Jackdaws, Midnight Feasts, Secret Islands and Lashings of Ginger Beer

I read a book called The Secret Island the other night. It wasn’t the first time I’ve ever read it. In fact, it probably wasn’t even the twentieth time I read it. No matter how often though, I had not read it in years. It was on my childhood bookcase in my current spare room (read: Natasha’s Room or Rachel’s Room for when my dearest friends visit), stuffed alongside various remnants of my life thus far. Jessica Wakefield, my most beloved Sindy doll sits alongside a green beanie bear with a shamrock on its chest which was named Paddy O’Bear as a joke by my godfather. Amongst the books are Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Winnie The Pooh Cookbook, The Mystery of the Blue Tomatoes (signed by the author, no less), some of the Traveling Pants books that I must admit were published since I reached majority but which I enjoyed, and the few Sweet Valley High books I couldn’t quite get rid of. The bottom shelf is given over to my collection of Titanic books, which range from the studious to the ridiculous – who needs to know how to cook the Titanic’s First Class menu?

Anyway, on one shelf, amongst the SVH and other books of my young life, are a handful of Enid Blyton books. Enid fucking Blyton, the grande dame of the over-simplistic, racist, sexist, repetitive children’s book. There’s all the Malory Towers, some St Clare’s and the Adventure series. They sit on the shelf, not quite forgotten but they haven’t moved since the shelves were arranged a couple of years ago. I retrieved The Secret Island last night after watching some of the Enid Blyton biopic on BBC 4. Helena Bonham-Carter played the old bird and it was… blah. I don’t care a fig about Blyton’s real life, only the ones she committed to paper.

It must’ve been three years ago that I bought the Adventure series on eBay. I was still harbouring a smidgen of bitterness over the fact that some of my copies back in the day had gone missing, either lost in the depths of a friend’s bedroom or put in jumble sales without my knowledge. As I have done with other similar things from my childhood, I decided to confront the bitterness. Once the books arrived, I read the first one and at the first mention of the coloured, stupid, sullen servant Jo-Jo who rolled his eyes and was full of ‘queer beliefs’, I started to feel queasy, like I’d had too many sandwiches and too much ginger beer.

Oh, by the way, I hate ginger beer.

It was an awful book, of course. Badly written, even taking into consideration that it was written for children, and full of the kind of casual and not-so-casual racism that I thought even the 1940s considered ‘not quite cricket’. I didn’t remember reading it that way when I was a kid. I consoled myself with the thought that I didn’t remember reading that particular book at all. I remembered a couple particularly well but the others not at all. I can’t have owned them all, after all. The Castle of Adventure was probably my favourite… and even a cursory glance now highlights Tassie the gypsy girl who has never had a bath and couldn’t read or write yet ‘like a Red Indian’. Ick, man. I’m all for the reading and the writing, but surely even then it was well known that Native Americans had other ways of communicating? The ancient Irish didn’t write anything down either, does that make them ignorant and savage? Hang on, don’t answer that – I know what the Britishers of 1946 would likely reply. “The ways of England are the ways of the world” it was said. Well no, that’s not quite true, only that the alternatives were given no merit by the English and were generally trampled by the English. In few places is this mindset given better voice than in Blyton books. There appears to be no room for anything besides ‘the right’ way of doing things as she sees it. None whatsoever.

I did have all the Famous Five books too, all 21 of them. I remember them all lined up on the bookcase I still own. My book collection as a kid was part-Blyton and part-Usborne edumacational books with a little room for my first Titanic books. I was a weird kid, I guess. I grew up in the mid-late 80s and early 90s. Blyton books were already outdated. My mammy’s generation, who had been reading Blyton’s books more contemporaneously, were those 60s and 70s ladies who said ‘hang on a minute, why can’t we have equal treatment?’ and subsequently marched and burned bras and *insert feminist struggle stereotype here*. I was born three years after the start of Thatcher’s regime and remember her departure from Number 10. I grew up with IRA bombs and race killings on my TV, the rise of the Yuppie and the early 90s recession. For me, Blyton books with their sunny days, picnics and characters with names like Peggy, Nora and Lucy-Ann, were a slice of a Britain I knew had already passed by.

