It’s funny the kind of ideas that take root in you when you’re a child, all evidence to the contrary.
I was convinced as a boy of 9 or 10 that Richmal Crompton was a man, that he lived in Singapore where he dreamt up wondrous stories for me to read, and that because my mum and dad had lived in Bangladesh for a time and transited through Singapore on more than one occasion than they somehow knew the writer and that’s why mum had recommended I read his books.
Keep in mind that this was pre-Google, and I am pretty sure even before our collection of World Book Encyclopaedias appeared on the shelves of the family room bookshelves, so all these suppositions went unchallenged for years, the rather extraordinary, and it must be said, untrue products of an overactive would-be writer’s imagination.
Richmal Crompton Lamburn was in fact a woman, a very talented writer from a family of gifted wordsmiths – her brother John Battersby Crompton Lamburn variously wrote under his own name and that of the pseudonym John Lambourne – who was born in Lancashire, and settled in London via Derbyshire, where she died in 1969.
Can you see just a few inaccuracies in my make believe biography (which I am fairly certain came to be simply because my mother bought the books in Singapore for me to read and I, rejector of the ordinary and everyday to the last, went for fictionally exotic over perfectly lovely ordinary)?
The one thing that was true was that Crompton was adept at crafting larger than life, and yes wondrous, tales, adventures for her central character, William, a mischievous schoolboy who hung out with a group of friends who called themselves “The Outlaws”.
William, who was supposedly based on her nephew Tommy, according to the actor John Teed who knew the family well, went on to have many adventures, starting with the first novel Just William in 1922 (which was preceded by the short story “Rice Mould Pudding”, published in Home Magazine in 1919) through 37 other novels that finished with the posthumously released William the Lawless.
But despite the fact that William enjoyed great popularity around the world, with the books being adapted for everything from radio plays to BBC television shows (you can see the trailer for it below), Crompton always saw William as the lesser of her creative children.
According to Mary Cadogan, who released a book on the author in 1993 entitled The Woman Behind William: A Life of Richmal Crompton (Pan Macmillan), Crompton, who originally envisaged William as a pot-boiler of sorts for adult audiences, was frustrated that her more grown up fare did not receive the attention or reader affection that the naughty, and ultimately always triumphant, William did.
She even tried her hand apparently at re-casting William as a girl, the Enter Patricia series, and Jimmy which failed to capture the public’s imagination like William did and which were ultimately discontinued in favour of their more famous, and successful, literary sibling.
While as a writer myself, I can well understand Crompton’s need to have all her work universally admired and adored, the fact that William was an all-consuming success, even with young boys with a penchant for made up biographical details in Sydney, Australia, and made my youthful reading life such an unmitigated pleasure, should have pleased her indeed.
Growing up in a loving but sharply delineated world where bucking the trend was not seen as acceptable or expected, William represented the sort of person I might be one day – challenging the constraints placed on him the circumstances in which he grew up and emerging successful against the odds every time.
Admittedly I never followed him down that path in any practical sense as a child – as adult in entirely another matter where gently subverting the established order became almost de rigeur – but the idea that I could have, that I perhaps might have thumbed my nose at authority even just a little and got away with it, was a delicious thought indeed for a well-behaved, if boisterous 10 year old in 1970s Australia.
Or was that possibly Singapore?