In December 2010 BBC showed the first of four episode of the new series of Just William. This reminded me of a piece I wrote called
“I’ll thcream. I’ll thcream and thcream and thcream ‘till I’m thick,” was the threat of Violet Elizabeth Bott William’s spoilt neighbour.
Richmal Compton’s first book Just William was published in 1922, her last, William the Lawless, in 1970. Many of Compton’s best- selling books were written in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. I remember reading some but can’t remember which.
Just William followed the exploits of 11-year-old William Brown and his band of ‘outlaws’ Douglas, Ginger and Henry on adventures in the local woods. The foursome, sometimes reluctantly allowing Violet Elizabeth to accompany them, got up to all sorts of scrapes.
Of course you could also listen to their escapades on the radio way before the series appeared on TV with a young Dennis Waterman as the first actor to play William on the box. The BBC are to broadcast a new series later this year, or early next, but you can be sure that the ‘pc’ police will water down some of the controversial stories lines featured in the books. The RSPCA has already criticised William’s cruelty towards animals for painting his dog blue to become a circus act. The short story ‘William and the Nasties’ was removed from the later editions of the 1935 book William The Detective in which William and the outlaws tried to imitate Nazi storm troopers driving a Jewish shopkeeper out of business.
Still on the outlaw theme I remember vividly my primary school headmaster reading BB’s Brendon Chase to the oldest class. Denys Watkins-Pitchford’s novel was based on the Hensman brothers, Robin, John and Harold who ran away from their Aunt Ellen to fend for themselves; they spent eight months living as outlaws in the forest of Brendon Chase. The rifle and ammunition they took with them gave them the means to survive in the wild. It was the illness of an eccentric old charcoal burner, Smokoe Joe, whom they had befriended that led to the boys being run to ground.
I suppose I read about Robin Hood and his outlaws in Lincoln green in Sherwood Forest but I must admit I remember the antics of Errol Flynn as Robin much better. I know I read about Hereward the Wake but cannot trace the actual stories. I’ve recently downloaded the e-book Hereward; The Last of the English by Charles Kingsley but there is no way I would have read that book as a boy; it’s far too heavy a read.
I’ve vague recollections of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five but not their names. We do have a collection of her stories in my wife’s 1947 Christmas gift of The Second Holiday Book. The nearest I came to Blyton though was at university in the 1950s playing bridge with Imogen her daughter.
In 1949 I must have been into the books of Arthur Ransome. I know I read Amazons and Swallows; a copy of his Coot Club still has a place on our bookshelves – a school prize from the Michaelmas term – which tells of the adventures on the Norfolk Broads of Dick, Dorothea, Joe and the twins nicknamed Port and Starboard. Strange, I’ve always hated boats.
I also boast a copy of the illustrated edition of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which contains at least five ghost stories among which are The Bagman’s Story about the haunted chair and the Story of The Bagman’s Uncle and the ghosts of the Mail.
I don’t think I’ve ever read The Jungle Book but I do remember Kipling’s Just So Stories. These fascinating accounts of how various phenomena came about were first published in 1902. How the Whale got his Throat explains why the whale eats such small prey; and How the Camel Got His Hump tells how the idle camel was punished. I’ve discovered that the Just So Stories are available to download free from Project Gutenberg and that you may also obtain them in an audio-book and a version that may be listened to on any media player.
These days children’s books are available in a variety of forms. The Horrid Henry series appear as annuals, gift packs, activity books, joke books and in early reader formats. The books themselves usually contain four stories of Henry and his friends in the Purple Hand Gang, including Rude Ralph, the champion burper. His teacher is Miss Battle Axe and, harping back to Just William, there is a Lisping Lily and Vain Violet, a very rich vain girl.
I’m told that many adults have read the Harry Potter books by J K Rowling. I’ll confess that I never have. My grandsons have devoured every word. It’s murder if you ever have to watch a video or film of any of these in their company – they seem to know every word by heart and what’s coming next; they tell you before it does.
I know that Rowling has made millions from the Potter books and its spin-offs. Some may become worldwide favourites but one story always seems to top the list – the story of Scout, Jem and Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s one and only book. To Kill A Mocking Bird was ‘fifty’ this year. My daughter’s favourite book – she’s even named one of her dogs Scout – shame he’s not a girl.