A going-away present?

Many years ago (the first year I was Bookhounding, I think), I reviewed Richmal Crompton's William at War. The first story in the collection was William and A.R.P. [Air Raid Precautions], so that was the illustration that I used. In fact, as I discovered when I visited Hay-on-Wye recently, William at War is a recent anthology, but William and A.R.P. was the first title in a book of the same name first published in May 1939. The war hadn't yet started, but despite the Outlaws' usual optimistic approach, it must have seemed very near. By the time the copy I bought was published (a reprint from October 1939), many children would have been evacuated to the British countryside, while their fathers were en route to France with the British Expeditionary Force.

I wondered as I was reading my copy who had owned this previously - was this packed in a suitcase for a comfort read? A memory of home? Perhaps it belonged to a young soldier, who would be cheered by reading about William's adventures. The book itself is dedicated to the young cast of the first William film - Just William (1940) (I assume that Crompton must have been involved in the filming). One of the dedicatees is a very young Roddy McDowell, who played Ginger,

William always is an astonishingly cheering read. Richmal Crompton has that instinctive flair for language and characterisation that makes P.G. Wodehouse a perpetual tonic. Only two of the stories in William and A.R.P. relate directly to the war - the title story, and William's Day Off in which William gets rather more than he bargained for when he attempts to stage a trial evacuation.

There are nine stories altogether ranging from tales such as William and the Vanishing Luck and Portrait of William, which are plotted and move as slickly as any French farce to William and the Badminton Racket, which has a nice bit of tension to it as William is nearly out-done by a less than diligent doctor, and then there's William and the begging letter which is just plain hilarious.

As a child I was never that keen on William, and reading William, the dog-trainer, I can understand why. The world that William was brought up in was both a much tougher world than today and a more innocent one (not that far removed from the world of my own childhood); and the dog trainer story is a good example of this. William's beloved mutt, Jumble, is sentenced to death for sheep worrying, despite William's protestations of Jumble's innocence the dog must die. Even William nearly sheds a tear, despite it being very unmanly. Of course being William everything comes right in the end, both for him and Jumble, but there is a moment in the middle of the tale when William's world looks as though it is about to crash around him, which is very upsetting (at least for anyone with the occasional soul of a child, and a dog-lover).

Richmal Crompton never laughs at her children, she laughs with them, and part of the joie de vivre of William is his childish optimism that everything will turn out alright, despite the Hubert Lanes of this world, the incomprehensibility of adults, who seem to have forgotten the joys of childhood, and the pains of learning French. Sometimes we may regret growing up, but we always have William to remind us of what childhood at its best can be like.


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