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Stunned, I looked at the airport book display, and decided some critic had drugged my breakfast.
But I wasn’t hallucinating. The distinctive Famous Five book cover had the Enid Blyton signature emblazoned across its top. And beneath her name, its offensive title read: Five Go Gluten Free.
This wasn’t the only outrage. The Famous Five display included other weasel titles like Five Go Parenting, Five Forget Mother’s Day, and Five Go On a Strategic Away Day.
It seemed political correctitude had inflicted its sneakiest victory. That some kiddy-fiddler of books had interfered with my childhood. And that each of us who’d sneaked a torch to bed to finish their Famous Five story had been betrayed. I discovered my outrage was part right and part wrong, when I investigated these alarming new titles, and walked into a corporate labyrinth. It went way back to 1968 when the world’s bestselling children’s author expired in a Hampstead nursing home. Enid Blyton had been a 6000-words-a day factory, and left an estate of 800 titles, not many of them distinguished. But children — small people of determined taste — were devoted to them.
To the chagrin of public librarians and the "we know best" arbiters, The Secret Seven, Noddy, and The Famous Five series, kept selling millions.
Hachette knows how to turn a euro, and its various subsidiaries jovially squeezed every last pip from Brand Blyton. The Famous Five became toys, games, cards, and wrapping paper.
Publishing bright sparks invented the Famous Five cookbook — Jolly Good Food — which sets the Michelin standard for custard creams, ginger beer and buns. And the firms workshopped the question: "What can we peddle to all those Famous Five millions who’ve grown into wrinkled adults?"
The resulting brainwave is a Quercus imprint titled: Enid Blyton For Grown-Ups.
Five Go Gluten Free (et al) are short, jokey, gift-priced books that we’re meant to buy for a lark. An older Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy the dog confront today’s lunacies, rather than seeing off the menacing gypsies and burglars of yore. But still.
Sometimes Wit’s End works hard for its money. I went back to the original Five Go To Smuggler’s Top, and added the newly minted Five Give Up The Booze, best read with a port and a brandy chaser.
Smuggler’s Top? It’s boarding school hols, and the Famous Five have returned to Kirrin Cottage. After a ripping tea with Aunt Fanny and Uncle Quentin, a nasty storm blows off the roof and the five are sent to stay at Smuggler’s Top. The Top is a school friend’s cliffed castle, which is circled by dog sucking marshlands. (Spoiler alert?) There are secret tunnels, a dark fellow nicknamed Sooty (dear me) and Block, the dubious servant, who may be a smuggler.
Blyton servants — in fact her entire working classes — come in two categories. They are either jovial dunces, or evil schemers such as Block. This is a child’s adventure world where racism, sexism, and classism go unnoticed — and LGBTQI must be the smugglers’ morse code.
While the adults flounder, the clever children solve the case. Timmy, a sort of Hercules Poirot Terrier, bites the evil-doers’ ankles, and makes the final arrest. If all this seems nonsense, it’s because we can no longer read with innocence. Enid Blyton was pilloried for her successful mediocrity, and rightly remarked that she ignored all critics over the age of 12.
Yes, her work was repetitive, but so what? When writing a 21-book series where the dog plays a full character, how many ways are there to report that Timmy said ‘‘woof’’? ("Woof!" warned Timmy. "Woof?" Timmy inquired solicitously).
I’d finish here — but I know Wit’s End readers require book club recommendations, and expect a heads up on Five Give Up The Booze. The Famous Five managed but a month on the wagon, with goody two-shoes Anne particularly anxious to get her pretty lug round a whisky and chaser.
The Enid Blyton stand-in, Bruno Vincent, is droll and rather funny. Timmy, a sound judge of a sausage book, would award it three and a-half woofs. But of course, dogs always forgive.
- John Lapsley is an Arrowtown writer.