waifs and strays

The facts

“What’s that?” William gruffed.
“That’s a cow.”
“What’s a cow?”
Miss Milton sighed. But, of course, it was quite natural that a slum child should never have seen a cow.
“It’s… just a cow, dear,” she said. “A cow is… well, it’s a cow.”
Miss Milton’s cat sauntered out of the kitchen door and eyed William sardonically.
“What’s that? ‘ he said, pointing at it.
“A cat, of course,” said Miss Milton rather sharply. “Surely you’ve seen cats at home.”
William realised that he was rather overdoing his town-bred ignorance.
The cat, who had recognised William, winked at him and went indoors again.

  • Number: 21.3
  • Published: 1939 (1938 in magazine form) – originally titled William and the Piebald Mouse
  • Book: William and Air Raid Precautions
  • Synopsis: William impersonates himself impersonating a slum child.

Verdict

Somehow it’s always Miss Milton who falls prey to William’s attempts to impersonate other boys. But in this story – in which the Outlaws meet two slum children staying in the area, and, (not unreasonably) aghast that they will be spending their one free afternoon going to tea with the patrician Miss Milton’s sister rather than enjoying the Great Outdoors – William agrees to swap clothes and be a slum child for the benefit of this new Miss Milton.

“Oh, here’s a lady who’s kindly coming to see you, Bert,” Miss Milton said.
They heard greetings in the hall, then the door was
thrown open and: “This is Bert,” said Miss Milton, pointing to him in a proprietary fashion.
William squinted wildly and opened his mouth almost
to the size of a football, but in vain.
William!” said Mrs Brown.

The fun really starts when Sister Milton invites Hubert Lane round to give William a tour of the local area, closely followed by Mrs Brown…

The facts

William was supremely bored. He regarded the centre of the British Empire with contempt. “Streets!” he said, with devastating scorn. “Shops! Huh!”

  • Number: 4.7
  • Published: 1924 (1923 in magazine form)
  • Book: William the Fourth
  • Synopsis: The Browns take a city-break in London, and William aspires to become an urchin.

Verdict

Where would any British institution like the William stories be without at least one transporting the action to London?

William, though, is not a fan. He dislikes the history (“his only comment on being shown the Tower was that it seemed to be takin’ up the whole day”) and the culture and the sport.

But, accompanying his family on various short cuts in the back streets of London, William had glimpsed another world, a world of street urchins, who fought and wrestled, and gave vent to piercing whistles, and hung onto the backs of carts, and paddled int he gutter, and rang front door-bells and ran from policemen.

He intensely dislikes the Kensington-dwelling distant cousin of his own age who makes conversation: “He asked William if he could fox-trot, and if he didn’t adore Axel Haig’s etchings.”

So, one night, rather than go to Kensington for a painfully respectable party, William breaks free and takes up with a gang of urchins, shoplifts, fights another gang of urchins, and even helps man a grimy coffee-stall.

Full of slightly hackneyed stereotypes of London but tremendous fun nonetheless.

The facts

William considered that the microbe world was treating him unfairly. Mild chicken-pox would be, on the whole, a welcome break in the monotony of life. It would afford an excuse for disinclination to work for months afterwards. And now Henry, Douglas and Ginger had all succumbed, but chicken-pox had passed William by.
William himself spared no effort. He breathed in heavily the atmosphere of Ginger’s Latin Grammar, on which Ginger had been lately engaged, as soon as he heard that Ginger had fallen a victim. It was no use. William caught nothing.

  • Number: 3.7
  • Published: 1923 (same year in magazine form) – not to be confused with the 1952 story, 28.7, of the same name
  • Book: William Again
  • Synopsis: William assembles a gang to take revenge on those who cross him… but they soon turn against him.

Verdict

This is a story of what William would, no doubt, consider to be nothing but strict justice, but what the rest of us might view as nothing but malicious lashing-out at authority figures. It is actually relatively unusual to find William engaging in motiveless malignity for the sheer sake of being naughty. But this is such an example.

With the rest of the Outlaws in bed with chicken-pox, William assembles a “secret serciety” of fierce local servant boys Albert, Leopold and Sam, who roam the village in a reign of terror, pranking anybody who has attempted to discipline or restrain William.

Eventually, though, the Outlaws recover and William attempts to disband the “serciety”; Albert, Leopold and Sam demand to be paid off for their silence.

“They’re jus’ frens of mine,” said William. “Jus’ frens of mine that was interested in gardens and wanted to see ours—”
“But they’re horrid, common, rough boys,” said Mrs Brown.
“Oh, no,” he said. “They’re not really. They only look like horrid, common rough boys. They’re dressed like horrid, common, rough boys. They—”
“Don’t talk nonsense Wililam.”

In desperation, and for lack of any pocket money not being parentally diverted to pay for past breakages and damages, William abstracts a veal pie, the centrepiece of his family’s dinner party, to give the boys.

Mr Brown and his hungry guests assume the theft was perpetrated by some scoundrel who had passed the open kitchen window, and gave chase. Then they came upon William remonstrating with Albert, Leopold and Sam…

William, in his pyjamas, pondered for a moment over the mystery of human life as he bestowed those few perfunctory brushes upon his shock of hair that constituted its evening toilet. He had that day committed almost every crime known to boyhood.
He had brought “common” boys home.
He had stolen a pie.
He had fought openly on the high road, and acquired a thoroughly disreputable black eye.
Finally, he had been acclaimed as a hero. He was bewildered. He did not understand it.
Before he finally surrendered to the powers of sleep, he summed up his chief impressions of the evening: “They’re jolly queer, grown-ups are,” he said, sleepily. “Jolly queer!”

Once again, circumstances conspired to ensure that William learnt fairly little from his misdemeanours, other than that fate is often on his side!