‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Monday 27 January 2014

Asymmetry, bsymmetry, csymmetry

Here's Uriah Kriegel, reviewing Katalin Farkas The Subject's Point of View (OUP 2009) in the TLS for 20th November 2009:
There is a genuine asymmetry between our access to ourselves and our inner life on the one hand, and our access to the external world on the other. This asymmetric access has two aspects: in certain fundamental respects, we know ourselves better than we know others, and we know ourselves better than others know us. In retrospect, the discovery of asymmetric accesss is not all that surprising. Consider: what am I visualising right now? The correct answer is: a three-headed kangaroo. But how is it I know the correct answer when you could not?
That last isn't the question, though. The question is: in what sense is this asymmetric? Or, since the answer is 'in no sense', the more pointed question is: how could anybody genuinely think there's any genuine asymmetry here?

Put it this way: the world doesn't know us (the nature of our thoughts about kangaroos); but there's nothing assymetric about this because we don't know the world either. Or more precisely: the world knows something about us, but not everything; and this exactly ('symmetrically') describes our situation with respect to the world ... we know something about it, but not everything.

Of course, if we had a perfectly comprehensive and transparent knowledge of the cosmos, some asymmetry might creep in. But quantum physics and chaos suggest such knowledge isn't in the grain of things. Or to put it another way: if we had a perfectly comprehensive and transparent knowledge of the cosmos, then the state of affairs would obtain in which the cosmos (of which we are a part) had become perfectly transparent, and our thoughts about many-headed kangaroos would be precisely as knowable as everything else.

I find myself wondering if there's isn't something very profound in this.

Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance, everybody thinks its true.

Trains in the distance, under the stars, away somewhere behind the houses. They make a weird, metallic, plangent, tubular sort of sound. Urban whalesong.

The Skeleton Says

Grief is a hone to a hard mind:
whittling the gene-line to the heirs
of our days. One skeleton says:
'we are all of us thin
stomach as full of holes
as collander bowls.
Between life and death:
an heir's breath.'

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Steve Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011): A Hypothesis

I come to praise Pinker, not to bury him; but I do come to offer an alternate hypothesis by way of explaining the phenomenon he identifies at the heart of his enormous book. I picked it up with some concerns, it's true, after reading mixed reviews, and from the shall-we-say spotty reputation Pinker himself has. On the one hand there have been the (you can see, on the cover there the 'one of the most important books I have ever read, not just this year but ever' blurb from Bill Gates) extravagantly positive responses; but there has also been a more measured, 'I'm not so sure' reaction. A lot of the latter come down to the sense that people find the central premise simply hard to swallow—that human beings are not just less violent nowadays than they were in the past, but much much much less violent. It's counter-intuitive, but Pinker does (I'd say) a pretty good job of demonstrating it with lots and lots of hard data. This latter was one of my pre-read concerns: we compile detailed and accurate data about crime and causes of death nowadays, but this is a relatively recent thing in world history. How could Pinker compare the rates of violence in 2000 with those in 1300? How can we even know what those rates were, back then? And, fair play: Pinker address precisely this question, at length and in such a way that I, for one, was convinced.

So, yes: there are two portions to this colossal book. The first is the one in which Pinker aims to demonstrate that, despite our Golden Age bias and truth-y sense that things are worse now than they've ever been, we are literally orders of magnitude less violent now than we have ever been. I'm persuaded. You have to agree with him that it is the rate of individuals who suffer violence as a proportion of the total population that matters, rather than raw numbers of violent acts. Those have increased, but that datum is massively outstripped by the increase in population, and Pinker is surely correct that the latter dilutes the former, such that the probability of any individual experiencing violence reduces.

The second element is Pinker's explanation for this decline. This is rather complicated, but at least he does have a hypothesis. In a nutshell he suggests that we are better at controlling, damping-down and otherwise defusing violent impulses. Because he explicitly repudiates the 'hydraulic theory' of human violent impulses, he doesn't believe that violent urges are therefore, as it were, building up inside us. If we manage, through various strategies, to de-normalise violence, then violent impulses diminish along with violent acts.* It's a deeply hopeful theory. Maybe it's right. But, reading his book, I found myself considering other possible explanations, ones that Pinker, even in this capacious volume, doesn't really consider.

