Monday, 16 November 2009

Enid Blyton vs Dr Seuss

It's some Enid Blyton anniversary and that means a big marketing push, which is fair enough, people need to make a living, it's churlish to pretend otherwise. Enid Blyton, or Enig Blyter as John Lennon called her in an early book of poems, is the most popular British author, which makes her important. But what does that say?

A friend of mine was brought up with warm fuzzy memories of Noddy, one of Blyton's best known characters, but moved to the US while still young and was cut off from the Blyton mystique. As an adult, she returned and to her delight found a first edition of the first Noddy book. Then she read it. Nostalgic dreams shattered forever. Noddy is a naked boy who falls off the back of a truck full of small naked boys who are being transported somewhere unknown. He sits at the side of the road, crying, when an elderly man dressed as a garden gnome picks him up. The old man is known as "Big Ears". Freudian, huh ? Old man and naked boy walk off hand in hand. Then a policeman comes along, and as you'd expect stops and asks what's happening. "I'm taking him to live in my house to be my boy". "That's OK then". Yes, well....

By this stage my friend was heartsick, knowing she could never share this with her kids. Then she came to the chapter where an industrial slum is inhabited by golliwogs. Golliwogs weren't originally racist though the world in which they were invented was. But Blyton's use of golliwogs differs from relatively benign things like the badges that came with Robertson's jam who, like Barbie dolls "did" things like play golf (middle class aspiration) and so on. Blyton's golliwogs were clearly a comment on the "new Britain" of the late 40's and early 50's when the frst big wave of Caribbean and Indian immigrants came and settled in places like Slough, not far from Blyton's home in the lush (all white middle class) Home Counties. Immigrants are poor, and have to make their way in society, but Blyton has them as gutless chancers. Blyton's golliwogs were so obviously offensive that they were removed a few years later.

Cleaning up Blyton is just as offensive because it creates the image that she represents something pure and innocent, an idyll of Britishness that far-right political parties like the BNP can hold up as a shining example of what might have been. The Blyton thing is founded on fallacy.

Even outside Noddy, there's something nasty lurking behind green hedges. The Secret Seven and the Famous Five spend all their time hunting down criminals. This isn't innocent. Normal, decent people don't sniff out evil in all things. In Blyton's world, criminals are easily identified because they're outsiders - gypsies, strangers, anyone who doesn't conform. Why bother to do the detective bit ? Simply lynch someone who doesn't fit in.

It's bizarre that so many novelists think kids should fixate on solving "crimes". What does that say about their psyches and the psyches of their readers? Blyton doesn't do much altruism, kindness and gentleness of spirit, the things that really make a difference in this world. Perhaps they're so far beyond her, she couldn't understand. The Salem Witchhunters talked Christianity but didn't know what it meant.

About the only positive role model Blyton creates is George, the girl who thinks and acts like a boy, the first transgender icon in juvenile literature. A gay friend once told me that George gave him hope that there were alternatives to gender stereotypes.

Now they''re re branding Blyton, and new editions are coming out and a book by a relative. Even her nephew, Carey Blyton, is being promoted, though his connection to his famous aunt wasn't that close. Carey Blyton's music isn't obscure. Of the hundreds of minor British composers, he was relatively successful. Ten years ago, when Carey was still alive, Ian Partridge recorded some of his songs, which I eagerly listened to. I tried hard but they were so bland. I tried the chamber music too, but got nowhere. That said, he's still better than some of the obscurities I've studied in my time, but great composer he is not. Some of his fans admire him because he wasn't "politically correct". Often political correctness goes too far but there are reasons for not celebrating regression.

The antithesis to Enid Blyton is Richmal Crompton. Crompton was a liberated, single woman who started writing in the 1920's. She created a character called William, an irrepressible rebel who didn't conform to anything. A truly free spirit, his adventures satirized the society he lived in - his Edwardian parents, his teachers and the Bright Young Things of the 20's. William deals with Nazis and Mussolini, and with Establishment prudes and bullies, like the Brains Trust. One of the stories satirizes Wagner and extremist Wagnerites. Another develops William's reaction to the phrase "Es war einmal".

William befriends tramps and hobos, typical figures of the Depression, stealing food for them and sometimes finding that they weren't always quite the soulmates he thought they were. But the fact is, he doesn't assume evil in everyone. Richmal Crompton is everything Enid Blyton isn't.

You'll have to track down Crompton's original William books, as they were cleaned up in the 1960's to fit genteel taste, in response to the Blyton market. There's a whole world of social change in William books. His parents gradually lose their servants, and come in contact with the modern age and war. William's enemy is a spoiled little girl whose parents are pretentious new rich, who think greed rules society. "I'll sthcream and I'll sthcream!" is the little girl's ultimate threat when she's thwarted. Power by hysteria, not reason.

I was lucky because I inherited a collection of first edition William books. Some of the ideas were way over my head because Crompton didn't dumb down. But kids are smart enough to find out about stuff they don't know. Which is how I found out about the British Brains Trust and the whole world of Establishment certainty. Thanks to my great uncle, I was inoculated early to think like William. The whole "More William" book (1923) is online HERE.

On the other hand, thank God for Dr Seuss ! Like Crompton, he didn't create a fantasy childworld, but dealt with real life thru child-level images. Some of the Dr Seuss books are for adults, and deal with things like nuclear war, but kids relate to them too. But the real beauty of Dr Seuss is that he writes about genuine goodness and purity, not fraudulent innocence.

Horton the elephant hatches the egg a lazy bird abandons. He sits on it through storms and disasters, when all around him say, give up. But when the baby bird is born, he's rewarded by love. Books teach kids about life. Better they should learn from Horton than from most of Enid Blyton.

1 comment:

Eni said...

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Stephen Isabirye