22 November 2010

disjointed ramblings of the nouveau riche and schoolgirls

Right. Attack of the nouveau riche. Go.

One of the side stories in this book has to do with second former Jo. I warn you, this is a cautionary tale of letting the wrong sort associate with you … prepare to be horrified.

Jo is obviously of the lower orders. Her name is abbreviated as befits a servant (but what about sally …?), and she is far too conscious of her money (well bred girls don’t worry about it – there will always be a parent or husband around to give them an allowance …) which indicates that her wealth is not of the old variety.

Big red flags have been planted around Jo – she’s fat, not very intelligent and doesn’t even like sport! Oh no! As she’s been around for a term already, the indoctrinated know that she is not to be befriended, and we the audience are thrust into the story just accepting that Jo is what they say she is.

But it’s her father that really shows what she is.

At the beginning of the book, Jo’s father nearly runs Darrell’s car off the road, which leads to a confrontation in which Darrel’s dad coldly tells off Jo’s in front of a crowd. It’s one of those moments where the breeding and dignity of Mr Rivers is supposed to shine through and show Jo’s dad for the low brow cretin for what he really is. In reality, a well placed ‘piss off’ would do wonders for the scene. Really.

And we know Jo’s dad is low brow. He drops his haitches, dresses inappropriately and is far too familiar with strangers. In fact, he’s quite a friendly guy, but stuck in Enid’s ice sculpture garden, he just wilts.

Basically, if it were an Australian contemporary story, Jo’s dad would be a bogan in a souped up torana who thinks those Angus burgers at McDonalds really are ‘just a little bit fancy’. Miss Grayling indicates that she regrets allowing such an uncouth interloper into her fine establishment, just after an encounter in which he tries to charm her. So we are forewarned that Jo is in danger.

Enid’s girls begin their usual round of bullying and victimisation to try and coerce her into being at least acceptable regime material. But Jo is defiant, making friends with an impressionable girl from the first form (note: this girl is you or your child – good, but helpless against the incursions of the classless). She fights back, but you know how it is – she’s never going to make it work.

The crisis comes when Jo loses five pounds. Just why she was carrying it around at school where there is nowhere to spend it is a mystery, but she is low class like that. Anyway, she loses it and matron finds it and deduces that it is Jo’s. But instead of just calling Jo in and giving her a bollocking for having too much money at school (girls are only allowed a few shillings a week, kept locked up in the matron’s office), matron puts up a notice asking for the girl to turn herself in.

Jo’s in a pickle. She needs to get the money back, but doesn’t want to get caught by the regime … so she picks her moment and steals the money out of the safe – along with four more pounds. Then she goes to town and spends the lot at the local shop, buying food for a birthday feast (what I love about this part is the fact that the shop, no doubt well aware of the allowance of the students, nonetheless let her spend the money then contact the school). By the time she gets back, news has got out that the money is missing. The entire form gets in trouble because Jo won’t own up and one just does not tattle.

Of course, the girls dole out the worst possible punishment – COVENTRY. Jo, beginning to feel guilty, ostracised by her peers and just plain fed up with the raw deal she’s been getting, decides that the ideal solution is to run away. But she can’t do it alone – remember that first former friend? Bingo! Off they go!

… and aren’t missed until bed-time.

Blah blah blah, they get found the next day, the first-former gets off (aren’t you happy? She claims the Nuremberg defence – which gets her off! WTF?), but Jo is expelled. No second chance, no redeeming character trait that would soften the icy chambers of Miss Grayling’s heart. Grayling does happy dance in her head during the interview with Jo and her dad. The Nouveau Riche threat is neutralised!

To be fair to Jo – she does learn something, she writes a letter to prove it. She apologises to the girls, puts on a brave face about her current school-less situation, and goes forth into the night. Just why she couldn’t do that at MT, I don’t know. Jo’s not very smart, a fact that La Grayling pounces on to justify her decision to vote her off the island.

…. And we all learn our lesson. Class will tell. It’s impossible to think that the right thinking element will not prevail. Absolutely impossible!

Meanwhile, June, suitably chastened by the near expulsion last book, has now come under fire from Amanda, the new sixth former. Amanda is a big, sporty type who is going in for the Olympics. When goaded by the other girls, she claims she can make June into an all-round sports champion. Amanda bullies June, June has a tantrum and quits (I think she even throws her racquet). Then drama strikes.