In a nutshell it is frustration. The thesis would be: violent acts are almost always the index of some underlying frustration. If a person's wishes or desires are thwarted in any of several ways, particularly in chronic ways, then that person is more likely to be violent. Football hooliganism, for instance, is a deplorable business; but one of the reasons football crowds are more likely to riot than cricket crowds or Rugby crowds is that watching football is an inherently frustrating business. More often than not you find yourself wound-up as your stupid team misses opportunities to score, or concedes stupid goals. This is in the nature of the game; and it means that when your team does score the release is that much more ecstatic (compared to, say, a basket being scored in basketball). But it has its dark side too. And this scales to our general experience of life; from an individual punching the steering wheel because he's stuck helplessly in a traffic jam, to a whole class of people whose life opportunities are savagely reduced (when compared to the rest of the population) and who are therefore much more likely to kick out.

This has a historical component, because it seems to me more or less self-evident that life was simply much more frustrating in the past. Existence was prey to forces of disease that were not understood, could not be combatted, and left the individual at the mercy of capricious fate. Two thirds of children died before reaching maturity. It was a matter of days to travel short distances, and of months to go to other countries; most people didn't travel at all. There simply wasn't enough wealth in society as a whole (and what wealth there was monstrously inequitably distributed) to enable people to do what they wanted to do. There was no real freedom of speech or of religion; government was arbitrary fiat by the unelected. Is it so hard to believe that a people who lived in this frustrating, oppressive environment were more likely to lash out?

[If I were going to theorise my meandering thoughts here, I'd draw upon the work of Scottish psychotherapist Ronald Fairbairn, who inter alia argued that violence is always 'a reaction to deprivation', which sounds about right to me. This AUFS post has more on Fairbairn. I undertake a kind-of Fairbairnian reading of Jacqueline Wilson's fiction here.]

This is, though, a hypothesis that goes to the heart of what Pinker is arguing. So his theory is that violence has declined because of various top-down interventions: because we are better at repressing our discontents, to the point where such repression of violent urges becomes second nature and the urges themselves diminish. I'm suggesting the opposite: that the reduction in violence tracks a reduction in underlying existential frustration. It is a glorious thing, how many options we now (broadly speaking) have before us; how much easier it is to gratify our desires. So, by way of illustrating the difference: the 1960s are for Pinker an anomaly he has to explain away in order to his downward slope. That was a decade of the countercultural push-back against state control (something which, broadly, he deplores); if Pinker is right, then this should have shown a blip of violence increasing. If I'm right the increased opportunities for people—especially young people, women and people of colour—that begin with that decade should have the opposite effect.

Again: if I'm right, then the rise of the internet (which removes so many of the barriers to communication, and makes so many virtual fantasies realisable) should track a further reduction in violence. Of course, Pinker could always argue that this is just the 'escalator of reason' moving upwards. But it has implications for future humanity. Is the thing to do to continue to increase the scope and efficiency of the state's ability to fight crime, to internalise all the repressions and aversions, and so on? Or is the thing to do simpler: to ensure that more people live lives freed from oppressive frustrations?
[Addendum: 25th Jan. I'm loathe to make this fairly long post even longer, but just to be clear. It seems to me that something quite important is at stake in this disagreement over causes. If Pinker is right then to continue reducing violence we need to add in ever more layers of frustration -- because external policing and internal superego-repression are precisely modes of adding frustration to ordinary existence (Pinker might say: ways of normalising frustration so that it becomes second nature and our violent impulses wither and die within us). But if I'm right then this is exactly the wrong thing to be doing: and what we need to be doing is working collectively to reduce levels of social and existential frustration for communities where violence still manifests. On my side of the argument, I'd say, is the observation that back in the violent old days social philosophies of authority and the role of religion in inculcating guilt as well as shame meant that 'policing' was a lot more draconian—although I'd concede that, before modern technologies and surveillance and so on, it was also a lot less effective, and less ubiquitous.

There's a thought experiment aspect to this too, I think. Extrapolate to a world, as with Larry Niven's 'wireheads', where a brain plug-in eliminates even the most trivial frustrations from a person's life. What would s/he do? Lie around all day feeling blissful? Certainly not get off his/her couch and stab someone. But at what cost would this reduction in violence be purchased? It's an unappealing picture of passivity and unachievement, which in turn reflects back upon the thought that a certain amount of frustration is needful in life, to tense our wills, to give us something to work through and so to achieve. But this is only another way of saying that a certain amount of violence -- shall we call it 'passion'? 'engagement'? 'will-to-power'?—is also needful. In which case were not arguing about eliminating violence, but about finding the right levels and modes of violence for the ideal society.]


