It’s been an aw­fully big ad­ven­ture

The Fa­mous Five, a by­word for un­su­per­vised child­hoods and lash­ings of grub, are 75 this year. Bit­ter crit­i­cism of the books may now have given way to satir­i­cal jokes, but devo­tee Flora Watkins will be giv­ing them to her chil­dren to read

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Isay, I’ve got a per­fectly wiz­ard idea. Let’s take four plucky chil­dren and their dog, re­move all re­spon­si­ble adults—we’ll say they’re sick, called away on ur­gent busi­ness or some­thing—and set the jolly quin­tet up for all sorts of ad­ven­tures. What about throw­ing in some boats and camp­ing and bi­cy­cles and mag­nif­i­cent pic­nics, too? Oh, rather!

It’s a com­mon­place premise of chil­dren’s ad­ven­ture fic­tion, but, although it’s been done be­fore and since, no­tably by arthur Ran­some, ar­guably none have done it quite so suc­cess­fully as Enid Bly­ton. since Ju­lian, Dick, anne, their cousin Ge­orge (Ge­orgina by rights) and her dog Timmy first ap­peared in 1942, their es­capades have helped make Bly­ton one of the world’s best-sell­ing chil­dren’s au­thors.

The ad­ven­tures of the Fa­mous Five con­tinue to be the big­gest-sell­ing se­ries of her vast canon, which en­com­passes more than 800 nov­els and short sto­ries. The com­bi­na­tion of dar­ing, ru­ined cas­tles, buried trea­sure, vil­lains, se­cret pas­sages and Guernsey sweaters, all washed down with gin­ger beer, is part of the Bri­tish psy­che. They’ve been the sub­ject of films, TV adap­ta­tions, a BBC ban and some wickedly funny par­o­dies, as seen in the suc­cess of the re­cent ‘Enid Bly­ton for Grown Ups’ book se­ries (Five Go Gluten Free, Five Go On a Strat­egy Away Day and so on).

although she orig­i­nally con­ceived them as a se­ries of six, Bly­ton even­tu­ally wrote 21 ‘Fa­mous Five’ books, pro­duc­ing one a year be­tween 1942 and 1963 (plus eight short sto­ries) in re­sponse to over­whelm­ing reader de­mand. Their en­dur­ing ap­peal is➢

‘The phrase “lash­ings of gin­ger beer” doesn’t ac­tu­ally ap­pear in the books ’

down to ‘the amount of free­dom the chil­dren have and the fact that they’re com­pletely in the roles of he­roes, in­de­pen­dent from adults for most of the story,’ be­lieves Alex Antscherl, edi­to­rial di­rec­tor for Enid Bly­ton at Ha­chette Chil­dren’s Group.

The sto­ries are also de­light­fully es­capist and not only in the amount of con­trol the chil­dren wield. Bly­ton’s win­ning for­mula might be summed up as ‘Five go off com­pletely un­su­per­vised, out­wit some thor­oughly dan­ger­ous men and con­sume Type2 di­a­betes-in­duc­ing amounts of fruit cake, scones and ices with no ill ef­fects’.

It’s the food con­sump­tion that’s such a gift to satirists. The phrase ‘lash­ings of gin­ger beer’ doesn’t ac­tu­ally ap­pear in the books—it comes from the 1982 ‘Comic Strip Presents...’ pro­duc­tion Five Go Mad

in Dorset. (You will, how­ever, find ‘lash­ings of hard-boiled eggs’ in book 12, Five Go Down to the Sea.)

When Five On A Trea­sure Is­land came out in 1942, Bri­tain was suf­fer­ing the pri­va­tions of the Sec­ond World War. How de­li­cious, then, for a child liv­ing un­der ra­tioning to read about Aunt Fanny’s newly baked scones and ‘gin­ger cake made with black trea­cle… dark brown and sticky to eat’.

How­ever, within a few years, that same child might have had to re­sort to read­ing the lat­est book un­der the cov­ers, with a torch. By the mid 1950s, crit­i­cism of Bly­ton’s work was be­com­ing vol­u­ble. Her books be­gan to dis­ap­pear from the shelves of li­braries and, in 1954, the head of the BBC’S schools depart­ment, Jean Sut­cliffe, up­held the cor­po­ra­tion’s ban, declar­ing her to be a ‘tena­cious sec­ond-rater’.

The Fa­mous Five be­came the sub­ject of school and parental dis­ap­proval. At pri­mary school in the 1980s, I fiercely re­sisted ef­forts to wean me off the books, at one stage de­fi­antly read­ing Five Go To Mys­tery Moor in­side a copy of some­thing con­sid­ered more suit­able.

