Friday, 7 November 2014

Giants of Academia & the Arts

but, then again, nobody is perfect

Enid Mary Blyton (11 August 1897 – 28 November 1968)
Now then, boys and girls, there’s a very well-known name for you, if ever there was. And, wherever you might be from, one you instantly recognised, didn’t you? Never mind whether the reaction was one of fond remembrance for those bygone days of halcyon childhood or else a sense of mildly uncomfortable revulsion, it is also just as likely that every single one of you has also read, and enjoyed, at least one work created by the hand of this prolific author. At least one. Come on, now, confess it. You have, haven’t you? And enjoyed it too, be honest. One or two of you may even have read them to your own children too in their turn. Let’s face it, the harder feat by far would have actually been getting all the way into adulthood without doing a Blyton or two, seeing that her bibliography runs to some seven hundred and sixty two titles (more than some people will read in their entire lifetime), which have sold more than six hundred million copies. If you were to lay all of those end to end starting from the Bay of Biscay and heading steadily east, well, it’d take you a jolly long time. That’s about one for every ten people living on the planet today. Quite a lot, in other words. And yet, no matter what you might have fondly believed, never once amongst any of it did she ever use the phrase, “lashings of ginger beer.” Now, if you’re all sitting comfortably, then we’ll begin.

Enid Mary Blyton was born on 11 August 1897 above a shop in East Dulwich, South London, the eldest of three children, to Thomas Carey Blyton and Theresa Mary Harrison. The dad was originally in the cutlery trade as a salesman so, what with both of our female Giants so far having had a paternal connection with that particular line, there’s probably something of a tip to be inferred for any young girls out there with aspirations towards greatness: get the old men selling spoons and you’ll be halfway there already (oh, and being named after your mum is worth thinking about too).

When she was only a few months old, Enid contracted whooping cough but, though the doctors had given her up, her father persisted and nursed her back to health, after which a strong bond developed between them. He was a cultured man with an active interest in poetry, painting and photography, and he instilled in his daughter a love of gardening, art, music (his own sister was a professional musician), literature and the theatre. The pharisaic mother, on the other hand, thought that Enid would be better employed doing chores around the house and viewed her artistic pursuits as “a waste of time and money” (though, having had no outlet for her side of the story, she always gets a bad press). Clearly, there was something of a mismatch between parents of such opposite inclinations and, inevitably, they drifted apart. Except, of course, for the occasions on which they had eyeball-to-eyeball rows that the children witnessed from the top of the stairs, all of which culminated in his announcing one night that he had been having a rather spiffing affair with a secretary, Florence Agnes Delattre, and that he was jolly well going to run away and live happily ever after with her. What an absolutely beastly rotter. It may well be that it was this incident that caused Enid, then around thirteen, to cease any further maturation toward adulthood, retreating instead into an insular world of make believe in which she completely shut out anything that didn’t fit in with her idyllic vision of how life should be. She would remain a thirteen year old girl for the rest of her life.

From 1907 to 1915, Enid attended St Christopher’s School in Beckenham (can you spot her?), where she “enjoyed physical activities” (it says) and became tennis champion and captain of lacrosse, not to mention Head Girl, though, as ever, in the academic subjects she did not perform well, apart from in English. Her father had taught her to play the piano and had high hopes that she might follow in the footsteps of his own sister by enrolling at the Guildhall School of Music but, by the time she left school, her heart was set on a career in writing. So she became a teacher. By the next year, 1916, all contact with her family had been severed. (Middle row, by the way, with tie and ponytail, third from right, next to the beastly urchin). There never was much love lost between her and her mother but for some while she did keep in touch with her father, though never coming to terms with Florence, the Other Woman, and they drifted apart. In 1920, she got news that he had died of a heart attack, supposedly (bizarrely) induced by all the excitement of fishing on the Thames, though it transpired that he’d actually suffered a stroke in his armchair in Sunbury, where he lived in sin with his mistress. It seems that the spurned wife, Theresa, was so mortified by the prospect of the scandal that would inevitably surround any revelation concerning the breakdown of her marriage that she simply told people he was “away on business”. No doubt they all assumed he was banged up in clink for a stretch, which wasn’t half so bad as them finding out he’d run off with some fancy woman or other. Enid Blyton did not attend the funerals of either of her parents.

