Wednesday, July 29, 2015

For William

I didn't read much as a boy. Most of what I read were prescribed by school. Occasionally though, I took in other writers. They were fun. Some were uninteresting. Some took to me till the end. Most didn't. Others sustained my interest throughout. They were rare.

There were two books that caught me in particular. I was in Grade Four then, desperate to go beyond what was recommended for us. 

The first one was Oscar Wilde's Happy Prince and Other Stories. That was prescribed. It was a collection. There were some seven or eight tales. All magical. All allegorical. Not everything stuck to memory, but the few that did fascinated me. I never knew what a soul was, for instance, until I read "The Fisherman and His Soul". The teacher had a hard time explaining, I remember.

The other, to me the better of the two, was Just William. The book had an author. Richmal Crompton. She was no Oscar Wilde in that her stories didn't need allegory or magic to move us. It was the first time that I was introduced to a genre of books I'd never read until then. I didn't know what it was called, but as I read Crompton more I coined a term: "boy-fiction".

There were other books about boys and their exploits, and among them Enid Blyton was more popular. But Crompton was better. Not many know this, though. I know for a fact that while Sri Lankan kids adore Anne, George, Dick, Julian, and Timmy they are yet to fully take to William, Jumble, Ginger, Henry, and Douglas. There's a reason for this, obviously. More on that a little later.

But what was it about William that took us in? Here was a boy, an ordinary boy at that, from a middle-class background. He has his adventures, yes, and nearly every one of them lands him in some form of trouble. He has his enemies. He both loathes and befriends girls. And above all, he loathes restriction.

I realised later on that it wasn't just William who took us in. It was what he represented. The essence of any boy that age.

Let me explain. What made Crompton's stories so popular was the way she made her characters universal. They lived, talked, and behaved as English boys. But in what they did, how they talked, and the way they behaved, they could not have been further from boys their age here. They were as adventurous as Tom Sawyer, if not more naive. They believe the most magical things in the world but at the end scorned magic itself. They were a bundle of self-contradictions. All of them.

Let's be honest. Aren't all boys like that?

If this made Crompton stand out, then why couldn't she achieve the same popularity Blyton could? Perhaps it was Crompton's biggest strength that became a weakness. William Brown was (as Malinda Seneviratne aptly put it) "created from the ancient dust that makes up the heart of the universal boy." That boy could have been you or me. He could have been anyone.

Blyton's stories didn't have children like that. They were all rooted in one setting, and wherever they went, this always was what provoked them to do what they did. There were no shifts or quirks of character. They remained sterile. That is why we both love and feel inclined to disbelieve most of her stories. Even her "Famous Five" series, for instance, are treated this way. We may not have admitted it, but for all their adventures and that wonderment, we never failed to wonder why or how the Five were allowed to go off alone by their parents. That enthralled us.

With William, on the other hand, this never happened. William's parents (and siblings) are clueless about him. They never come across him until it's too late. That is what provoked hilarity in episode after episode. At an age when incredulity was accepted and the laws of possibility were ignored however, Crompton's stories (unfortunately) could be appreciated for the most part by those who had outgrown Blyton.

This wasn't just a matter of taste. It also had to with the language used by both writers. Blyton's prose was more bland. Less colourful. It told the story as it was. Warts and all. With Crompton, on the other hand, there was wit and sarcasm everywhere. There was subtlety. It takes age to appreciate that.

Take the story "William, Prime Minister", where William and his friends assume political positions and vie for power. Hilarity ensues, yes, but consider the following exchange between Henry (who represents socialism) and his "audience":

"Ladies and gentleman," began Henry, encouraged by his reception, "I'm goin' to make a speech to you about Socialism. Socialism means takin' other people's money off 'em. Well, think how much richer we'd be if we'd got other people's money as well as our own."

"It's wrong to steal," said a small but earnest boy who had won the Sunday School Junior prize last quarter.

"Yes, but it's not stealin' when you do it by lor," said Henry, "We'd do it by lor."

"You'd get put in prison," said the Sunday School prodigy, "that's what happens to people who take other people's money. They get put in prison. And serve 'em jolly well right."

The conflict between Henry the Socialist and the boy from Sunday School can, on one level, be taken to indicate the rift between socialism and organised religion. Henry's assertion that it's not stealing "when you do it by lor" is a classic statement on moral relativism. And the boy's emphasis on the law as a means of boycotting all what Henry the Socialist represents indicates the congruence of religion and law in their mutual opposition to Marxism.

That's just one level though. At another level, it is what it is: Henry the junior socialist against one naive boy's interpretation of what he stands for. Believe me, this is the way most of us understood (and enjoyed) this sequence. But consider what unfolds a few lines below:

"Whose money are you goin' to take?" said another member of the audience, emboldened by the success of the hecklers so far.

"Everyone's money that isn't a Socialist."

"An' s'pose everyone turns Socialist so's to get other people's money, what're you going to do then?"

Henry isn't stumped by this:

"'Cause there's gotter be four sorts of people same as what we are. Well, there couldn't be four sorts of people if everyone was a Socialist, could there? Stands to reason. If you'd got any sense you'd see there couldn't."

Is it just "sense" though, or the way democracy works: through the diffusion of opposing ideologies among voters?

Blyton's world didn't operate this way. There were no allegories. It took a certain Britishness to appreciate her work. In a way, this was what made her books so popular. That explains why Crompton's success could never match hers. Not that this makes her the lesser writer, of course. I still believe that for all her use of simple and undulating language, Blyton's prose was ridden with an insufferably conservative attitude towards class. It not only reinforced class-rifts, but also could get xenophobic and even racist at times. This is not to mention its condescending attitude towards women.

That's another story, though. For another time.

I'm grateful to Crompton. I'm proud to have been a fan. I still am. Somewhere down the line, when I'm old enough to think I'm still a boy (yes, it's ironic), I'll go back to William. If the link's strong enough, I'll even become what he eternally got to be. And I will be happy.