* I'm not doing justice to the intricacy of Pinker's actual argument here. To go into a little more detail: Pinker picks out several interconnected 'historical forces' that he thinks have augmented and strengthened 'our peaceable motives' (the 'better angels' of his title) and thereby 'driven the multiple declines in violence.' These are: (1) 'The Leviathan': a consistent growth in the efficiency and scope of the modern nation-state, with its police forces, its judiciary and its claim to 'a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.' Pinker thinks this power-over structure has 'defused' several individual premises for violence, such as retaliation after crime, revenge and so on. (2) Commerce. According to Pinker the rise of global trade means that, in a phrase, 'other people become more valuable alive than dead' and 'are less likely to become targets of demonization and dehumanization' This is a version of the theory (which he also discusses) that no two nations that both have MacDonalds' restaurants have ever gone to war. (3) 'Feminization' and 'Cosmopolitanism'. Pinker speculates that the reduction in violence has gone along with increasing respect for 'the interests and values of women'; and as a sort of extension of this, a broader sense that the Other has his/her own valid perspective, an increasing in our powers of empathy. This interests me particularly, actually, because of a thesis to do with the Victorian Novel, that I haven't got time to go into here. What else? Oh yes: the very Whiggish-sounding 'Escalator of Reason': 'an intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs' that 'force[s] people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others’, and to reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.' So there you have it.

Thursday 16 January 2014


Having read through a proportion of the Famous Fives and blogged my responses, I'll trespass on your patience (I know, I know) with some final round-up thoughts about her. Otherwise, what've we got?

Five on a Treasure Island (1942)

Five Go Adventuring Again (1943)

Five Run Away Together (1944)

Five Go To Smuggler's Top (1945)

Five on Kirrin Island Again (1947)

Five Get Into Trouble (1949)

Five On A Secret Trail (1956); Five Go To Billycock Hill (1957); Five Get In A Fix (1958)

