William was just dyslexic

30th December 1994 at 00:00
Dyslexics everywhere may have found a new patron "saint" from the world of literature. It seems that Just William (for it is he), with his anarchic hair and downwardly-mobile socks, forever waging quixotic battles with bourgeois etiquette and cissies generally, has been diagnosed as dyslexic by an expert in the field.

The idea is not quite as fanciful as it might appear. Jill McKeown, a school doctor working with dyslexics in Islington, wrote to The TES saying she had just read a book by Richmal Crompton's niece, Margaret Disher, entitled Growing Up with Just William. In it, Ms Disher says that the character of William Brown was based on her older brother Tommy. He was apparently "strong but rather clumsy", a terrible speller, unacademic and had a poor sense of direction. "Margaret Disher is describing a dyslexic child, though she is unaware of it," Jill McKeown insists.

Poor Tom sounds a rather sad character: he left school without qualifications, was dependent on his mother, and worked for the National Westminster bank for 30 years without promotion. He had to pay out of his own wages for any mistakes in his adding up. But Richmal Crompton must have seen some vital rebellious spark in him, for William, of course, is far from pathetic. Unlike his cartoon cousin, Dennis the Menace, he usually comes out on top.

His spelling may be original, his appearance deplorable, but he dreams of world domination (or at least being Prime Minister) and, as head of his gang of Outlaws, creatively disrupts the peculiarly Thirties world of literary teas, dancing classes, amateur dramatics and church bazaars in which he is forever enmeshed.

Jill McKeown admits that William's assertiveness and blithe contempt for authority is not typical of dyslexics, who "tend to have low self-esteem", but points out that his lateral, and literal, thinking certainly is. She is absolutely serious about her diagnosis of William's problems, reminding us that "thousands of undiagnosed dyslexics are still not receiving proper attention". She also said that while she enjoyed the William books as a child, they seem "rather unpleasant now, dated and middle-class". But Paul Cann, director of the British Dyslexia Association, said he would be happy to welcome William as a hero for dyslexics: "William has secondary behavioural problems resulting from his learning difficulties. He is the classic dyslexic young boy."

William Brown was unavailable for comment, but it is difficult to imagine him taking kindly to the thought of extra help. When his father threatened him with special coaching if he brought home a bad report, he protested: "In the holidays... I'm sure there's lors against it... I bet even slaves didn't have lessons in the holidays." One can also imagine him retorting that if he was to get extra teaching, then Violet Elizabeth Bott should see a thpeech therapitht.

Without wishing to trivialise the issue of dyslexia or doubt Ms McKeown's sincerity, I wonder if we are witnessing the birth of a new industry here, devoted to ascribing modern conditions to fictional characters. Could Anne of Green Gables have been a victim of Attention Deficit Syndrome? Did Lady Macbeth have PMT? Heathcliff sounds like a migraine sufferer, and as for Clark Kent . . .

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