Having learned nothing whatsoever from that particular experience, on 28 August 1924 she plunged into wedlock herself, with Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Alexander Pollock DSO, a man who would serve with distinction in two world wars, though at the time they met he was editor of the book department with publishing firm George Newnes. But already Blyton was treading familiar territory because his first marriage had ended when his wife had an affair and he had to obtain a divorce to marry Enid. No member of either of their families attended the wedding. They had trouble starting a family and a visit to a gynaecologist revealed that the new Mrs Pollock had an underdeveloped uterus, “like that of a thirteen year old girl.” Hormone injections eventually did the trick and along came daughters Gillian (1931) and Imogen (1935). Pollock it was that offered her a commission, encouraged her in her writing and even gave her the typewriter that would form part of her infamous creative process, for all of which she would later thank him in her own inimitable Blyton style.

Blyton's first book, Child Whispers, a collection of poems, was published in 1922, followed by more success in 1923 when her poems were published alongside those of Kipling, Walter de la Mare and G. K. Chesterton. A whole plethora (not a word you’ll find anywhere in Blyton) of work followed in hot pursuit and, in 1926, she cemented her reputation as a children’s writer when she began editing the magazine Sunny Stories, which eventually became Enid Blyton’s Sunny Stories, whilst she herself was learning the cold, hard value of name, branding and marketing. By 1933, she was so popular that when Letters from Bobs appeared (supposedly penned by her terrier Bobs), it sold ten thousand copies in the first week alone.

Whilst success was on the up, marriage was hitting the buffers. Pollock had been working as publisher with Churchill on his First World War writings (not a happy time, that, for Hugh, who had actually fought in it, whilst Winston had been busy authoring the Dardanelles disaster), which depressed Hugh a tad, especially with the prospect of another conflict looming, so he withdrew increasingly and instead took to drinking himself legless in a cubbyhole under the stairs. 1938 saw the publication of Blyton’s first full-length novel, The Secret Island, at which point she withdrew also, into her writing, leaving the domestic staff to run the household duties and nannies to look after her girls, who receded into a small part of her daily routine when she consented to play with them for an hour after tea. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Hugh went off to train the Home Guard and do his bit (in the form of budding novelist Ida Crowe) so, whilst the cat was away, Enid embarked on a series of affairs (including one of a decidedly unFamous Five nature with one of the nannies), eventually meeting Kenneth Fraser Darrell Waters, with whom she began a relationship. Pollock discovered the affair and (Ida Crowe not withstanding) threatened to bring divorce proceedings, though Blyton smoothed things over and promised that, if he admitted infidelity, then he would still have access to the girls after the divorce. She reneged. He was forbidden to contact them afterwards and, for a cherry on top, she made darn sure he would never work in publishing again. Just like one of her own stories really. In 1950 he went bankrupt. Meanwhile, in 1943, she married Waters, who had to get divorced to do so. She changed her children’s surname to Darrell Waters and made them refer to him as “father” whenever she needed to wheel them out for publicity purposes.
The war years and the Forties were a prolific period indeed for Blyton, who even released works under the pseudonym of Mary Pollock – her middle and married names (steaming and hypocrite are also words you will not find anywhere amongst the Blyton canon) – which were so popular that one reviewer remarked that, "Enid Blyton had better look to her laurels." Many of her most enduring series’ made their appearance around this time, including (in 1942) everybody’s favourite Blyton gang, the Famous Five (any blighter who says different deserves a jolly good sock on the hooter). Originally, she had intended to write six or eight of them but so popular did they prove that eventually they numbered twenty one, starting with Five on a Treasure Island. The novels (to use the term loosely) featured the adventures of Julian, Dick, Anne and Georgina (George, a tomboy supposedly based on Blyton herself), plus Timmy the dog, who would spend the hols getting into adventures and solving mysteries, generally involving felons who gave themselves away by talking loudly about their plots in marked foreign accents. Whilst hardly being top class literature abounding in fully-rounded characters, they did contain immortal lines, such as when Julian gets a tad fed up with George and informs her that, "it's really time you gave up thinking you're as good as a boy".

When writing, Blyton had her own very individual technique:

“I shut my eyes for a few minutes, with my portable typewriter on my knee – I make my mind a blank and wait – and then, as clearly as I would see real children, my characters stand before me ... I don't have to think of anything”. Not even a plot, it would seem. She never researched or planned before commencing a work, relying instead on her “under-mind”, though the method is highly prone to the risk that, unconsciously, she would plagiarise books she had read, which she did and which actually included her own. Blyton would talk about the stories “coming from her mind’s eye,” just as Wordsworth and Dickens did, which is where such comparison abruptly ends. Her daily routine was almost invariable over the years, beginning writing soon after breakfast and then stopping only for a swift lunch before hammering away at the keys again until five, by which time she would have banged out between six and ten thousand words. She once wrote a sixty thousand word novel in five days. It was a fundamental belief of hers that she had a responsibility to provide her readers with a positive moral framework. Presumably so that they might avoid the pitfalls of adultery, divorce scandals and Sapphic relationships with nanny.

