I’ve just been asked to submit some ideas for a detective story. I’m not sure I’d know how to write a whodunnit, but the invitation was the perfect excuse for a spot of summer reading nostalgia: i.e. good old Enid Blyton. Like most people my age, I was brought up on Biggles, Richmal Crompton and Blyton. I never liked her short story anthologies, Noddy or the novels set in private girls schools, but I really took to The Secret Series and The Adventures Series. I took to them so well, in fact, I formed my own detective group called The Friendly Four. We never solved any mysteries, although a lot did go in the supposedly sleepy village where I lived, but we did read a lot, and acted out plays. Our meeting place was a gigantic Mulberry tree on the trunk of which we painted our logo. FF!
Yesterday I trawled through some charity shops and fleamarkets and came back home with a pile of Enid Blyton books to revisit in the name of research. They’re all Armada and Knight paperbacks from the 1960s and 70s. I prefer these editions from any other; it’s that nostalgia thing again.
The Secret Seven are not as exciting as I remember them. The adventures proper don’t start till well into the books and the endings are always more or less the same, usually with the seven calling in the police. I think what drew me to the series when I was a kid was not the plot but the fact that the seven had a shed where no grown ups were allowed, used passwords to gain admittance to the club and had an inexhaustible supply of treats.
The Secret and Adventure Series still work for me. One of the reasons I used to love these was their exotic locations: hidden valleys, hollow mountains, strange lands reached by planes boarded by mistake. But the book I really enjoyed this time round was one in a series I had overlooked as a child. The Rockingdown Mystery! It’s the first title in the Barney Series. It has all the hallmarks – or clichés, if you’re not a Blyton fan – of a classic adventure: a crumbling mansion with a deserted nursery, a secret passage and a disused cellar with a trapdoor, children in search of excitement and lots of early teas and cold suppers. It also has pets with higher I.Q.s than the adults in the book. I always thought Blyton wrote animals better than she wrote people. She was obviously an animal lover.
One of the child stars is Barney. He’s parentless, homeless, possibly of traveller origins and speaks with a foreign accent. He’s also the hero of the series and looked up to by the other three children in the story. Blyton takes a lot of flack for the implied racism and sexism in her books and this story does have a girl who tidies up after the boys and villains with foreign accents, but I think she was no more prejudiced than most writers of her time. As a foreign reader myself I never twigged to the implied racism. I just enjoyed the stories and wished we could get ginger beer in my country.
Cooking my tea early so I can get on with the next Barney series, it occurs to me that Blyton is the Nando’s of children’s books. Her books are never ground breaking, they’re never going to change your life, but you do know what you’re getting for your time and money. And, taken in moderation and not to the exclusion of more substantial fare, they’ll even do you some good…