Amanda, being Enid’s choice of victim for her ‘pride comes before a fall’ 4x2, decides that she wants to swim in the ocean. Which has currents she is unfamiliar with. And sharp pointy rocks. Smart. Anyway, she sneaks off early one morning, gets half way to … wherever she was going (America perhaps), and gets caught in the current. Rather than swimming across it like any Australian knows to do, she fights it, tires out and gets dragged to the big pointy rocks. In a marvellous coincidence, June happens to come down, happens to see, and happens to know how to break into the hitherto unmentioned boathouse belonging to the school. Amanda lives, but may never be a great athlete, thus learning her lesson – and serves her right, wouldn’t you say? June also starts training again so that Amanda can live vicariously through her triumph … that’s an arrangement that will definitely end happily.

That’s really all of interest in the book. There’s a brief cameo of a copy of Claudine from St Clares, but Enid doesn’t quite know what to do with her. There’s also an improbable trick involving magnets and teachers’ hair pins that was funnier in Enid’s head than on paper.

And so we leave Malory towers (FINALLY – it took me long enough). The girls go off to wherever their parents deem the most likely place to meet their future husbands, Enid leaves you with that insidious feeling that you want more, and her publishers helpfully point out that they commissioned writers to write sequels so that you can get even more Malory Goodness. Don’t expect me to read them, though. Enid is only fun when it’s Enid doing the writing.

11 November 2010

Don’t say Peculiar, that’s just strange: The Obfuscation of Enid

This is the essay about editing Enid that I alluded to a few posts ago:

A couple of months ago, the dedicated rose up. Cardigans fuzzed and tweeds burred. Battle lines were drawn in ink. It was an outrage, they cried, it was a travesty. Forums het up until they became incandescent as the dedicated protested that it would never be done to Dickens or Shakespeare.

The unthinkable was happening. Enid was being tampered with.


Hodder Childrens Books had announced that they were re-editing Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books to remove all traces of mid-century slang and render the text ‘timeless’ for generations to come. The announcement was one of those ‘moving forward’ type of actions so loved for their pretence of progress; it was meant to show that Blyton would be well placed for the new millennium.

The devoted said Shucks to that.

This, of course, is not the first time that the first lady of children’s literature has been violated. Of all the classic writers of the English tongue, Enid Blyton is the one author against whom the blue pencil continues to be wielded. Classic English literature is generally considered sacrosanct, each work a product of its time and thus part of shared cultural history. But Enid? Enid is the anomaly, belonging to none and every generation simultaneously.
It has been half a century since the last of Enid Blyton’s books were published, and in that time Her books have rallied a legion of followers. This latest renovation of Blyton’s works has opened up that particular can of worms in a way that none of her previous revisions have done. The battle over who truly ‘owns’ Enid and how that ownership is to be displayed has developed into an increasingly heated conflict as the various generations of her readers mass and take sides. With several decades of copyright left to run, this partisanship will only escalate in the coming years.

On one side, we have the devoted Enid-ites, epitomised by the aging and be-cardiganed man who teeters just this side of creepy (and possesses more information about girls’ boarding schools than is seemly). Joining him is the middle-aged and ostentatiously artistic lady, and the pseudo-retro and over-opinionated gen-yer and their ranks of clones. Arrayed against them is the mindless, soulless publishing machine, whose single aim is to world domination and the compete obfuscation of Our Lady Enid.

And then there is the battlefield: Enid Blyton’s body of work. The terrain is rocky, as there is no author with such an ability to engender adoration and embarrassment in equal measure. She drew all manner of un-PC matter under her wing and nurtured it, leaving her followers unsure as to how to deal with her. She’s that great aunt who regales your friends with stories of her bowel movements but who gives you the best Christmas presents.

Enid’s writing really taps into the whole idea of how each generation thinks they should raise the next. Because she remains so amazingly popular (Hodder states that they still sell half a million copies of her Famous Five books every year), her work is constantly adapted to suit whatever the current child rearing trend happens to be. You can see the progress of ideas from generation to generation through the various stages of assault on her body of work.