Here are some general observations, via Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard:
Enid Blyton was the most commercially successful British children’s author of the 20th-century ... Her parents’ marriage was quarrelsome, and when she was nearly 13 her father walked out. Enid was shattered by this, and took to writing sentimental poetry as a psychological escape … Failing to get on with her mother after her father’s departure she left home as soon as she could. Her parents wanted her to be a concert pianist, but she abandoned musical training and studied to be a kindergarten teacher, learning the Froebel and Montessori methods. [Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard, The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature (UOP 1984), 68-9]
It's true! In addition to her books for children she write or edited The Teacher’s Treasury (1926) and Modern Teaching: Practical Suggestions for Junior and Senior Schools (1932). It oughtn't to surprise us that adults interested in writing for children have often been adults interested in teaching as a career (except that, Farrar aside, that wasn't the pre-1914 model, especially). Anyway: during the 1920s and 30s she wrote a great deal of shorter work for children, much of it to do with fairies: The Enid Blyton Book of Fairies (1924) and Sunny Stories for Little Folk (1926) rode the vogue for fairies in part set in motion by the work of Rose Fyleman. Her first full length children’s fiction was The Adventures of the Wishing Chair (1937). She soon diversified into school fiction (with ‘The Naughtiest Girl in School’, 1940). The first Famous Five novel came out in 1942; the first Secret Seven a few years later.
Blyton in fact only became a household name during the 1950s, when she began to produce stories about Noddy, her most celebrated and notorious creation. It was during this period, and largely because of the Noddy books, that she began to attract considerable criticism from book reviewers, librarians and educationalists, who accused her of mediocrity and alleged that she wrote in a vocabulary so limited that (as one critic put it) it was ‘drained of all difficulty until it achieved a kind of aesthetic anaemia.’ By the end of the 1950s her books were being deliberately excluded from libraries in Britain and overseas. Enid Blyton invariable answered attacks by saying that she gave children what they wanted, and took no notice of critics over twelve years of age. She also pointed out that if children could not borrow her books from libraries they would buy them with their own money—which proved to be true, for sales increased dramatically; her income by the late 1950s was reportedly over £100,000 per annum. But she was privately very resentful of attacks and threatened legal action if there was any question of libel. [Carpenter and Mari Prichard, 69]
None of that parochial 'best-selling British author' nonsense for David Rudd: he thinks Blyton '…arguably the best-selling children’s writer of all time.’ The sales do seem to back this up (she still sells 100 million books a year, apparently); and clearly her staggering work-rate has something to do with this: Rudd gasps at her ‘incredible productivity … in the 1950s she averaged 50 publications a year, notching up a record 69 in 1955.' He's also content to speculate about the psychological wellsprings of her work:
‘Many think that this event [her father walking out on her mother] arrested Blyton’s emotional development, thus explaining her facility in writing for children. But this explanation is offered of too many children’s writers. In fact, Blyton had a large amount of material rejected before her eventual success with her first book, Child Whispers (1922), a collection of verse in the manner of Rose Fyleman.’ Imogen Smallwood, Blyton’s younger daughter, has suggested that her mother’s writing came out of periods when she was most under stress. This certainly applies to her books of the 1930s … and the Famous Five, Mystery, Adventure and school series (St Claire’s and Mallory Towers), all of which started life around the time of the breakdown of her first marriage … and the hushed-up, fairly turbulent early years of her second marriage. [David Rudd, in Victor Watson (ed), The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English (CUP 2001), 91-2]
From Rudd I learn that she had to have hormone treatment (during her first marriage) in order to get pregnant, because the doctors declared she had 'the uterus of a 12-year old girl'. Is that even a thing? But Rudd is better on the question of her supposed sexism and racism. Not guilty, he thinks; or guilty only insofar as her entire generation and class can be so convicted.
If she is guilty of anything it is “ageism”, in that she empowers her child characters at the expense of adults, showing the latter to be inadequate and deceitful. Children are shown solving their own problems, with companionship always central.
And he thinks highly of her creation of 'George':
George’s power is cultivated from the outset … she dominates the book [Five on a Treasure Island] … there are clearly parallels with the British at war, when King George’s people—on St George’s “sceptered isle”—were seeking to defend themselves from “wicked men”.’
Rudd quotes Churchill for comparison: Hitler is ‘this wicked man, who resolved to break our island race’. He concludes:
This first book shows how a fiercely independent girl relinquishes some of her autonomy in exchange for friendship. The price to pay, though, is entry into a patriarchal world. Though many critics accuse the books of being sexist, it seems that Blyton frequently problematizes the whole notion of sexism. Throughout the series the unfairness of traditional gender roles is exposed, mainly through George. [Rudd, 252]
All of that seems to me good and interesting. I've only a couple of further things to say, stuff I've been pondering for a bit without really drawing a firm conclusion. I have, for instance, being thinking about the context of 'gang' adventures. Not gang in the 'straight-outta-compton' sense of the word; gang as in the preferred pack mode of young kids at play. You + your mates. There are, of course, lots of stories that relate the advetures of such groups; to the point where a children's book that tells the story of a solitary child (like Alice, say) strikes many people as odd and unappealing. From at least E N Nesbitt [1899 The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899); Five Children and It (1902); The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904), The Railway Children (1906)] through Blyton, Lewis and up to Series of Unfortunate Events and J K Rowling, kids evidently find particular joy in stories of gangs of friends having adventures. In almost all cases the gang is made up of relatives: brothers/sister, cousins. This is interesting, I think.

I've also been thinking about George. Rudd is right, I think, that she is the most interesting character in the books. But it seems to me that George's gender is shaped by a different idiom that the ones gender studies often discusses: not sexual desire or 'femininity' but rather the perception that boys are just better at 'adventuring' than girls. The Five are made up of two boys, two quasi-boys (counting Timmy) and one girl. Anne is there to show that girls are just not as good at the physical stuff, but also not so good at keeping secrets. Secrets are clearly crucial to what Blyton is doing, generally; but this makes me wonder whether the books aren't actually saying that adventuring and keeping secrets are in some sense the same thing. All those tunnels!

Thursday 9 January 2014

Enid Blyton, Five On A Secret Trail (1956); Five Go To Billycock Hill (1957); Five Get In A Fix (1958)

My (I confess it: vague and noncommittal) plan to re-read all twenty-one 'Famous Five' novels seem to have hit the reef of Bored By The Repetitiveness Of It All. You know what? I think I’ve ingested enough of them now to get a sense of the Platonic Form of the Famous Five novel, existing as a scintillant shadow behind the often flat and dull actual texts. The Five are in school but the holidays come (within a few pages); they go off to have fun on holiday (on Kirrin Island, or some other part of the coast, or on a hill, or in the snow). There is a mystery, which the Five solve. The mystery involves smuggling, kidnapping or both. Adults are family, in which case they are distant; or others, in which case they are not to be trusted; or they are actual figures of national authority such as policemen, in which case they will effect the narrative resolution. There is a macguffin. There are tunnels. There are always tunnels.

