Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Monday 20th May 2019

CASTING my mind back to childhood, I remember we had a modest sized bookcase and an equally modest quantity of books to adorn it. But I do recall one notable feature — a whole row of Just William books.

Like many kids in the 1950s, and doubtless for a couple of generations before that, we grew up on the adventures of the mischievous 11-year- old schoolboy and his mates, the Outlaws. We shared their puzzlement with the ways of society and secretly wished we had their sense of freedom and adventure. Things generally turned out right for William, no matter how big a hole he’d dug for himself.

William’s parents, Mr and Mrs Brown, were probably typical Home Counties folk of their day and there were the dreadful, socially aspiring Botts, of Bott’s Sauce fame, and their lisping daughter, Violet Elizabeth.

It must be 50 years since I last read a Just William tale, but there on Radio 4 last week was an unexpected treat, a William story told quite magically by actor Martin Jarvis before a theatre audience somewhere just outside London. A half-hour programme, just before lunchtime, brought the memories of those Richmal Crompton books flooding back.

Typical William. Talked himself into a scrape while fantasising, as he often did, about leading a great army. Fate took a hand to bail him out of yet another sticky situation. Clearly Jarvis is as charmed by William Brown as I was all those years ago when we couldn’t wait to read the next book.

Coincidentally a friend of mine was recently involved in some correspondence in The Times over calls for a statue to be erected commemorating Crompton’s prodigious output of books and in particular the creation of the Just William character. Previously a writer in The Times had advanced the argument for a statue, thus far with no apparent success. Perhaps the modern reader has never heard of William or the writer whose first story was published in 1919. If so then it’s a sad omission.

Crompton wrote 39 William books, selling more than 20 million copies in the UK alone. She once said William had been her “Frankenstein monster” overshadowing her prolific other work. Originally he was destined for the adult market and the author never disclosed the inspiration for the character, which was probably a mixture of children she knew or worked with.

A clergyman’s daughter — many readers went through life mistakenly believing Richmal was male — her name was a composite of her grandparents’ names, Richard and Mal. She taught classics and began writing in earnest in her late 20s when she moved to south east London, but she caught polio which cost her the use of her right leg and later had breast cancer.

Just William’s inventor may never be commemorated by a statue. The best she can hope for is her name on a Wetherspoon’s pub, The Richmal Crompton, in Bromley, where she lived for 26 years. William would find that funny, I’m pretty certain of that.

THE MIGHTY MOUSE

IN last week’s column I wrote about the legendary fell running record-breaker Alan Heaton and how, during one nine-day trial of mental and physical fortitude, he called in mid-run at Keswick hospital to have a painful toe injury treated.

Heaton wasn’t the only distinguished athlete to avail himself of Keswick hospital’s services. Remember the “Mighty Mouse” who was the only British man to come home with a gold medal from the 1960 Rome Olympic Games? Unless you are an athletics buff, the name of Don Thompson, the 50k race walk champion, probably means little to you. More likely you know all about Ovett, Coe, Cram, Ennis, Holmes, Mo Farah and company.

However, Thompson attributed part of his preparation for the Olympics to a walking holiday in the Lake District during which he climbed the fells alone while visualising what the race would be like and seeing himself as the victor. Athletes practice visualisation as part of their positive build-up to events these days, but Thompson may well have been its first practitioner.

The 5ft 5in athlete took up walking after an Achilles tendon injury ended his serious running career. For the 1960 Olympics he trained in a steam- filled bathroom at home, wearing a heavy track suit to replicate the anticipated summer heat he would face in Rome. He almost poisoned himself with the fumes from a paraffin heater. But it worked. Rivals dropped out in the 87C heat while, under the broiling sun, Thompson, wearing a French Legionnaire’s cap and sunglasses, kept going towards the gold.

The Italian fans nicknamed him “Il Topolino” or little mouse. The British sporting press called him “mighty mouse.” That year he was voted sportsman of the year by the Sports Writers’ Association, but then on another trip to the Lake District he went down with a mystery illness, probably a virus, and ended up as a patient in Keswick’s cottage hospital.

Once recovered he resumed his routine of eight-mile runs every day at 4am and completed more than 150 marathons and a 100-mile race walk.

Like Alan Heaton, the “Mighty Mouse” was a humble man, working variously as an insurance clerk, gardener and teacher, and no obvious hero. But while great medal hopes like Gordon Pirie and Arthur Rowe, who both subsequently appeared at Keswick’s August Monday Sports, and Mary Rand wilted in the Roman heat, Thompson made his own mark in history. He died of a brain aneurysm on 4th October, 2006.

RESULT WAS BOTCHED

TRUST Allerdale to give us the biggest hoot on that fateful night of local council election disasters for the major parties.

It was a bad night for many hardworking local councillors who lost their seats due to the intransigence and incompetence of those higher up the ladder in Westminster. For some of them it was a block on their political ambitions, for others simply the loss of their purpose in life.

It’s strange how many husbands and wives sit on the same councils. In Silloth husband and wife Peter and Karen Groucott were among 18 candidates contesting 12 seats on their local council. Karen received 320 votes, Peter just 189, which meant she was in and he was out. That is until the returning officer got mixed up with the Groucotts and announced the wrong one had been elected.

I’ve attended dozens of counts in my time, but never seen anything like that. For some bizarre reason no-one seems to have raised the mistake until the next day when it was stated that, once a result has been formally declared, it can’t be changed.

Mired now in red tape, do the Groucotts accept the flawed verdict — which seems completely barking mad to me — raise a formal petition of appeal or wait until there’s a vacancy again and ask the council to co-opt? Seems simple enough to solve to me, but I’m just a simple soul.

And we accuse our European friends of excessive bureaucracy. Let’s face it, no-one can do bureaucracy quite like we Brits.

TOO MUCH DETAIL

IF you were to look back at Herald files from 100 years ago and more, you would see that nobody died normally of old age. They were seized by the “angel of death” or the “grim reaper,” or went to visit “the borne from which no traveller returns”.

Reporters were more florid in their use of language than their present-day successors. In court cases in the late 1800s they described offenders as “scruffy, shifty, idle, unpleasant” and other offensive adjectives — sometimes before they had even been found guilty.

Deaths were covered in over-informative detail, just like the suicide of a young parlour maid which was reported in the Teesdale Mercury more than 100 years ago, and which was subject of a recent reader’s complaint about the language used. The report spoke of a “pathetic” suicide note and the inquest’s finding of “temporary insanity”.

The present day editor agreed it was an awful way to report the tragic death. Attitudes to mental health, suicide and depression have changed considerably in recent times. Take the word pathetic, which has a very different meaning in the context of a 1912 report compared to today. It was not decrying the character of the writer of the note, more stressing the sad nature of it.

However, the editor rightly did not apologise. That was then, this is now. Papers like the Herald would never be done saying sorry if held to account for every report they contained 100 years ago. The main thing is to have learned from them.