Noddy is alive and well and living in Dublin
As Wimbledon 2009 draws to a close, I am drawn to the analogy that being an author is a bit like being a champion tennis player. You train for many years, carrying out daily exercises, aiming to become fit for the task. You watch others who have been successful, studying techniques and styles in an effort to extract the elements that have made them winners, attempting to build these into your own repertoire. Finally comes the day, after much pain and heartache, much wailing and gnashing of teeth, when you produce a finished book – when you enter a tournament from start to finish and find yourself still able to breathe at the finals and not collapsed in a gibbering heap just past the first heat. You tell your friends. You say, “I’ve written my first book.” They say, “Is it published?”
This is a bit like a tennis player saying to a friend, “I’ve entered my first tournament,” and getting the response, “Did you get the gold medal?” My point is, the tennis player is no less of an athlete because they didn’t win first place at Wimbledon – the author is no less of an author because they haven’t yet been published.
However, like the tennis player, the author aspires to becoming the gold medal winning Venus or Serena Williams or Dinara Safina of the writing-race, matching the success of the Wimbledon athletes; emulating someone like Roger Federer, considered by many experts to be the greatest tennis player of all time with fourteen Grand Slam titles to his name – or Andy Murray with a world ranking of number three in 2009.
Now, you’re going to laugh when I equate Enid Blyton to Roger, or even Venus. For starters, most kids grow up in their early years thinking her name is Gnid Blyton – how can someone with a name like Gnid be a gold medallist? But, if we look closer, we find an author, Enid rather than Gnid, who has more than matched the achievements of Dinara Safina or Andy Murray. OK, so maybe Enid Blyton can’t win fourteen Grand Slams, or hit a ball at one hundred and fifteen miles an hour. But then Roger and Venus probably can’t sell 600 million+ books in their lifetimes, nor can they continue to win championships after they are dead – Blyton books still sell at the rate of 8–10 million a year. Noddy alone, of who we shall here more later, sells 4 millions copies a year.
Enid Blyton has recently been voted best loved UK author in a poll commissioned to celebrate the 2008 Costa Book awards. She won gold over Roald Dahl, who came in with silver, and J. K. Rowling who only managed a bronze. The interesting thing is that voters in the poll were required to be over 18 years old but, even so, the top three winners were children’s book authors. Jane Austen was fourth, and Shakespeare managed fifth place. Other hugely successful authors like Ian Fleming and Philip Pullman didn’t even make the top fifty. You may say ‘fluke’, but you would be wrong. Other polls support this result. For example, in a survey of adults between the ages of 25 and 54, conducted by Cartoon Network in England in 2004, The Famous Five was pronounced the most popular, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis’s came second, Treasure Island, third and Blyton’s Secret Seven tied with The Hobbit for fourth place.
So, what of this amazing success story called Enid Blyton. Entering the world on 11th August 1897 in East Dulwich, London, she was one of a trio of children born to Thomas Carey Blyton, a cutlery salesman, and his wife Theresa Mary. From 1907 to 1915, Enid attended St. Christopher’s School in Beckham, where she excelled at her studies, eventually leaving the school as head girl. Along with her academic work, with the exception of maths, with which she never achieved a stable relationship, she also enjoyed physical activities. She was a talented pianist, but gave up her musical studies when she went to train as a teacher at Ipswich High School. Pursuing her teaching career for five years, she wrote in her spare time, and achieved publication of her first book, Child Whispers, a collection of poems, in 1922. Two years later, at the age of 27, she married Major Hugh Alexander Pollock DSO, who happened to be the editor of the book department in the publishing firm of George Newnes. Surprisingly, this firm published two of Enid’s books that year! Her marriage to Pollock produced two daughters, Gillian Mary, who died in June 2007 aged 77, and Imogen Mary, born 27th October 1935, who is still active at 73. Her daughters tell very different stories of Enid as a mother, possibly due to the fact that, during Imogen’s childhood, Enid’s career was taking off in a big way, whereas Gillian, as firstborn, in a less frantic period of Enid’s life, received considerably more motherly attention.