So, skipping rapidly forward, here’s Five #15 Five On A Secret Trail (1956): Kirrin cottage, Timmy has a hurt ear, there’s an archaeologist. There are tunnels (‘He clambered up and into the hole. He had to crawl on hands and knees for a little way, and then the hole suddenly went downwards and became considerably bigger, Julian could walk in it, if her bent down, for at that point the tunnel was about three feet high’). But the thing that really interested me about Secret Trail is the macguffin. It is, in the first instance, an apparently empty bag. So far, so Absurdist. But then …
He [the Burly Inspector] began to examine the bag very very carefully. Finally he took out a took out a sharp knife and gently slit the lining at the bottom of the bag. He turned it back.

Something was there—under the lining! Something blue folded very carefully. Something covered with thousands of minute figures, thousands of lines, thousands of queer little designs! [ch. 20]
Exciting! So what is it?
George’s father took it up. He ran his eyes over it, and then gave a loud exclamation.

“Why—why—no, it’s IMPOSSIBLE! Good heavens, it’s—no, no, it can’t be! Am I dreaming?”

Everyone gazed at him. What did he mean? What could it be, this blue-print?
Yes, yes—go on! I’m on tenterhooks.
“Er, is it important then, sir?” asked the Inspector.

“Important? IMPORTANT?”
What? WHAT IS IT? [riffles through pages of waffle until ...]
“Father—what is this a blue-print of?” said George, voicing the thoughts of everyone there, the Inspector included.

“This blue-print? I’m certainly not going to tell you!” said her father. “Its too big a thing … It’s one of the biggest secrets we have."

Well, OK, maybe this is a clever narrative sleight-of-hand, like Tarantino never letting the audience know exactly what is in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. But you know what? It reads to me more like a tired author who can’t be bothered to think up a pretext for her latest formulaic adventure yarn.

In Five Go to Billycock Hill (1957) Blyton at least identifies the macguffin—it’s a secret new design of RAF jet. The Fivean shenanigans in this one almost approach spy-adventure excitement. Not that you'd guess that, from the 1970s paperback cover reproduced below, which rather implies the novel is about Julian trying out a Rod-Hull-And-Emu inspired ventriloquist act, except with a Pig rather than an Emu (‘Julian and Swiney! Watch the pig condescend to working-class people whilst Julian drinks a glass of ginger beer, in ... FIVE GO TO GILLYGOCK GILL!')

He's pulling that face because he's concentrating really hard. Or because he's been consumed by an ancient and unspeakable evil. One of the two.

Then there’s Five #17, Five Get Into A Fix (1958). This one is a Christmas hols adventure, with lots of tobogganing and ski-ing, and so on. There are strange vibrations coming from the spooky old house called Old Towers on the top of Owl Hill, and naturally the Five investigate. They pick up a note dropped out of one of its windows: “I’m kidnapped in my own house. Please call the police”—so it’s another kidnapping one. And tunnels, too, of course: ‘“Yes—it’s a pot-hole. There’s a small underground cave here. Look—is that a tunnel leading out from it?” … “Come on, Timmy,” said George, and all Five went down the dark, winding little tunnel.’ [ch. 18]. They discover the house’s owner, an old woman called Mrs Thomas, held prisoner. Why?
“Men wanted to buy my house. But I wouldn’t sell it, no. Do you know what they said to me? They said that in this hill, far, far below my house, was a rare metal—a powerful metal—worth a fortune. What did they call it now?”

She looked at the children, as if expecting them to know. She shook her head as they didn’t answer.

“Why should you know about it—you are only children. But I wouldn’t sell my house—nor the metal below. Do you know what they wanted it for? For bombs to kill people with! And I said NO, never will I sell this place so that men can dig the metal and make bombs. It is against the law of God, I said, and I, Bronwen Thomas, will not do such a thing.”
Right now ‘they are at work below.' “I hear the noises creeping up, and I feel my house shake,” says Bronwen. So, wait, is this Uranium? That’s quite hard core for an Enid Blyton story—Hiroshima as a kids’ adventure macguffin.

