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?