Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Thanks, Enid

In response to Enid Blyton's win in the recent Costa poll for the best-loved children's writer, Lucy Mangan writes in today's Guardian of her own childhood obsession with Blyton and the fact that while Blyton's books were once banned from public libraries as politically incorrect and culturally impoverished, she opened up for generations of children the 'promised land' of reading.

I've said it many times before and I'll say it again here: she opened up for me the promised land of writing. I wanted consciously to be a writer from the age of eight - in fact, I was a writer before that, and Enid Blyton played no small part in that. Like Lucy Mangan, while I was reading everything, including Dickens, I gobbled up Blyton - The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, and in particular the Adventure Series (The Castle of Adventure, The Valley of Adventure etc) - like a drug. You can say this for Blyton, which you can't say for Dickens: nearly every time I finished one of her books, I went off and wrote a story of my own.

Why was this? I don't have any Blyton books here to study for the reason: while I still have many of the books I read then I never kept a single Blyton; that wasn't the point of them, the point of them was what they triggered in me. I do of course remember though that they were, as Mangan says, formulaic and baldly told. It's interesting to me that Mangan reports that Blyton decribed her working method thus: '...simply a matter of opening the sluice gates and out it all pours with no effort or labour of my own.' Clearly, what is going to result from this is unthinking, cliched, repetitive. Yet there was something exciting for me, I think, generated by that, an energy - and a permission just to do it, which the classics, bound by their mature and rarified insights and more sophisticated use of language, couldn't give. The classics (after a certain age I never read any other books specifically intended for children; I stayed away from them like the plague) were exclusive in their consciousness (while of course being in the long term far more nourishing fodder), whereas Blyton did not even merely include me in hers, she allowed me to take over: so bald was her prose (as I remember) that it left infinite room for my own projections, my own imaginings of the settings and the inner thoughts of the characters. No wonder I would go off and write when I'd finished reading one: I was already writing as I was reading.

I must have another look at The Faraway Tree. So many people have told me that they hated it when I've said I loved it. I had chicken pox, I remember, and I suppose I was a bit delirious. But that notion of a tree you can climb to another world, the world of imagination (Yes, OK, I know it's derivative in the first place, but it's probably something about the very bald way she wrote it!) has been the basis of of my concept of writing ever since.

Creativity works in more complicated ways than we sometimes think, and all I can say is, Thanks, Enid.


adele said...

The Faraway Tree is brilliant and don't let anyone tell you different. Mind you, I haven't read it for more than 55 years and wouldn't go back to it for fear the magic might have evaporated!!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Oh yes, Adele, maybe I shouldn't revisit it!

Douglas Bruton said...

I devoured her too, just one three month window of my childhood... read more than 24... and must have thought 'I can do that' and filled 26 pages of my school exercise book... but also must have thought 'I want to do that'...

With Dickens et al, they blew me away so comprehensively that I never tried, never could try to emulate them...

So, is there a lesson there for educators?



Steerforth said...

I was reading 'The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat' to my son this evening and was struck both by how badly written it was and how much my son was enjoying it.

As you say, people who object to Enid Blyton are missing the point. Her books have opened the door for many children (myself included) to reading and even though her prose style might leave something to be desired, she was a wonderful storyteller.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Douglas: Hah!

Steerforth: Quite!