real Outlaws now. An’ we don’t want any clothes but what we’ve got. When they fall to pieces we’ll make some
more out of the skins of rabbits we’ve killed to eat. That’s what real Outlaws did, I bet.’
‘Where’ll we go to?’ said Douglas. William considered.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘we must be in a wood. Outlaws are always in woods ’cause of hiding an’ eating the roots and things. And we oughter be on a hill ’cause of
seeing people comin’ when they come tryin’ to catch us—’
‘Ringers’ Hill, then,’ said Ginger blithely.
Ringers’ Hill was both high and wooded.
The Outlaws cheered again. They were still drunk with the prospect of freedom, intoxicated by William’s glorious optimism. They marched down the road that led away from the school singing
lustily. The Outlaws were very fond of community singing. They liked to sing different songs simultaneously. William in sheer lightness of heart was singing – very unsuitably –
‘Home Sweet Home’, Ginger was singing, ‘We won’t go to school no more’, to the tune of ‘It ain’t go’n rain no more’, Douglas was singing
‘Shepherd of the Hills’, and Henry was singing ‘Bye-bye, Blackbird’.
Suddenly two of their class-mates – Brown and Smith – came round the corner on their way to school. They looked at the Outlaws in surprise. Brown was deprived of the power of speech
by a twopenny bull’s eye of giant proportions which he had just purchased at the village shop, but Smith said, ‘Hello! You’re going the wrong way.’
‘No, we aren’t,’ said William blithely, ‘we’re going the right way.’
Brown made an inarticulate sound through his bull’s eye, meant to convey interest and interrogation, and Smith, interpreting it, said, ‘Where are you going?’
‘To Ringers’ Hill,’ said William defiantly and passed on, leaving Brown and Smith gazing after them amazedly.
‘You di’n’ ought to have told them,’ said Ginger. But William was in a mood of joyous defiance.
‘I don’t care,’ he said, ‘I don’t care who knows. I don’t care who comes to fetch us home. We won’t go. We’ll climb trees an’ shoot at
’em and throw stones at ’em. I bet no one in the whole world’ll be able to catch us. I’m an Outlaw I am,’ he chanted. ‘I’m an Outlaw.’