It's Christmas Eve (in the western tradition) and I am afraid we are back in the Edwardian period again with the Just William books by Richmal Compton. My route to these however, is not a conventional one. The books were not on the approved list when I was growing up. I suspect that my Mother's love of George Orwell meant that she followed his condemnation of the books, When I read Orwell's collected letters, journalism and essays from cover to cover (Yes I did, all four volumes when I was 17 and I don't regret it) I came across both the attack and his somewhat nervous letters when he heard that Compton intended to reply. He more or less admitted a somewhat hasty attack. Compton herself is interesting, a spinster product of a school for the daughters of clergyman with an honours degree in Classics and a background as a suffragette she was more than capable of holding her own.
Then we come forward to the nineties and one of those long car journeys with young children in the back of the car. I had forgotten the story tapes and we pulled into a motorway service station. All that was on offer were Martin Jarvis's charming recordings on the books. I have recalled that early maternally imparted prejudices might not stand up to scrutiny and anything was better that the are we there yet chants so I took the risk and was hooked. The most recent BBC series updates them a little and increased the role for William's mother. They also starred Outnumbered's Daniel Roche who was born to play William. The BBC failed to commission a second series, but then again they failed to give it any real publicity running it at lunch time when the adult audience was probably larger that the children! Shame really I thought it was brilliantly done, one of the best re-workings I have ever seen.
The characters in the books are wonderfully drawn. William's gang The Outlaws contains all the great archetypes; I always liked Duncan by the way. Violet Elizabeth Bott of "I'll thcream and thcream 'till I'm thick" fame contrasts with Joan Clive the dark headed beauty who captures William's heart and is admitted to the gang on swearing a terrible oath. The innocence and deviousness with which he exploits the various love affairs of his elder sister and brother create some of the great comic moments. Their adventures are those of imagination but with a contemporary angle, In one story William is forced to join the Temperance League which degenerates into fisticuffs. The rival gang of Herbert Lane-ites keep them honest and the absurdity of William in a Page's costume at a Wedding needs no illustration.
The books might appear to validate anarchy but in fact, and this is one of the attractions of the books, William has a highly developed moral sense and conscience. More at times that the adults who surround and plague him. Indeed this is a feature of all the children's books of this period. They possess a strong sense of integrity even in their rebels and provide a sense of virtue that educates a generation. They are the first post-imperial books in English literature as well and that may say something for the adults brought up on them who came through WWII and established the first true Welfare State.
If you haven't read them then you must, or better still let Martin Javis read them to you. And of course if you have not read them you will never ever understand one of the best comic science fantasy novels of all time Good Omens which was an attempted parody by Gaiman and Pratchett (what a wonderful combination) but to my mind it ends up paying tribute. In that book the anti-Christ, due to a mix up at the time of birth is brought up on the Just William series so warps the world to that model of an ideal childhood. The scene where the Hound of Hell manifests as a rather battered terrier (William's Jumble) had me convulsed with laughter the first time I read it (and most times since for that matter). Its going to be a TV series as well, or so we were told last year and in the meantime if you don't want to read it then Martin Javis can read it to you.