Of course, that Britain (I should really say England) never really did exist. The Britain of the 1930s was impoverished, the 1940s were desperate and the 1950s were (under the veneer of post-war opportunity) largely poor and desperate. Really, I think these books must have been escapism for children even at the time. Maybe that’s the reason they are still cherished, even as we see the dark stain of bigotry on the page. I can’t bring myself to outright hate any Blyton book, even though they’re rubbish, because I remember too well my own dreams of running off and having adventures, of going to secret islands, or going to a boarding school where all the girls are nice really (or get dealt with appropriately). I spent too many car journeys staving off boredom and car sickness with Darrell at Malory Towers, and too many evenings after school eating Pot Noodle and reading one of the St Clare’s to be able to just say ‘no, absolute tommy-rot, the lot of it.’ While so much of it is absolute tommy-rot, there is just enough to save it from absolute awfulness, if I read them the way I always have…

I read Blyton’s book the same way I did Sweet Valley: as I chose to. I made up my own stuff, saw things the way I wanted to. I didn’t see the racism, because I didn’t agree with it – I wiped it from the page. As far as I was concerned, both George and Anne were adventurers as much as Julian and the other one whose name I can’t remember, and the domestic rubbish was more evenly spread out. As with Sweet Valley, where I rendered Jessica less sociopathic and Elizabeth less of a nosey parker with a sainthood complex, Blyton’s books were solely about the adventures and the rest of the detail was just rubbish I didn’t need.

From Blyton I learned what a jackdaw was, and what an ingot was (both of these feature heavily in the first Famous Five book). I learned about midnight feasts and lacrosse and ginger sodding beer. I learned that you should always try tapping all the panels on a wood-panelled wall just in case there’s a hidden passage somewhere – and maybe check under any rugs too – and that cows can swim. I learned that what I rather wanted to do was go and have adventures myself, and that if I did, I would know some stuff to help me on my way.

I really do hate ginger beer, you know. I like stem ginger and powdered ginger and crystallised ginger and gingerbread biscuits and ginger ale but I hate ginger beer.

Of course, if I was one of the kids on the Secret Island, I would take some flint, so I didn’t need to worry about matches. I knew about flint and its fire-making potential as a child, because I was a weird kid. I would know what wild garlic looks like, too. If I’d combined my Girl Guide training with my Blyton know-how, I could’ve run away and lived very happily on a secret island or in a mysterious castle or on a curious mountain. I might’ve managed, and what’s more, prospered.

I would’ve done it without having to get boys to help too. How’d you like them apples, Miss Blyton? I would’ve had to take a gramophone with me, or a Dansette, to listen to my records, but I would’ve managed somehow. I would’ve been able to do it without resorting to knackered-out stereotypes, too, Miss Blyton.

Even at the time, as a child, I had to edit these damn books as I went along, so that they could fit my world. In my world then as now, women did not exist solely to do domestic tasks. My mum rarely does washing up. My dad, on the other hand, rarely cooks. They split laundry tasks and do their own ironing, I think. Thus it ever was. My mum drives when they go out and always has. I think she hates being a passenger – she will always find a reason to drive instead of someone else except on particularly long journeys. I have never managed to persuade her to be a passenger when I drive, although she trusts me to drive her car. Gender stereotypes were not my experience. While I was reading those Blyton books, I was also playing with toy cars (and love Top Gear now for the cars, not Hammond, though I know little of engineering) and climbing trees and playing football. For more than several years as a child, I don’t believe I owned a single dress. I had to borrow one for a Guides pantomime one year.

Speaking of Guides, the company I was a part of didn’t much correspond to the stereotype of Girl Guides either. Kate, the legendary Leader, took us camping and climbing, abseiling and caving and stuff. We did the baking and sweet-making, and we did craft stuff, but at no point were we told we must adhere to an out-dated notion of gender. In fact, Kate let us be exactly who we were, and only encouraged us to be the best version. I mean, she dealt with me and my scruffy, footballing, psychedelic bag carrying and whatever madness I tried to introduce.