Does Blyton think uranium lies in gleaming seams to be picked straight out? Not so. In fact Uranium is processed from ore, and very large quantities of ore must be mined and refined to produce very small amounts of uranium: low to medium grade ore might contain from 0.05 to 0.4% U3O8. Even in the rarer vein deposits of the metal, the so-called pitchblende ore, the overall grade is only about 0.1% uranium. Processing this would take acres, devastate the landscape, and involve many toxic and acidic by-products. But it would be unlikely to get this far, since mining uranium ore underground would expose the villains to fatal levels of radon gas. The problem is self-solving.

How do I know so much about uranium processing, you ask? Why, because I am a Bond Villain! A Bond Villain with access to Wikipedia. ‘Do you expect me to talk?’ ‘No, Mrs Bron (Wen Thomas), I expect you to die!’

Wednesday 8 January 2014

Enid Blyton, Five Get Into Trouble (1947)

Not having Famous Five #7 to hand (1948's Five Act Camp), I move on to Famous Five #8: Five Get Into Trouble (1949), The One With The Big House On Owl Hill In Which The Five Find Themselves Trapped. Lots of hiding in confined spaces in this one: car boots, tiny secret rooms and so on. I daresay there's an interesting nascent psychosexual thesis to be developed about this; or perhaps all Blyton is doing is playing into to the fun kids can have with hide-and-seek. At any rate, the bad men (including a really ferocious short-fuse violent tempered fellow called Rooky) chase the Five through the house. At the heart of the establishment is a secret room hidden behind a bookcase, in which a criminal is hiding. This chap is an escaped prisoner; and the evil gang at Owl Hill are helping him flee the country in return for a share of the goods he stole. How they're helping him do this by locking him in a tiny hidden room at heart of a lonely old house wasn't immediately clear to me. At the end, on the run from Rooky and his cronies, the Five actually climb into this hidey-hole with the dangerous convict. It's alright though: Timmy keeps him in check. 'If you say another word I'll set my dog on you,' said George [ch. 20]. Remarkable presence of mind for a kid not yet 10; but then again, she is posh. And anyhow, they only need to hide until the police come; which they do promptly. Never knowingly self-undersold, Blyton calls her last chapter 'A VERY EXCITING FINISH!'

From now on, I propose to adopt this same naming convention for all my novels.

I don't have much to say about the story, which is same old same old. Instead I'll mention the illustrations. The first four books I read had the original pictures; but for this I read the 1968 edition (cover at the top of this post), for which Hodder and Stoughton employed Betty Maxey to update the ilustrations. Here's her rendering of George going into the secret room:

There's a small degree of cognitive dissonance involved in these modern-looking kids having adventures with horses and traps and saying things like 'how queer!', but I quite liked that. Later editions of the books modernise the prose too, which seems to me to do a regrettable degree of violence to the text as a whole. At any rate, I thought there was a pleasing Éric Rohmer vibe to Maxey's pictures.

See what I mean? Now a critic with more professional integrity would use this as an opportunity to say relevant and perceptive things about the timelessness of Blyton's characters, the way they do not age (like Peter Pan), or more to the point the way history moves on around their changeless childishness (like Bart Simpson). Not me, though. I'm content merely to score cheap points by re-purposing the illustrations.

This illustrates a scene in the novel in which an elderly man dances to Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" whilst the Famous Five look on.

Here the Famous Five greet newly grown clone KMF102, straight from the hatchery.

And here, in a development I for one was not expecting, the novel abruptly crosses-over with 1970s Doctor Who, and Richard meets The Brigadier. Exciting stuff!

Enid Blyton, Five on Kirrin Island Again (1947)

I couldn't get hold of a copy of the recursive-sounding (but I daresay actually not) fifth Famous Five novel, Five Go Off in a Caravan. Let the word-salad second paragraph in this Wikipedia summary stand in for a proper response to that text:
It is A Hot Sunny Day And The Kirrin Children Are In Julian, Dick, And Anne's Timothy "Timmy" The Dog, Sees A Circus Go By. this Gives George (Julian, Dick & Anne's Cousin) An idea. She Says That They Should Go on A Camping Holiday. the Others Are really Excited About the Idea that George Has Said
Er, OK. Instead we hop straight to number six: Five on Kirrin Island Again. This was where Blyton originally intended stopping the series, and I like the riverrun-esque logic of bringing the five back to the site of their original adventure. Of course Blyton changed her mind, and what encouraged her to do so were: sales-figures ('By the end of 1953, more than 6 million copies of these books had been printed and sold. Today, more than two million copies of the books are sold each year, making them one of the biggest-selling series for children ever written. Over a hundred million books have been sold').

