We’ve just started reading The Faraway Tree stories again in our house and, nearly eighty years after The Enchanted Wood was first published, and fifty years since Blyton died, the idea of a massive tree with different worlds rotating around at the top is loved by a new reader. Saucepan Man is the favourite – who doesn’t love a silly rhyme or three – and no slide can now live up to the sheer brilliance of the Slippery Slip. I’m just really hoping that the forthcoming film can do the wonder of it all justice. Yes, as with all of Blyton’s stories, there are things which jar – Joe gets to work in the garden and is allowed to go for walks by himself, whilst Beth and Fran have to help their mother in the house, etc – but for sheer imagination, she remains one of the best for small children taking their first steps into extended tales.
Once I’d read all of the Faraway Tree stories, and all of the Wishing Chair tales (these somehow felt slightly more sinister), I moved onto The Secret Seven and, slightly later, The Famous Five. Even now, just typing these titles creates a strong Proustian moment – I am seven again, sitting in bed in the tiny box room, with one of these books and a plate of chicken paste sandwiches (in lieu of their potted meat, I think). I loved the sense of adventure, the idea of a gang, and the belief that children could solve crimes and put the world to rights. I preferred the Famous Five as a group and I still remember that frisson of excitement I felt at the end of one of the novels when they realised that an old farmhouse door probably came from a castle that had burned down centuries ago (although I’m now thinking this could also be in The Castle of Adventure…). Their stories seemed more solid, and George made a refreshing change (although Anne still had to be put up with).
It was probably at roughly the same time that I embarked on the St Clares novels. This was certainly the first I’d heard of boarding schools – as someone who got terribly homesick on the shortest of school trips, I was never going to find this an enticing prospect, but I was fascinated by the idea of matrons, hockey and, of key interest, Tuck Boxes. I soon graduated onto the Malory Towers books and found these even more satisfying. Here were fully developed, complex characters: girls who lied about their backgrounds, girls who were earnest, swotty types, girls who sneaked out after lights out, and who were all treated fairly and firmly by the marvellous Miss Grayling. It still didn’t make me want to go to boarding school, but I did love this fictional world.
The other Blyton loves of mine were her ‘Adventure’ series and her ‘Mystery‘ series, of which The Rat-a-tat-tat Mystery was the most memorable. I was genuinely creeped out by the description of the snowy footprints leading up to the front door without a trail leading away again, and no one wants to be trapped in an old house when the old doorknocker sounds at odd hours and without explanation. I kept my light on to go to sleep after reading that one. A special mention must also go to The Secret Island, in which four children try to survive alone on a rather idyllic island, and prove to be rather ingenious in the process, and which has one of the best endings ever.
Many of these books were actually the copies my mum and dad had kept from their own childhoods, and this now just adds to the loveliness of my memories. I moved onto Mum’s copies of Jane Shaw’s Susan stories (only Susan readers will know why I want to call all currant buns ‘O brother, where art thou‘), and Dad’s copies of Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine novels. The latter had the advantage of the fact that the characters grew older which each story, and I enjoyed the way the central relationships developed. Judy Bloom and Sue Townsend then bridged the gap to starting to read ‘grown up’ books. But I would still pick up my old Blyton books, and they were my equivalent of a comfort blanket, I suppose. Blyton fell out of fashion for some, for a bit, but I remain utterly grateful to the woman and her amazing imagination and her prodigious output. She made me want to devour books and I owe her a lot.