The thing is… I think that’s actually the clever part of her writing, such as it is. It is so basic, so spare, so devoid of any particular descriptions that the child reading can do that. Unfortunately, she did editorialise where it mattered in terms of race, gender and class. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I was not of the same class as the O’Sullivan twins or Darrell or the Five. I just figured that they were a bit like me in some ways and not in others. The basic, simple and unprejudiced view of that open-minded child is one I still cling to. I knew that Gwendoline Lacey would scoff at me, because that was her character – sketched roughly though it was – and that Darrell had a temper like mine and those were the things that mattered. Blyton’s descriptions are generally so vague that they can be most things to most children. At least… most white, British, middle class children.

Then again, I was a white, mostly-middle-class girl. I was her demographic. I could find myself in her books if I squinted hard. I don’t suppose a minority child (of any sort) would see it the same way. In Blyton’s world, multi-culturalism seems to mean people who dress for dinner and people who don’t. Not forgetting of course, the occasional gypsy stereotype (sometimes good, sometimes bad, depending on the story). I didn’t see it like that, because my world wasn’t made up of pigeon-holes. For all their eccentricities, my mum and dad taught me that I was no better or worse than any other human being – that we are all equal. In our house, that was mostly true, too… except that Mummy’s word is, was and ever will be, Law.

I was able to read Blyton’s books without becoming an unquestioning bigoted little horror because there were stronger influences in my world. My teachers at primary school were fabulous – Mr Price, who took us through a mini-version of the Blue Eyes race ‘game’ so gently I’m not sure we fully realised we were doing it but with the intended result (at least for me, I can’t speak for anyone else). Mrs Evans who read us some of the Blyton books during reading time so that I still hear Kiki the cockatoo with a Northern accent in my head, but who I now wonder if she edited the books as she read. Mrs Porter, who I didn’t much like, but who explained to a bunch of seven year olds the difference between ‘Nazis’ and ‘Germans’. I had more in my life than Blyton books and I was in a different time. A bit like watching Gone With The Wind, I guess…

But no… that’s not good enough, is it? It’s fine for me, Privileged White Girl to say ‘oh, they didn’t do me any harm’ now, twenty years after the fact… but how many children sat on little carpets for reading time felt like they were being picked on or just ignored by these books? I understand why schools don’t allow them anymore, and no it’s not terrible that ‘gollywog’ is no longer an acceptable term, Mrs Outraged Daily Mail Reader. It’s all very well for me to say ‘oh, I just edited that rubbish out’ but that’s not good enough, is it? Isn’t it surely time to consign this crap to the dustbin of history, along with Birth of a Nation and Oswald Mosley? How many of the children sat on that carpet with me felt left out by the Blyton stuff? We were 99% white and I was a ‘minority’ by dint of being Irish (mostly), Catholic and from London… but race is not the only way children can be excluded, is it? How many of the ‘girly’ girls felt excluded from the fun, and did the other ‘tomboy’ girls like me feel excluded from both the male and female sides of the coin, with only George Kirrin to barely represent us? How many of the boys felt excluded because they didn’t fit the Julian or Jack or Philip moulds? How many other children found exclusion and hate instead of the comfort of escape for the crime of being in some way ‘different’? I’m quite, quite wrong: my lingering little bit of fondness for this stuff excuses nothing.

For all that I still have a sliver of fondness left for them, I won’t encourage any currently-hypothetical niece or nephew or godchild of mine to read them. I wouldn’t ever stop them doing it, but I’d make certain to talk to them about the books. Hopefully they’ll all be too busy listening to the Beatles, if I get my way!

For all that her books suck, I can’t quite shake the feeling that Blyton’s at least partly responsible for me being a writer – such as I am – myself. Would I always have wanted to write, to tell stories? Maybe, but she helped… I’m horribly aware of that. I wanted to write stories with people like Darrell and Sally and Alicia. I wanted to tell my tales too. I am telling my tales. My Dinah is taking her shape in the world – named after the song, not the girl in the Blyton books – and hopefully one day she’ll be on shelves in book stores and Amazon warehouses the world over, waiting to be discovered by children who want adventure. Hopefully.

So Miss Blyton: you suck, but thanks just the same. I intend fully to learn from your grave and important mistakes and shortcomings so that I can be better than you. I intend not to fill children’s heads with lessening things, but to suggest to them the radical notion that we are not all the same, but we are all equal.

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2 Responses to Jackdaws, Midnight Feasts, Secret Islands and Lashings of Ginger Beer

  1. Julian, Dick and Anne! George and Timmy the dog!!!!

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