The Fa­mous Five ad­ven­tures, say her de­trac­tors, are for­mu­laic, the lan­guage repet­i­tive. Pic­nics are in­vari­ably ‘mag­nif­i­cent’, cars ‘eat up the miles’, the chil­dren en­counter ‘queer’ go­ings-on. Worse still are the chil­dren’s priv­i­leged lives, with ser­vants and board­ing schools.

There are the out­dated stereo­types— wash­ing-up is al­ways del­e­gated to the girls—and the snob­bery: the work­ing-class Stick fam­ily in Five

Run Away To­gether are de­picted as slovenly and stupid. For­eign­ers are re­garded with sus­pi­cion, Amer­i­cans are brash and vul­gar, gyp­sies dirty and surly (al­beit of­ten brave).

For Miss Antscherl, the woman tasked with sell­ing the books to a new gen­er­a­tion, none of this is a bar­rier to chil­dren’s en­joy­ment. She points out: ‘Bly­ton was very much a woman of her time. She was born when Vic­to­ria was on the throne—it would be silly to pre­tend that these are sup­posed to be con­tem­po­rary sto­ries.’ Chil­dren, she adds, tend to be driven by plot, not a lit­er­ary style, and the books zip along at a glo­ri­ous pace. ‘You want to find out if they’re go­ing to solve the mys­tery, dis­cover the bad­dies or es­cape—they’re fre­quently be­ing locked in dun­geons.’

‘Isn’t it more fun en­ter­ing a world in which there’s an is­land in the fam­ily?’

Dip­ping into the boxset with orig­i­nal Eileen Soper il­lus­tra­tions that I bought for my two young sons, I’m struck by how ad­mirably Bly­ton con­trols the sus­pense. The hunt for the ‘spook’ trains in Five Go Off to Camp is al­most as ex­cit­ing as when I read it as an eight year old (and sub­se­quently had to sleep with the light on).

A friend, Martha Owen, a mother of four, agrees. ‘I would credit Enid Bly­ton for set­ting my [nine-year-old] daugh­ter up as a life­long book­worm,’ she says. ‘I bought her the whole col­lec­tion with­out a sec­ond thought and she went from cover to cover through all 21 books.’ Bly­ton her­self said that she was not in­ter­ested in the views of any critic ‘over the age of 12’.

Par­ents can be re­as­sured that the Fa­mous Five are safe in the hands of Miss Antscherl. She in­ti­mates that re­cent tin­ker­ing with the lan­guage to bring it up to date—an idea since dropped—wouldn’t have hap­pened on her watch (‘Oh you are a brick,’ as Ju­lian might have said). She has in­tro­duced new, con­tem­po­rary il­lus­tra­tions for the 75th an­niver­sary (the Soper edi­tions will still be avail­able), but that’s as far as the up­dat­ing goes. Ge­orge will def­i­nitely not be iden­ti­fy­ing as recre­ation­ally trans­gen­der and Dick and Aunt Fanny will not be re­named (the fate that be­fell Titty in the re­cent film of Swal­lows and

Ama­zons—she be­came ‘Tatty’). In­tro­duce your child to the Fa­mous Five and who knows where they’ll take them. For­mer Chil­dren’s Lau­re­ates Anne Fine and Dame Jac­que­line Wil­son are among the writ­ers who en­joyed the books when they were young (although the lat­ter, known for her gritty themes, says she was acutely aware that the chil­dren had con­sid­er­ably more money than her fam­ily).

Isn’t it more fun en­ter­ing a world in which there’s an is­land in the fam­ily and ponies to ride as well as jolly schools that let you take your dog? Where you can scoff all the sand­wiches meant for tea as well as lunch with­out risk of child­hood obe­sity? Where you’re free to leap on your bi­cy­cle, pitch your tent be­yond the lonely farm­house and tan­gle with some jolly bad hats, but be back in time for tea? A mag­nif­i­cent tea. Es­capist, yes. For­mu­laic, per­haps. But ex­cit­ing? Rather!

Fac­ing page: One of Eileen Soper’s orig­i­nal il­lus­tra­tions. Be­low: The new edi­tions by Laura Ellen An­der­son

The in­de­pen­dence of the Five from adults is one of the se­ries’ most en­dur­ing charms

De­spite be­ing the sub­ject of school and parental dis­ap­proval, Enid Bly­ton said that she was never in­ter­ested in the views of any critic ‘over the age of 12’

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