Over the period 1939 to 1941 Enid’s marriage to Hugh Pollock disintegrated and they were divorced, leaving her free to marry her second husband, Kenneth Fraser Darrell Waters, a London surgeon, in 1943. After a very happy marriage of 24 years Kenneth died in 1967, followed shortly by Enid herself, who departed this world on 28th November 1968, aged 71, leaving a heritage of an estimated 800 books over about forty years as an author – that, I think, qualifies as a gold medal performance. Some of her most popular works were:
- The Famous Five books
- The Five Find-Outers
- The Magic Faraway Tree series
- The Malory Towers books
- The Mistletoe Farm series
- The Naughtiest Girl stories
- The Noddy books
- The Amelia Jane short stories
- The Secret Seven books
- The Wishing–Chair series
However, she wrote hundreds of other books; novels, story collections and some non-fiction, a few of which were published under the pseudonym, Mary Pollock. She also filled a large number of magazine pages, particularly, the long-running Sunny Stories, which were immensely popular among younger children. It is said that at the height of her career she regularly produced 10,000 words a day.
Enid’s popularity might be vested in the fact that her books often mirrored the fantasies of children, creating scenarios where they are free to play without adult interference; adult characters in her books mostly being either figures of authority or adversaries to be conquered by children. The essence of the attraction is every child’s dream where, with a group of friends, they are self-sufficient, spending days away from home. This theme is taken to its extreme in two books – Five Run Away Together and The Secret Island, where a groups of children run away from unpleasant guardians, in the later case, to live on an island together, making a home and fending for themselves until their parents return.
Within Enid’s general theme of children’s fantasies, some analysts suggest a split into three types:
- The first involves ordinary children in extraordinary situations, having adventures, solving crimes, or otherwise dealing with unusual circumstances.
- Second is the boarding school type story where the plots have more emphasis on day-to-day life, but include excitement in unauthorised activity, such as midnight feasts and practical jokes.
- Thirdly comes the world of fantasy, where children find themselves transported into magical realms of fairies, goblins, and elves, or where toys come alive when humans are not around.
Over the years much controversy has surrounded the Blyton books. Allegations of sexism, racism, snobbishness have all been levelled, but it appears without dent to popularity, her books always finding new readers from new generations. Also, simplistic language and failure to challenge young peoples’ reading ability have been suggested. The main target for anti-Blytons was Noddy – once described as “the most egocentric, joyless, snivelling and pious anti-hero in the history of British fiction,” to say nothing of the rumours that Noddy and Big-Ears were, how might we put it? – ambidextrous in their sexual proclivities. Maybe, Enid Blyton had the right approach when she said, “I’m not interested in the opinion of any critics over the age of 12.” Psychologist Michael Woods summarised the secret of Enid Blyton’s writing as, “She was a child, she thought as a child, and she wrote as a child”.
So, what of the future? Well, in spite of the sniggering, Noddy triumphs again. No doubt featuring Big-Ears, Mr Plod, Tessie Bear, Mr. Wobbly Man, Stinkly, Bumpy Dog and many other of the original characters, Brown Bag Films animation studio in Dublin, in January 2008, won the contract to make a new series of Noddy programmes. Awarded the contract by Chorion, owners of the Enid Blyton heritage, this is a series of fifty-two, ten minute, 3D animations and was completed in December 2008. It has just hit the TV screens in the UK celebrating Noddy’s 60th anniversary. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your stance on the matter, politically incorrect Noddy characters have, over more recent years, succumbed to the pressure of the critics. Mr Golly (who was, of course, a toy Golliwog) and ran the Toyland garage, has been replaced with Mr Sparks, Toyland’s handyman, who can mend anything (including, it would seem, politically-correctness), and the slipper wielding school mistress has been replaced with a more socially-aware version (God, are we losing the plot, or what!). I wonder, in harmony with the current changes in social ‘development’, in this new series, because, of course, we cannot replace him, will Noddy actual come out? We’ll have to wait and see, but, in the meantime, he is alive and well and living right here in Dublin, although he is working in the UK at the moment.
Rock on Noddy, Gnid would be proud of you.
Chris Warren, Author and Freelance Writer