How Just William Got Me Into Grammar School
Aunts always have an important role in Just William books. So I blame my Auntie Iris. She was my favourite aunt, and a few years younger than my mother. Iris was a self-made woman. She left school in South Wales at fifteen and was shipped off to a Bournemouth hotel to skivvy and send her meagre wages back home to Tredegar. As soon as the war started she joined the army, was soon a sergeant and by the time the war ended in 1945, she was a lieutenant with an acquired clipped RP accent. Auntie Iris was the closest to an intellectual in the family. She had a subscription to Readers Digest and avidly studied ‘How to Increase Your Word Power.’ It was Auntie Iris who had read that while 1950s librarians were already beginning to get sniffy about Enid Blyton, the William books of Richmal Crompton were held to be the best way of improving children’s vocabulary. So from my eighth birthday onwards, she faithfully bought me a spanking new William book every birthday and Christmas, and added a third when I went to stay with her in Hounslow for a week every summer. When I went to university, my mum gave the lot away, and I’ve spent years carefully replacing them.
William has been on my mind, as I help my granddaughter through the practice verbal reasoning tests for 11+. My daughter is trying to get her to read William books, reminding me that I used to read Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton aloud to her, then we used to listen to Martin Jarvis and Kenneth Williams’ readings in the car. Richmal Crompton’s stories were always laden with new words. Richmal Crompton started teaching in 1914, and published her first William story in 1919. There were thirty-nine volumes of short stories, the last published in 1970 after her death. The important thing about William is that the stories were originally published for Home Magazine and were not initially directed at children. The stories were designed for mothers, so adult women, and much of the interest value lies in the supporting cast, not in the boys, William Brown and his friends Ginger (pronounced in those days with a soft g), Henry and Douglas. We have maiden aunts, a flapper sister, an often love-struck older brother, a stern commuter father, effete poets, eccentric vegan artists, precious children’s writers, crusty retired colonels, cunning tramps, hysterical amateur dramatics enthusiasts and the plump nouveaux riche Botts at The Hall. Mr Bott made his considerable fortune from Bott’s Table Sauce. We have the memorable Violet Elizabeth Bott, the little girl with golden curls and frilly petticoats who threatens to ‘Thcream and thcream till I’m thick. I can you know.’
The stories present a social history of the 20th century. In the earliest 1920s stories, the Browns have two maids and a cook, all living in. Gradually they get reduced to a housekeeper, and by the 1960s, a mere daily woman. Richmal Crompton also reduced, or rather controlled, her language as time went on, and as she realized the market for the books was children. William remained perpetually about eleven. He had several 11th birthdays in the course of the thirty-nine collections, and celebrated several different Christmases too. I thought about Crompton and Blyton while watching John Logan’s play Peter and Alice. In the play, Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland, meets Peter Davies, who inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. It’s the 1930s, and the books have cast a shadow over their lives. Good idea, but for my generation, it would have been a lot more fun having Enid Blyton’s tomboy George from the Famous Five series meeting Crompton’s nephew, the inspiration for William Brown.
When I say Just William got me into grammar school … a life changing event, though my memories of my seven years there are virtually all negative … I mean that the books widened my vocabulary to the extent that English and Verbal Reasoning were not a problem. My granddaughter has three grubby sheets of A4 paper entitled Important Words for Verbal Reasoning. This 2014 list could just as easily have been issued to me in 1958. It’s a list that would have warmed the cockles of Michael Gove’s hypothetical heart when he was the minister for education. It’s a list that would bring tight-lipped nods of satisfaction from the authors of the current swathe of ill-tempered pedantic grammar guides. The list would have been greeted with enthusiasm by my schoolmasters at grammar school. It’s a list that betrays ignorance of the field of corpus linguistics where word use and word frequency are recorded and categorized as the basis for descriptive, rather than prescriptive grammars. Simon Heffer rails against the linguistics departments of universities in the introduction to Simply English. He states that the Oxford English Dictionary effectively codified the language on its completion in 1928. Then he goes on to state that the use of different than is both ‘an abomination’ and ‘an American colloquialism.’ These two sins are often connected for the pedants. However, dictionaries are continuing projects, not a list of facts cemented forever in 1928. Oxford move with the times. Their online opinion is:
Some people criticize different than as incorrect but there’s no real justification for this view. There’s little difference in sense between the three expressions (different from, different to, different than), and all of them are used by respected writers.
These respected writers include Richardson, Addison, Steele according to Oxford, and online sources add Austen, Dickens and Hemingway. Different than … fascinates me as it probes deep into a language nerve for the writers of all these grammar guides who then seek justifications for their feelings. I would place it with ire over split infinitives as an irrational prejudice.
I’ve spent my life writing on English as a Foreign Language (EFL), and have been much concerned with word frequency in modern English. The list of Important Words for Verbal Reasoning is bizarre, The words garment and foundation sit uncomfortably next to each other. Foundation garment? Then there’s erect and dose in close proximity. The words raiment and asunder would be hard to put in a context outside the Bible: His raiments were rent asunder perhaps. But no, raiment is a mass noun. His raiment was rent asunder then. One mark off my Verbal reasoning test. No, damn! Two marks off. For the pedantic grammars, a sentence without a verb is an impossibility. We EFL writers always look at word lists and try to contextualize. Let’s think of how to get lea, stout, abode, rogue, spouse, poultry, harbour, mariner, fleet (n), elude, constant, nimble, wretched, immoral, embrace and procure into a sentence then. The nimble mariner made his way from the harbour past the poultry and across the lea to the embrace of his stout constant spouse at their abode. She was so different than the wretched immoral women the rogues in the fleet procured.
