Sweet William

 The facts

Since the train journey began he had pretended that he was a spy travelling disguised through an enemy country (none of the other people in the carriage suspected him), a general on his way to the war (the other people in the carriage were his staff), a circus man travelling with his show (the large man with the long nose was an elephant and the woman in the black satin coat was a performing seal) and a wizard, who, by a wave of his wand, made trees, fields, telegraph posts skip to his bidding.

  • Number: 18.10
  • Published: 1936 (same year in magazine form, originally titled William the Hero)
  • Book: Sweet William
  • Synopsis: William carefully cultivates an image as a crime-fighting hero.

Verdict

The Browns need a temporary respite from William, so he is put on a train to the seaside to stay with an old schoolfriend of his mother’s.

After his various imaginary exploits begin to pall, he looks for more tangible forms of entertainment, and eventually decides to experiment with the emergency brake. He wonders whether pulling it just a little bit will only slow the train down a little bit.

William began to recount his exploit vaingloriously and with many additions. He described how a ferocious ruffian had suddenly begun to threaten him in a railway carriage and how, after a tremendous tussle, he had managed to overpower him and pull the communication-cord.

It doesn’t. It stops the train. But William gets away with it because the sudden lurch saves a fellow passenger from a particularly menacing mugger – the passenger assumes that William espied the confrontation and bravely and pluckily intervened. William arrives in the seaside resort as a hero, interviewed by the local newspaper, receiving reward money, being unable to walk anywhere without being asked for an autograph.

Unfortunately, he then feels compelled to engage in yet more heroism, if necessary by manufacturing a few situations. And he somewhat overdoes it.

 The facts

What?” said William, incredulously. “Do you mean to say that they give all old people all over the country ten shillin’s a week?”
“It’s called the Old Age Pension,” said Henry.
“I don’t care what it’s called,” said William. “It’s jolly unfair, an’ if you’re goin’ to start stickin’ up for it…”
“I’m not stickin’ up for it,” said Henry hastily. “I’m only tellin’ you what it’s called.”

  • Number: 18.9
  • Published: 1936 (same year in magazine form)
  • Book: Sweet William
  • Synopsis: The Outlaws try to eradicate age discrimination from the pension system.

Verdict

William is so outraged to learn that old people get given money every week by the government “for nothin’ at all” that he vows to change the system (but only after he finds out how difficult it is successfully to impersonate an old person and claim the payment for himself: Action Benefit Fraud etc).

William, wearing an old hat of his father’s, a large grey beard that had figured in all the family theatricals ever since he could remember, and an
overcoat of Robert’s, entered the post office and spoke in a high unsteady voice supposed to be suggestive of extreme old age.
“I’ve come for my ten shillin’s,” he said.
The post-mistress gazed at him in blank astonishment. “Your what?” she said.
“My Old Age Pension,” quavered William. ”I’ve only jus’ come to live here, so I’ll be comin’ for my ten shillin’s now every week. I…”
But he got no further, for the post-mistress leant over the counter and delivered a box on the ear that dislodged both beard and hat, and sent William himself staggering ‘into the road.
“You saucy little hound!’ said the post-mistress indignantly.

He is also outraged when he learns that Parliament banned child labour: “D’you mean to say children used to be let work in mills an’ mines an chimneys? Well, why couldn’t they have left us alone instead of comin’ interferin’ with us? I’ve always wanted to go down mines an’ up chimneys. You have little lamps an’ go down in a lift an’ get black all over an’ there’s ponies there. It mus’ be jolly nice.”

Fortunately, Henry has a tactic for righting these wrongs in mind. He has an aunt who was a suffragette. He recounts some of her tactics; William is not a fan of all of them (“That’s silly: I don’t mind goin’ to prison, but I’ll jolly well eat anythin’ I can get when I’m there – I never see any sense in not eatin’”) but agrees to try organising a public meeting, and getting up a protest march on London, substituting for the slogan “VOTES FOR WOMEN” the slogan “PENSHUNS FOR BOYS”.

But then they come across a group of schoolgirls who want to know why they aren’t included…

 The facts

William had had started a Punishment Insurance Society at school. The members were to pay him a penny a week and to receive twopence for a detention and threepence for a caning. He had thought it all out, and it had seemed an excellent scheme, but it had been unfortunately discovered by Authority, and all its members punished, so that it was now bankrupt and discredited.

  • Number: 18.8
  • Published: 1936 (same year in magazine form, originally titled William and the Good Uncle)
  • Book: Sweet William
  • Synopsis: The Outlaws are determined to humiliate Hubert Lane’s odious Uncle Charlie.

Verdict

Hubert Lane’s Uncle Charlie provides a clear and frightening illustration of what Hubert himself will, plainly, grow up to be like. Plump, smug, convinced of his own superiority and consumed by a worryingly juvenile desire to play pranks on William, Uncle Charlie makes his presence very much felt during his stay in the village.

“Now I’ll show you a native of Lapland dressed exactly like the people I myself saw there.” Uncle Charlie rang his little bell. He couldn’t know, of course, that Ginger had appeared in the aperture dressed in Ethel’s bathing dress, his nose reddened, a wicker plant-pot on his head.

Mrs Lane is wont to excuse her brother’s childishness by remarking gaily that he has “the heart of a boy”, but can that really explain the spectacle of a grown man hiding in a tree so as to drop fireworks on boys with whom he has no real connection? Or posting a box of chocolates to William, having first filled every one with chilli powder? Mrs Lane is quick enough to condemn William’s pranks against her Hubert, but no doubt this is very different.

But then comes the day of Uncle Charlie’s smug lecture to William’s school about his (in fact, entirely fictional) travels. The Outlaws make some small adjustments to his props.