70 years since five famous adventurers made their debut

It’s 70 years since Enid Blyton’s Famous  Five made their debut in Five on a Treasure Island. I remember reading those novels voraciously as a youngster, determined that when I was exploring castles, such as Raglan and Bodiam, I would also find gold and be an adventurer.

It wasn’t all harmony, though, probably as they were all family, and Anne and George certainly didn’t hit it off. For my part, as a kid I always thought George was a pretty cool kinda girl. There was no messing about with her. Or rather there was a lot of messing about – in trees, clambering rocks and generally getting into scrapes. Anne always seemed a little bit precious and not like any of the girls I hung around with. We were all in it together, grazing knees, throwing apples at each other and having stick wars.

Anyway, I maintain that Enid Blyton is the reason for my love of reading, my love of a good story and a continuing childish sense of adventure. So in celebration of the Famous Five, here’s Anne meeting George for the first time.

When Anne awoke she couldn’t at first think where she was. She lay in her little bed and looked up at the slanting ceiling, and at the red roses that nodded at the open window – and suddenly remembered all in a rush where she was! “I’m at Kirrin Bay- and it’s the holidays.” she said to herself, and screwed up her legs with joy.

Then she looked across at the other bed. In it lay the figure of another child, curled up under the bed-clothes. Anne could just see the top of a curly head, and that was all. When the figure stirred a little, Anne spoke.

“I say! Are you Georgina?”

The child in the opposite bed sat up and looked across at Anne. She had very short curly hair, almost as short as a boy’s. Her face was burnt a dark-brown with the sun, and her very blue eyes looked as bright as forget-me-nots in her face. But her mouth was rather sulky, and she had a frown like her father’s.

“No,” she said. “I’m not Georgina.”

“Oh!” said Anne, in surprise. “Then who are you?”

“I’m George,” said the girl. “I shall only answer if you call me George. I hate being a girl. I won’t be. I don’t like doing the things that girls do. I like doing the things that boys do. I can climb better than any boy, and swim faster too. I can sail a boat as well as any fisher-boy on this coast. You’re to call me George. Then I’ll speak to you. But I shan’t if you don’t.”

“Oh!” said Anne, thinking that her new cousin was most extraordinary. “All right! I don’t care what I call you. George is a nice name, I think. I don’t much like Georgina. Anyway, you look like a boy.”

“Do I really?” said George, the frown leaving her face for a moment. “Mother was awfully cross with me when I cut my hair short. I had hair all round my neck; it was awful.”

The two girls stared at one another for a moment. “Don’t you simply hate being a girl?” asked George.

“No, of course not,” said Anne. “You see – I do like pretty frocks- and I love my dolls- and you can’t do that if you’re a boy.”

“Pooh! Fancy bothering about pretty frocks,” said George, in a scornful voice. “And dolls! Well, you are a baby, that’s all I can say.”

Anne felt offended. “You’re not very polite,” she said. “You won’t find that my brothers take much notice of you if you act as if you knew everything. They’re real boys, not pretend boys, like you.”

“Well, if they’re going to be nasty to me I shan’t take any notice of them,” said George, jumping out of bed. “I didn’t want any of you to come, anyway. Interfering with my life here! I’m quite happy on my own. Now I’ve got to put up with a silly girl who likes frocks and dolls, and two stupid boy-cousins!”

Animals, boats, magic, adventures – and lashings of ginger beer

I always wanted to be Barney. Or Jack. Or even Rory.

I think I was probably Julian. At best Philip.  And sometimes I may have been just a bit of a Dick.

Growing up in the countryside, with my imagination and a ready-made gang of four (brother and two cousins), I was never far from an Enid Blyton book.

For reasons best kept to myself, I have been encouraged to revisit those childhood reads. All of a sudden, at the tender age of 39, I have found myself rediscovering thrilling worlds of hidden islands, secret castles, creepy circuses, and mysterious fairs, not to mention fairies, pixies, magic trees and magic chairs. I have also discovered that, thankfully, I am not alone and that there are a whole bunch of people who pretend to be all “growed up”, but who secretly hanker after the adventures of Blyton’s masterful story-telling. EnidBlyton.net offers a fun, fan-run alternative to the more staid, though still impressive Enid Blyton Society website.

For me, the experience was not just about the story. My first books were hand-me-downs, secret treasure troves of exciting tales, passed on like family treasures. I remember clearly the first time I read one of the “Adventure” series – the Valley of Adventure. After the Sunday service one day, round at the farm, Nan delved into the huge cupboard of books and plucked out a huge weighty tome. The foxed pages and the damp, musty smell of old books has drawn me to second-hand bookshops ever since.