The first campaign Enid withstood was an attempt to silence her. In a two decade stand off, the BBC maintained an unofficial ban on her works, dismissing her as a “competent and tenacious second-rater” (the BBC’s archive has a page devoted to their letters from, to and about Enid – the reviews are quite brilliant, for example “There is rather a lot of the Pinky-winky-Doodle-doodle Dum-dumm”). By the fifties, however, Enid had become such a leviathan of children’s literature (churning out 12 books per year at her zenith) that even the behemoth of the BBC was forced to capitulate and consent be dragged along in her wake. The first Blyton story was read on the Beeb in 1954. Round one the lady.

The next assault was, most would concur, a sensible one; it was certainly the most successful. It was felt that if Enid could not be stopped, she had to be censored: the racism had to go. Blyton was famous, even in the fifties, for her parochialism and her rampant racism. French people were selfish, Spanish bad tempered, Americans were crass and “Gollywogs” … well, they don’t even print those books anymore so I’m not sure what they were supposed to have done. Only proper English people were capable of true goodness in Enid’s mind; society didn’t agree and she was overruled (to an extent … French bashing is apparently still in vogue). This victory levelled the score, although it was a bit of a one-sided battle: Enid had succumbed to Alzheimer’s and opposition to PC-ing her unfeasible in the face of such reforming zeal.

It was the nineties that saw the next sharpening of the blue pencils. We were all looking to the future, so Blyton’s works were accordingly modernised: girls drank coke, not tea, had central heating rather than fires and were called Zoe instead of Betty. Decimal currency was in, so all those old duodecimal references were out. It was all very new millennium and forward looking, but it dated quickly. Tea turned out to be healthier than coke and sitting around the central heating really held no appeal. As for Zoe, well, the next generation of girls was called Mackenzie, so the name dated awfully quickly.

The response to these last changes was not so favourable as previously. Blyton societies had begun to gain traction; the internet emerged as powerful rallying point for the knights of Enid. Objections to alteration ‘for alteration’s sake’ began floating around along with the idea that enough time had passed that Enid could be classified as a set historical entity. These new changes ended in a draw: new ‘classic’ editions of the books were put out to placate the growing number of the followers of the True Enid. But the schism between the true and false Enid had begun.

Flash forward to today, and we have the latest stoush in the long-running war.
Hodder’s press release flashed across the world, bouncing off satellite and burrowing through cable, planting itself firmly in news sites and discussion forums. The hounds of Enid bayed, blogged and commented, crying for today’s children and the rich cultural experience that they would be losing. This was change for change’s sake and as such we were called to revile it and hold faith with the true Enid.

So what were the changes? On the face of it, it sounds innocuous enough. Hodder announced that the times were a-changing and that Enid’s language had to change with them. If it were just a matter of replacing a few nouns or adjectives there might not have been much of an issue, but even in the small excerpt Hachette Australia provided above, you’ll notice that there is more going on. Judgement calls are being made as to content. The edited version removes reference to ‘the boys’ in relation to climbing and swimming. The female empowerment of this omission is certainly very PC, but misses the point of the passage – that Anne’s major companions are ‘the boys’ and they are part of all she does. It is gendered whitewashing, ensuring that no parent could possibly be upset by anything Enid may have to say.

Which brings me to a question that I’ve not seen answered, or even addressed, in all this: what do children think of this development? Who knows? And really, who actually cares? Certainly not anyone involved in this discussion. This latest bout of fisticuffs in the battle for Enid is between publishers and the readers of news reports and press releases. Parents weigh in, literature critics have something to say. The actual readers of the books are silent over which version they would prefer; the battle rages over their heads. Enid is the domain of the grown-ups. There is almost a belief that Her stories cannot truly be enjoyed until one is an adult, childrens’ tiny heads being incapable of recognising Her genius. She is the ultimate nostalgia: brimming with wholesome, innocent adventure that allows us to point back and say with a sad, smug smile that yes, life was better when we were young.

So what scarring would there be to little Johnny who doesn’t understand what a swotter is (or why it’s awful)? And how would children really react when faced with something beyond their ken? We fear failure for the next generation, so the latest changes attempt to make things easier for them. These efforts, however, intended to render the books age appropriate, have resulted in a solution that appears quite ridiculous. Enid’s stories involve technologies, institutions and ideas straight from post-war Britain. How is it that this aspect can remain relevant to readers yet the vocabulary used is not? She either is relevant or she isn’t. Her stories of upper-middle class children at boarding school solving cold war crime are not precisely tapping into the current affair issues of eight-to-ten-year-olds – so why must the language do so?

Enid is a product of her times and no amount of editing is going to make her more relevant or more readable to her audience.