‘A Birthday Treat’ by Richmal Crompton

I’m ending with this one in order to break my own rules: because in this story, as in every Just William story, all of our questions are answered, all lines of enquiry resolved, every end tucked in neat and tight as the sheets on an apple-pie bed. They’re like early 20th century versions of Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes, in other words. Note to Larry David: Richmal Crompton got there first.
They’re also by far – I mean, by miles – the funniest stories I have ever read. With the possible exception of the cheese-on-the-train scene in Three Men in a Boat, I suspect that their humour is unsurpassed in literature. Crompton’s brilliance, I think, rests on four pillars: a recognition of and a commitment to the mock-epic; an understanding of the insularity and misapprehensions of children, and an ability to render that in dialogue; a glorious feel for adverbs; and a judicious deployment of repetition that borders on genius. If ever I’m feeling in the need of cheering up I pick up a Just William collection – and, today being Friday 13th 2019, I’d humbly suggest that you could do worse than doing the same.
This story begins with 11-year-old William and his gang of boon companions, the self-styled Outlaws, being dazzled by the pretty young aunt of one of their members, and determining to give her a birthday treat. The most appropriate tribute, they agree, would be the staging of a “waxwork” show, in which the Outlaws will conspire to portray such diverse subjects as Charles I, Dick Turpin holding up a coach, Columbus discovering America (“William was Columbus, and Henry, Douglas and Ginger, lying on the ground side by side, were America”) and General Moult, an elderly and irascible inhabitant of the village, walking (“As a matter of fact, William could do the half strut, half run that was General Moult’s normal mode of procedure to the life.”). They arrange to present this fiesta in a barn at the edge of the village but, thanks to a fatally crossed wire, find themselves stepping out on to the stage of the Parish Room, before a horrified crowd who were expecting to attend the New Era Society’s lecture on Egyptology. William, unperturbed, “looked around his paralysed audience. ‘Ladies and gen’l’men,’ he began, ‘this is a waxwork show, ‘cause of her birthday, an’ I’m doin’ the talkin’. The first waxwork is me. I’m not dressed for it, but you can imagine me in a long coat an’ I’ve got these things on for Columbus an’ I’ve not got time to go changin’ every time. Ladies an’ gen’l’men, this is the only waxwork show of its kind in the world. We’re just goin’ to begin an’ if you’ll kin’ly watch careful this is General Moult walkin’ along the road – lifelike an’ nat’ral. This is waxwork number one, ladies an’ gen’l’men. This is General Moult walkin’. Kin’ly all watch General Moult walkin’.’”
I’m not going to tell you what happens at the end (which I’ve chosen because it exemplifies all the elements mentioned above – though others will have their own favourites, and on a different day I can be talked around) – you’ll have to read it for yourself. But do, do read it. I reread it twice yesterday, once to myself and once aloud to my husband. On both occasions I was laughing so hard I had to stop – and I want that for all of you. Joy is a wonderful thing – and it’s joyful to understand that as well as everything else, short stories can be the perfect vehicles for delivering that, too.

Originally published in William the Conqueror, George Newnes, 1926

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