Magazine article The Spectator

Just Bromley

Magazine article The Spectator

Just Bromley

Article excerpt

ON a Saturday afternoon in September 1962 a small boy cycled ten miles into a seaside town on the Lancashire coast to buy a book. It had been two whole years since the last William and he'd had William's Treasure Trove on order for weeks, and today was the day. Or, rather, it was not. Lancashire towns didn't open on Saturday afternoons in the 1960s.

A few years later, my perfect Williams and Jenningses, my beautiful first editions that I held in my fingertips so as not to mark the creamy pages, were carefully put away in a wardrobe. They were still safely in the dark when I left for university in 1970. That Christmas, at the end of my first term, I went as always to look at my books: they had gone. My mother, deciding that a student, almost a grown man after all, could have no further use for children's books, had given them to the church bazaar. My mother has been dead for more than 20 years and I still cannot forgive her.

Last year, as I contemplated the awful prospect of becoming 50, one of my less colourful resolutions was to reassemble the lost Williams (notwithstanding that Treasure Trove, which originally cost me 10/6, would now fetch over 100). I know that this quest is partly the nostalgia of the menopausal male for lost childhood and regret for the wasted decades; but the Williams aren't merely books that I owned when a child, nor are they only books about childhood; they are essentially books about a vanished England. It is the enduring image of this simpler, kinder England that gives the books such potency, and the knowledge of how utterly that England of shared values and ancient certainties has passed from us which instils such an exquisite melancholia.

But did Richmal Crompton, the creator of William Brown and whose stories dwelt so successfully in immemorial England for almost 50 years, have any particular bit of it in mind? The author apparently intended William's village to be anonymous and geographically indistinct: 'I just set people and houses in places where I want them to be,' wrote Miss Crompton in 1962. `The village in which William lives is entirely imaginary, a small country village in Kent - or perhaps Surrey or Sussex, within easy reach of London.' Heresy though it may be, but I detect a whiff of artfulness here.

When Just William was published in 1922 Richmal Crompton undoubtedly brought in characters and landscape features as the narrative demanded them, and without thought of future inconsistencies. But each year brought a new William, sometimes two (by the time of her death in 1969 there would be hundreds of stories and 38 books), and a coherent topographical structure had to be given to an increasingly familiar cast of muddy ditches, sweet shops, farmers' fields, Big Houses and railway stations. In the manner of Thomas Hardy's Wessex, enough information is provided to suggest that William Brown's village had a model, and the William canon is scattered with clues, or red herrings, as to where in England that model might be.

Amateur enthusiasts, people with 'int'lectual int'rests' but no `learnin", think the village must be in commuter Surrey or Sussex on the basis that Mr Brown seems to work in the City. William scholars, on the other hand, submitted Miss Crompton's unassuming tales to rigorous (not to say theological) textual analysis and, having considered prewar road networks and correlated the references to train arrivals and departures with Bradshaw's Railway Guide, have concluded that William's village is in reality Somerton, near Bicester in Oxfordshire.

`Huh! Dunno about that,' as William used to say. I have doubts whether William even lived in a village, let alone a village in Oxfordshire. Our hero was born in a semi-detached, four-storey Victorian house, his family later moving to a large, brick villa called `The Hollies' (in fact, the neighbourhood seems entirely to consist of large detached villas with names like `The Cedars' 'Hollydale' and `Beechwood House'). …

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