Friday, August 15, 2008

lashings and lashings of childhood

Today I took a load of Minima's books to XV, the local charity shop. Many of them are by Enid Blyton and concern the adventures of the Famous Five and the Secret Seven. Seeing these literary childhood friends again made me feel choked up for a bit.

Everybody should have a summer that lasted forever, and mine was the scorching 1976 - assisted by the Scottish Education Board, which miscounted its beans and put an extra week on the holidays.
Secret Seven
On holiday with my Mum in Blackpool, I bought my first Enid Blyton book. It was a Secret Seven one, involving - inter alia - an adventure in an underground factory where the band look down upon a cauldron of ore that glowed with "a colour they had never seen before". I was hooked. In between walks on piers and rides on trams I think I still managed to consume a book a day after that.

The characters in Blyton's prodigious output lived in a place far removed from Glasgow's East End, but thankfully declamations by privileged left-wing academics upon her middle-class mindset didn't filter down to us. We relished her appreciation of the ebb and flow of childhood's long waves, from summer to Christmas to Easter and back to summer. Like many of my friends I had to check the dictionary to find out what a summerhouse was; but we understood perfectly what it meant to feel heavy with secrets, shake our heads over the inscrutability of adults - surely a different race from us - and quake before the reassuring authority of teachers, police and parents.

Blyton saw her universe through child's eyes. Emotionally, she may have been a child herself - which would explain the enduring success of her titles and her place in the top ten of the UN's list of translated authors. And so what? The best thrillers are written by soldiers, crime novels by detectives...get it?

Grimms' Fairy TalesAnd if we wanted something a bit more scary, all we had to do was to reach to the bookcase and retrieve Grimm's Fairy Tales, a compendium of dark happenings which relied for its efficacy on nothing more than the most effective engine of terror that Creation has come up with - a child's imagination. Despite having seen the worst that Hollywood's SFX department can come up with, the memories of reading Hansel and Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood still make me shiver. Thankfully, the Harry Potter phenomenon has kickstarted kids reading again: I've read every book and, good as the films are, the written word is so much more affirming, terrifying and valuable than the projected image.

Larkin famously (and unrepeatably) mused on the potential sequelae of parenting, and Blyton's daughters were split on this matter. But to may millions of other children, she was a literary mother, leading us gently into the scary wilderness beyond the garden gate or tower block, until another world beckoned and a new generation discovered Enid's worlds waiting for them.

The thing is, we will always need books to remind us that, once upon a time there was a once upon a time. Innocence thrives wherever there are young children. It does not fade away, it is taken - sometimes more roughly than others.

But I'm putting Enid's works onto the shelves of XV without any guilt because I know they won't be there long. And, thank God, some of the buyers will be children.

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