Day 190: William and the Nasties

The facts

“I’ll be the chief one,” said William in a business-like manner. “What’s he called in Germany?”
“Her Hitler,” said Henry.
Her!” echoed William in disgust. “Is it a woman?”
“No, it’s a man all right,” said Henry, “but ‘her’ means a man in German. It’s the same as ‘him.’”
“It can’t be the same as him,” objected William. “Her can’t ever be the same as him in any language. People that talk foreign languages never seem to have any sense. I don’t mind being called Hitler all right, but I’m jolly well not going to be called Her Hitler. Tell you what! I’ll be called Him Hitler. That sounds all right. Now I’m Him Hitler an’ we four are the nasties. And now let’s talk about what we’re goin’ to do.”

  • Number: 17.6
  • Published: 1935 (1934 in magazine form)
  • Book: William the Detective – and available online here
  • Synopsis: The Outlaws discover a German political party called “the Nasties” – and there’s a Jewish sweet-shop owner in the village.

Verdict

This one needs a bit of unpacking.

It’s no longer in print; the publishers decided to withdraw it after Richmal Crompton’s death. Its main content –  the Outlaws appointing themselves “Nasties”, and, in the manner of “storm troops”, seeking to drive out the village’s only Jew, Mr Isaacs – proved controversial.

“There came to William glorious visions of chasing Jew after Jew out of sweetshop after sweetshop.”

Feeling piqued at the “hook-nosed” Mr Isaacs’ evil, money-grabbing tendencies (such as only giving them the amount of sweets that they have paid for), the Outlaws decide to emulate the Nazis, create a banner bearing a swastika – which for some reason they believe to be the German for ‘snake’ – evict Mr Isaacs from his shop, and seize all his property.

So in a sense, the nay-sayers are right. It’s definitely a story wholly inappropriate for children, and any saving grace in its message is very subtle indeed.

But I do think the saving grace is there.

A strange distaste for the whole adventure was creeping over the Outlaws. Even the thought of the bull’s-eyes and liquorice allsorts failed to raise their drooping spirits. “It… it does seem a bit like ordin’ry stealin’,” said Ginger, voicing their doubts.

The Outlaws start out genuinely believing themselves to be doing the right thing: although it is totally outrageous, they are convinced that their actions are right both morally and legally.

But then they realise, of their own accord, that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. It just feels wrong. Left to their own devices, I think they would probably have abandoned their mission.

It’s an anti-racist story, albeit clumsily presented. And I’m sure it would never have been written after the details of the Holocaust became public knowledge.

And, of course, there’s a little bit of patriotism woven in as well: “No, it’s no use tryin’ swastikas again,” said William firmly. “Seems to me people don’t know how to act with nasties in England.” Nazism never got a foothold with the staunch Englishman.

Endnote

What actually happens at the end of the story is that, sneaking into the sweetshop, the boys lock Mr Isaacs into a cupboard and then discover that he has a hostage tied up upstairs. Except it turns out that the person they locked into the cupboard was a burglar, and freeing the ‘hostage’ frees Mr Isaacs, who is full of gratitude and rewards the boys with all the sweets they can carry.

I think this is just a classic Richmal Crompton ending and there’s nothing deeper going on. However, some of my fellow Jewish enthusiasts, I know, feel quite unsettled by it: the Jew is only vindicated from the charge of meanness when he proactively proves himself to be generous by giving things away for free.

The debate goes on…