28 October 2021


Those who, very kindly and indulgently, read even the more ephemeral of the ephemera I publish will have noticed that I recently took an interest in the Just William stories of Richmal Crompton, especially a short story William and the Nasties

I have learned an important lesson. And I thank all of you who helped me to find this text for your part in advancing my very limited education! Here is the Lesson you have taught me:

Never jump to conclusions. Never assume the obvious.

That story, written in 1935, shows William proposing to imitate 'Him Hitler' and the 'Nasties' and the Storm Troopers; to drive out of their English village a Jewish shopkeeper and to ransack his vast supply of sweets. In fact, the subtext of the story is elegantly anti-Nazi; it is made clear that, in England, Hitler's treatment of the Jews would be illegal. One would go to prison! William and his associates gradually realise this and lose all confidence in their plans of exspoliation. (In a somewhat mannered twist of the plot, all ends happily with a real 'thief' dragged off to prison by the police, while William and Mr Isaacs join together in happy amity.)

I assumed ... mea maxima culpa ... that the story was expunged from the canon at the time of WW2. 

I was very wrong.

It wasn't. It was expunged in 1986.

It appeared, in reprint after reprint, throughout the testing years of the War. But it was meat far too strong for the sensitivies of (what Vatican II called) hodiernum tempus.

What did 1986 find so objectionable? 

Possibly, the typecasting of the Jew; he is an entrepreneur; he speaks in an English in which W becomes V. Possibly, the presentation of something as vile as Hitlerism as a mere joke (cf also the tribulations of P G Wodehouse ... "the German Army ... a fine body of men ...").

Richmal Crompton, the author(ess), was the daughter of a clergyman who was also a Classics Master. She herself read Classics at the Royal Holloway, and went on to teach it. She was a sophisticated ironist and stylist. Her Narrator's English is literate and highly latinate; it sets off the naive illiteracy in the dialogue of the small boys whose words and exploits she presents as objects of satire. Indeed, a real 'William' would not be able to understand most of her texts at all! 

I suspect that she began by intending what she wrote to amuse literate and latinate adults. She offers us a comfortable and amused viewpoint, sitting at her own side, chuckling when she chuckles. 

Readers will recall that C S Lewis explained that he did not set out, as he visited Narnia, to write stories for children ... but what he did want to write presented itself in the genre of Children's Stories. How many child-readers would fully appreciate, for example, the passage where Lewis argues that abominable should be etymologically derived, not from abominabile, but from ab homine?

Wozzat you say? In Middle English, and in the Shakespearean folios, abominable is indeed spelt abhominable? (Holoferne favente scribo.)

Exactly. This gets us to the heart of the matter. Censorship tries to cut us off from our cultural past. It attempts to slam shut the doors into other human worlds. Writers of the 1930s, or 1430s, were not always right, but they were not always wrong. And writers of our own time are not always wrong ... but they are most certainly not always right. And, in a generation's time, this will be embarrassingly clear.

Lewis (On reading Old Books) recommended that we should never read something new until we had (re)read a couple of old books.

I suggest that the many volumes of Just William deserve to be added to the Official Canon of Old Books which need to be reread. William and the Nasties is a good starting point.


IaninEngland said...

It should also be remembered that the Left lacks a sense of humour (witness the *earnestness* of Soviet posters and statues).
I have somewhere a copy of a cartoon in which a weedy gentlemen is standing at the counter of a bookseller's where a rather large woman is telling him "This is a feminist bookshop; there *is* no Humour section."
So, if Just William or Lewis's etymology raises a smile, then it is obviously counter-revolutionary and "ungood" and needs to be crushed.

John Nolan said...

I read the William books at the age of nine or ten and 'William and the Nasties' sticks in the memory. William gets the idea after eavesdropping on the conversation of his grown-up brother Robert who has joined Mosley's fascists.

At that age I had no problem in putting William in an historical context from the 1920s to the 1950s. I also found Jerome K Jerome's 'Three Men in a Boat' hilarious, although the late Victorian world it evokes had long vanished by 1960.

Josephus Muris Saliensis said...

I reply as much to IaninEngland as you Your Reverence, on the topic of the lack of sense of humour among those who feel themselves to be marginalised.

Years ago, when I was an undergraduate, there was a cartoon in Private Eye showing a pair of middle-aged gents in raincoats at a drinks party. The caption read "Oh no, we're not gay, we're homosexuals, a far more serious business."

I thought it silly at the time, though it clearly stuck in my mind, but it was in fact prophetic.

Grant Milburn said...

From the Guardian:

"One story that has been omitted is William and the Nasties, a racist 1935 yarn in which the Outlaws emulate Hitler by persecuting Mr Isaacs, a stingy, hook-nosed Jewish sweet shop owner."


Maybe the story could be reissued with the following content warning:

"The following story contains Irony. Irony, young people, has no connection to element number 26. It was used in the Dark Ages as a cover for Racist Ideology. By 2027 courts had established the principle; the appearance of racism is racism and no appeal shall be accepted to Irony or Etymology (thus rendering the word denigrate taboo) or to any other excuse.

"The story is made available only to bona fide researchers into racism in 20th century literature, provided they have submitted an outline of their proposed thesis, including expected findings and conclusion. "

We had a couple of volumes of William in the house when I was young. If it wasn't for Internet samizdat, I'd now be thinking: "So Richmal Crompton was a racist. What a pity."

dunstan said...

Miss Crompton's classical education shows itself in one of her last stories, William and the Pop Singers. The latter call themselves The Argonauts, and we are told that is the brainchild of Chris, the leading member of the band who 'has had a classy education and taken classy exams'.
I wonder if the character of Chris was inspired by Mick Jagger who also had a 'classy', indeed classical education, at Dartford Grammar. When he was there to open The Mick Jagger Centre he was apparently very pleased that he could translate some Latin on the board of one of the classrooms he visited. The Mick Jagger Centre is just round the corner from the Catholic parish church of St Anselm's.
Fr Simon Heans

Alan said...

With adult hindsight I wonder how much of Crompton's humour kids would understand.

I was in my forties (and a mature Ph.D. student) when the penny dropped about the thirty-year-old mystery in "William and the Bolshevik". The Bolshevik referred to Tories as "rackshunaries". The scales at last fell from my eyes as I realised that Crompton hadn't intended my ten-year-old self to read "rackSHUNaries" but "RACKshunaries".

At the time of the censorship of the Nasties story, I recall reading reports (accurate or not) that it continued to be published in Hebrew translations.