This is The One In Which Uncle Quentin Ensconces Himself On Kirrin Island Alone To Do Some Research. He's supposed to signal the mainland from his tower morning and night to reassure people back in the cottage that everything is OK, but the signals stop and the kids go across to see what's up. We meet the Coastguard, and a fellow called Mr. Curton (and his son Martin) who is staying in the area and who may or may not be a baddie. Which is to say: of course he's a baddie, what with Blyton's consistent characterisation of adults as either distant or malign, but we don't realise that he is until quite a lot of the story has been told. The Five discover a new tunnel. It would hardly be a Famous Five tale without a tunnel to explore:
The tunnel at first had a very low roof, and the boys had to walk along in a stooping position, which was very tiring indeed. But after a bit the roof became higher and Julian, flashing his torch round, saw that the walls and floor, instead of being made of soil, where now made of rock ... they knew they must be under the rocky bed of the sea. They were walking under the sea to Kirrin Island. How strange, how unbelievably astonishing! [ch.20]
Unbelievably astonishing are indeed les mots justes here, since such a tunnel, lacking any manner of continuously operating pumping machinery, would be wholly filled with water. Still: let me not nitpick. At any rate we discover what happened to Uncle Q.: two men parachuted onto the island and took him prisoner. Why? Because he has been experimenting 'to find a way of replacing all coal, coke and oil -- an idea to give the world all the heat and power it wants, and to do away with mines and miners' [ch.16]. This has an almost science fictional vibe to it, which clearly is a good thing. And although the bad men threaten to blow up the whole island, the Five, especially Timmy, overcome them and all ends well. Better than well, we assume: for Uncle Q.'s idea (which he insists he will 'give to the whole world -- it shall not be in the power of any one country or collection of men') presumably effected a revolution, transforming the Earth into a post-scarcity utopia. Hurrah!

Saturday 4 January 2014

Enid Blyton, Five Go To Smuggler's Top (1945)

Five vol 4: The One In Which Uncle Quentin Is Kidnapped. A tree falls onto Kirrin Cottage, so Uncle Quentin and Auntie Jane take the kids off to 'Smuggler's Top' (just the one smuggler, then?) to stay with his fellow scientist, Mr Lenoir. That's French, you know. Mr The Black. His house is a more-Gothic-than-usual setting for Blyton. This is what it looks like:

You have to hope that's a James Bond-style Aqua-car, there. Glug. Mr Lenoir's son (a schoolmate of Julian and Dick's) is called Sooty. That's Sooty Lenoir. Most. Ridiculous. Name. EVER. Anyway, there are of course mysterious tunnels under the house, and a mysterious light signal from the house's tower. Uncle Quentin and Sooty go missing; they have, in fact, been kidnapped. The Five investigate. Mr Lenoir has 'cold eyes', and when Anne shakes hands with him she thinks 'his hand was cold too.' When he gets angry the tip of his nose goes white. But the thing that most struck me was how much he looks like Trotsky.

He hates dogs, so Timmy has to be smuggled into the house. There's a sinister butler called Block who is profoundly deaf. In this image Dick and George are scared that, despite his disability, he has overheard Forbidden Timmy barking. Either that or the butler has goosed them both:

But (spoiler!) it turns out that Block isn't deaf at all. The novel's plot twist is that the Trotskyalike vampire-cold Mr The Black turns out not to be the villain. That role is taken by the unpleasant Mr Barling. It is Barling who has kidnapped Uncle Quentin and young Sooty, and who orders Block to whip the latter:
'Whip him, if you like,' said Mr Barling, sitting down on the box. 'I've no time for rude boys myself.

'I will,' said Block, grimly, and he undid length of rope from around his waist. 'I've often wanted to, cheeky little worm. [ch. 19]
Earlier in the book Block hits Julian hard, 'sending hin half across the landing.' [ch.14]

The butler almost looks like he's crying, in that image. The violence does seem to have been ramped-up for this book.