I was hooked.

These were terrific stories of derring-do, with people of my own age taking on the baddies and winning! At the same time, the fantasist in me was always hopeful that the mushroom ring in the garden (and yes, we really did have mushroom rings) might prove to be a moonlit meeting place for fairies. And of course there was always a plethora of boats, befriended animals, secret caves and ruined castles to fuel my cheese-addled dreams.

For me, Enid Blyton books could be broken down into three genres – fairy stories, adventure stories and farm stories. Some, I know, will find that heretical, but, as a young boy, there seemed to be something decidedly too girly about reading Malory Towers – the series set in a girl’s boarding school – so I basically discounted those.  (I have since been severely admonished and told that I am not a true Blyton fan until I have read them. Thank goodness for Kindle, is all I can say, or I might be getting some very odd looks on the morning train. I’ve also realised that the Malory Towers series is set in Cornwall, which of course means I can justify reading them on that basis alone!)

I remember hiding under the covers with a torch, gripped by whichever book I was immersed in, whether it was The Wishing Chair, or The Magic Faraway Tree, or the exploits of Bill Smugs with Jack, Kiki and company – or the Famous Five, escaping to Kirrin Island to hunt for treasure. Somehow  or other, Blyton managed to create appealing, exciting worlds, even with templated characters and plots that are not exactly rivals for a John Le Carré Smiley novel. Holidays in Cornwall were made even more thrilling by the prospect of smugglers, wreckers, escaped monkeys that might need a home – and even German submarines. (My grasp of history was pretty good, but, let’s face it, a ten year-old with a cap gun is going to struggle to fit his imagination to historical reality, particularly when he might be about to save Cadgwith from a U-boat invasion!)

Blyton seems to divide readers. She is either loved or loathed, with households either banning her books or buying them in droves. The dislike of Blyton’s writing was institutionalised in the BBC’s efforts over 30 years to keep her and her works off the air-waves, despite her global success. Michael Hann, writing in the Guardian, suggests an almost ironic reverse snobbery, where her books were regarded as too simple and too middle-class aspirational. It would seem that Blyton was perhaps a less than pleasant person, also, with BBC4’s Enid, starring Helena Bonham-Carter, revealing a darker side to the writer (bullying parenting, a cruel divorce, ruthless business sense, affairs etc).

With all that in mind, it is refreshing to discover that Blyton has some unlikely fans. Laura Canning, whose hard hitting prose in the critically-acclaimed Taste The Bright Lights seems several universes away from the cosy, conservative world of Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny, confesses to enjoying Blyton as a guilty pleasure, even now. More interestingly, her essay on themes and plot devices in Malory Towers is genuinely illuminating, revealing subtle character writing which would escape most boring Blyton-deniers.

Sadly, though, some of Blyton’s character archetypes do not lend themselves well to today’s brutish, cynical and dangerous world. It’s hard to imagine writers of today’s gritty children’s fiction being able realise a character like Tammylan, the wild man who children befriend in the countryside, without raising an eyebrow. Or even Bill Smugs, who, as a policeman, should really know better than to be taking a bunch of kids along to catch the baddies. Such characters seen incongruous today and would likely be dismissed knowingly as being appropriate to “more innocent times” . I wonder about that. If we are honest, Blyton’s times were far from innocent, bearing witness to the horrors of the likes of Auschwitz and Belsen. Perhaps it says more about our own fears and lack of confidence in who we are, uncomfortable with heroes in a world where there are so many obvious villains (I don’t see Bill sitting idly by whilst city drunks puke and fight on the last train out of Fenchurch Street!).

I’d thought about recounting the Blyton books I’ve read, but the reality is that there are dozens and I would feel guilty about those I missed out. So instead, some of my favourites:

The Adventurous Four

The Children of Cherry Tree Farm

Five Runaway Together 

The Magic Faraway Tree

The Mystery Of Tally-Ho Cottage

The Ring O’Bells Mystery

The Sea Of Adventure

In the end though, perhaps I am over-complicating things. Let’s face it, I simply liked a darn good yarn and Blyton new how to tell those. Besides, she also knew how to make a young lad wanting adventure to feel good about himself:

“Well, silly, you’ll hop into it, if you find that I haven’t been able to manage the man, and you’ll get out to sea,” said Jack. “And there you’ll stay till it begins to get dark, when you can creep in and see if you can find us and take us off. But you needn’t worry – I shall get that fellow all right. I shall tackle him just like I tackle chaps at rugger, at school.”

Lucy-Ann gazed at Jack in admiration. What it was to be a boy!

From The Sea of Adventure

See you at the next Enid Blyton Day?