In 1949, along came The Secret Seven, a group of teenage detectives who meet in a shed, have passwords and wear badges with SS on them (and on the door, if the illustration is to be believed). This use of badges (and doors) is highly baffling at this remove, seeing that their society is supposed to be secret and they must all know who the other members are already, so it tends to give the game away somewhat, especially to furtive foreign types bent on getting up to no good whilst wondering who this pesky Secret Seven lot might possibly be. Even though political correctness never got so much as a look-in when it came to the Blyton viewpoint, given the timing (“just after the war” when the word Schutzstaffel had only recently fallen into desuetude), this use of SS could be seen as a mite thoughtless. Or else? Perhaps in an attic somewhere lies mouldering a long-forgotten manuscript entitled, The Secret Seven Annexe the Sudatenland?

Intriguingly, the names of Famous Five (1910) and The Secret Seven (1934) had already been used by Charles Hamilton (writing as Frank Richards) in his Billy Bunter stories.

Also in 1949, Noddy put in his first appearance and became an instant hit. Even that idea wasn’t her own, coming from a Dutch illustrator, Harmsen van der Beek, who showed her how Toyland would look. Four days later she had produced the first two books. So, in that much of a rush, you could hardly expect Noddy to be a fully-rounded character, now could you? Well, except for his big round head, that is, and his big round friend, of course. Perhaps that’s being a bit unfair because Noddy does have a full history behind him, one well worth examination.

Noddy was originally made by a woodcarver in a toyshop but, when the man began to make a scary wooden lion, our nervy hero legs it at the top of his pace, to then find himself wandering around the woods with no clothes, money or home. Which is when he runs into Big Ears, a beardy sort with huge pointy ears and abysmal dress-sense, who says to him, “Hello, naked little boy, why not come and have a look at the inside of my toadstool.” So he takes him off to live in Toyland, where Noddy is perfectly content to be a toy, only the Toyland citizens are suspicious of him and reckon he really isn’t one of them (sounds rather like Toyland would be all for a Ukip candidate, doesn’t it, boys and girls?) – and, on that point, Big Ears definitely isn’t a toy so he has to live beyond the town boundaries – eventually putting Noddy on trial to find out whether he’s actually toy or (heaven forbid!) ornament. At last, they agree he is a bona fide toy but then, ah yes, is he a good one? Rather than rely on benefits, Noddy sets up as a self-employed taxi driver, though it’s hard to imagine such a gormless ninny actually fitting into the role. After all, he’s barely likely to turn round to his latest fare and say, in the traditional fashion, “Here, guv, you’ll never guess who I had in me cab last night. I says to him, I says, “you’re not smoking that thing in my taxi, me old mate,” which told him all right, Pope or no Pope.” Naturally enough, being a cabbie, he has run-ins with the law, in the form of PC Plod (oh, Mrs Pollock, you can’t’ve known what you were spawning with that unfortunate name), who catches wrong ‘uns on his bicycle by blowing his whistle and shouting (wait for it), “Halt, in the name of Plod.” Ah, if only such practice had caught on! What an utter heap of ineffable twaddle. And yet a highly lucrative one, seeing that, by the 1960s, there were a hundred and forty six companies producing Noddy merchandise alone.

Blyton's health began to deteriorate in 1957 and by 1960 she was displaying signs of dementia. In 1967, her husband died, by which time her great works were already behind her. She would die herself on 28 November 1968, aged seventy one. Like her or loathe her, as recently as 2008 she was voted Britain’s Best Loved Author and she still sells about eight million books a year; her books have been banned from more public libraries than any other writer, and from the BBC between 1930 and 1950; her works have been translated into almost ninety languages, putting her in all-time fourth behind only Agatha Christie, Jules Verne, and Shakespeare. Nowadays it is de rigueur to despise and disparage her works. Is it perhaps because, in these enlightened times, when there is no more racism, no more sexism, that we feel a little shame for ever having loved the stories Enid Blyton wrote? Because we all most certainly did, didn’t we, boys and girls?

School Group:
Famous Five and Secret Seven:
Child Whispers: Phyllis Chase (c.1897- c.1977)

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