Queer is in the list. Queer is a word Enid Blyton was fond of. She wrote The Book of Queer Stories but then again she also wrote The Gay Story Book. I suppose My Word, You Do Look Queer was a popular song in those days, and in that case it meant unwell. I’m afraid the meaning has changed so that it would be considered inappropriate in an EFL textbook in any sense. In the rush to reinstate the teaching of English grammar in our schools, it’s unfortunate that no one looks to EFL for suggestions. Children all over Europe learn about the basic grammar and tense systems of their own languages, and such knowledge is important in approaching a new language.
The sample verbal reasoning tests, like nearly every test I’ve ever checked in detail, are ambiguous for some examples. They also betray a similar mindset to the word list. Interestingly, my WORD spellchecker dislikes ‘mindset’ though the word appears in dictionaries for learners of English. One example annoyed me. In a convoluted exercise, students have to think of a three letter word which they can place with two given letters to form a suitable word in a sentence. They can place the three letter word before, between or after the given letters. The given sentence is:
Bring a SE sweatshirt to the class with you.
I’ve tried this with two kids. Both chose LOO as the three letter word:
Bring a LOOSE sweatshirt to the class with you.
Wrong. The answer is PAR.
Bring a SPARE sweatshirt to the class with you.
I’ve done yoga and movement classes where loose clothing is suggested. Why would anyone need two sweatshirts for a class? I would argue (vehemently) that both answers are correct, but (let’s really annoy those pedants with an Orwellian comparative), loo is more correct. However, these tests are marked on a grid. No one will actually read the answers in relation to questions. PAR correct. LOO wrong. Sorry, kid, you just missed your place in grammar school. From an EFL view, loo is far more frequent than par in English, both spoken and written. It’s par for the course, under par and on a par with are fixed expressions which avoid taking us into the arcane vocabulary of golf, but par is neither frequent, nor particularly useful. My thoughts immediately go to the pedantic grammar guides, written mainly by the privately-educated. I would bet the test compilers discounted loo as a non-U word. Oxford learner dictionaries, even at low-level, include loo, marking it as chiefly British English, and as informal. Informal possibly, but Oxford did not append the note vulgar to the word. Loo is also a word that has increased in frequency. In my grammar school days, I would have rated it as mainly used by females, and slightly twee. No longer. It has spread. In three visits to coffee shops, I’ve asked what most people say when they’re looking for the facilities. Loo was the answer each time. Ten year olds in 2014 should not be expected to know 1950s prejudices against perceived lower middle class vocabulary choices.
Back to Richmal Crompton. Damn, no verb again. Nor there. I read A Busy Day aloud to my granddaughter. This is early Crompton, first published in the December 1920 issue of Home Magazine and anthologised in More William in 1922. The story takes place on Christmas Day with three maiden aunts as house guests, and a cook who complains in mumbled Mummerset. The prevalence of maiden aunts in the books is a legacy of the loss of males in World War One, as well as Crompton gently lampooning herself. I had forgotten how rich the language was:
He had expended a vast sum of money on a copy of ‘The Pirates of the Bloody Hand.’
… (he hoped) that the recipients of his gifts would make no objection to the unobtrusive theft of them by their recent donor …
“I hope it’s not too much to ask of you that on this relation-infested day one’s feelings may be harrowed by you as little as possible.” (Mr Brown)
She bent on William a glance of gentle reproach. William was quite capable of meeting that adequately, or any other glance, but at present he was too busy for minor hostilities.
It’s also comic writing of the first order. A gift of a centipede has been deposited in an aunt’s lap by William’s little cousin, Jimmy. Jimmy’s four-year old sister Barbara is also at the table:
Aunt Evangeline leapt to her chair and stood with her skirts held to her knees.
‘Help! Help!’ she cried, ‘The horrible boy! Catch it! Kill it!’
Jimmy gazed at her in amazement, and Barbara looked with interest at Aunt Evangeline’s long expanse of shin.
‘My legs isn’t like your legs,’ she said pleasantly and conversationally, ‘My legs is knees.’
The books are great examples of children’s literature. Facebook used to ask you to list your five favourite writers, and Richmal Crompton was in my list, somewhat incongruously placed next to Robertson Davies and Thomas Pynchon. I still keep several of Martin Jarvis’s William CDs in the car, though I prefer his unabridged readings to the abridged BBC versions. There’s no question that Richmal Crompton had an ear for real usage by children: My legs is knees. The cook adds a double negative: I can’t do nuffink with the mincing machine gone. Incidentally, in most languages people accept that a double negative is stronger negation, not an arithmetical equation meaning an affirmative. That’s how we see it in Dorset too.
There is no question that Just William stories secured me a place at grammar school, and while the basis of testing is still informed by lists of low frequency vocabulary, they will help another generation too, at least in those areas of the country which retain selective systems.