Talking of A Very Puzzling Thing, I remain puzzled as to why Barling kidnapped Quentin in the first place. The reason given in the text is that Quentin came to Smuggler's Top in order to sell to Lenoir a new scientific plan (formula, magic pill, I'm not sure) that would have drained the marshes all around the house. Barling doesn't want this, since it would have a deleterious effect upon his trade, which happens to be smuggling.
"I know that Mr Lenoir is going to buy your plans from you," said Mr Barling [who has imprisoned Quentin]. "I know he is going to drain the marsh by using your very excellent ideas. I know, too, that that Mr Lenoir hopes to make a lot of money by selling the land once it is drained ... But the marsh is not going to be drained—I am going to buy your plans, not Mr Lenoir!"

"Do you want to drain the marsh, then?" said Uncle Quentin in surprise.

Mr Barling laughed scornfully. "No! Your plans, and the results of all your experiments, will be burnt! They will be mine, but I shall not want to use them. I want the marsh left as it is, secret, covered with mist, and treacherous to all but me and my men! So, my dear sir, you will please name your price to me, instead of to Mr Lenoir, and sign this document, which I have prepared." [ch.20]
This doesn't seem to me very well thought-through. What is Barling planning next? Releasing Quentin (in which case he will go to the police, Barling will be arrested, and Lenoir will get the marsh-draining technology after all)? Keeping Quentin imprisoned for ever, and handling any awkward 'so you got him to sign the plans over to you, I see; and where is he now?' type questions as and when? Killing Quentin? That would make more sense, except that if he's going to that why kidnap him at all? More fundamentally: why try to force the issue in the first place? Why not just outbid Lenoir, and then sit quietly on the plans? And actually: what is it that Barling is smuggling, though? And from where? -- given that this is still wartime, and Europe is still occupied by the Nazis.

I enjoyed this one, mind: better than 3, and with plenty going-on. Still, I rather wish that Blyton had stuck to her original plan, and written only six Famous Five stories. It's beginning to get tiresome.

Friday 3 January 2014

Enid Blyton, Five Run Away Together (1944)

Getting into the flow of reading these Famous Five novellas, you start to understand: they are of course all the same story. The familiar characters get together, have an 'adventure' involving exploring hidden ways and overcoming a particular adversity, with each new book giving a single point of novelty to the format. The naming convention of the old Friends TV show gets it right: 'The One About The ...' We want the characters we love acting in character, and giving us what we come to the text for (laughter and sentiment in the case of Friends; adventure and in-group bonding in the case of Five) with the minimum possible amount of variety that is compatible with staving off absolute monotony. So Five on a Treasure Island is The One About The Upthrown Shipwreck And The Gold Ingots; Five Go Adventuring Again is The One In Which They Get Snowed In; and Five Run Away Together is The One About the Sticks.

What that actually means is: it's the one about the naked class antagonism. The Five are back at Kirrin Cottage, but Aunt don't-snigger Fanny is too ill to look after them—so ill, in fact, that she has to be taken away to a distant hospital. Ill with what? We're not told. At any rate, the kids are left in the care of the cook/housekeeper Mrs Stick, She has a rude son, Edgar, who mocks George by singing 'Georgie Porgie' over and over; and a dirty little dog called Tinker, whom the kids call Stinker. Then Mr Stick comes to live in the cottage, apparently on leave from his ship. I was never sure whether he was actually on leave from the RN, or if he was AWOL. But that's not the important thing. The crucial thing is that all the Sticks are nasty lower-class types. Here's Julian's first encounter with Mr Stick.
A small man, lying on the sofa. He was fast asleep, his mouth wide open. He was not a very pleasant sight. He had not shaved for some days and his cheeks and chin were bluish-black. He didn't seem to have washed for longer than that, for his hands were black, and so were his fingernails. He had untidy hair and a nose exactly like Edgar's. [ch. 5]
The novel is so secure in its belief we will identify with the upper-middle-class Five and feel revulsion at the lower-class Sticks that it runs through a series of quite extraordinary episodes. Edgar is rude, true; but the Five bully him mercilessly: they spray him with cold water, George slaps him; Julian pulls his nose ('I pulled old Edgar's nose nearly off his face!' he tells the others, with satisfaction). If we laugh, then I suppose this is comic; but if we don't it becomes really nasty. Julian's first reaction on seeing Father Stick, with his dropped aitches and ferrety manner, is to threaten to push a meat pie into his face ('he raised his arms and Mr Stick ducked'). Mrs Stick retaliates by refusing to feed them. After Timmy bites the Sticks' dog Tinker ('Timothy had him by the neck and was shaking him like a rat') Mrs Stick tries to poison him. It is, in effect, open war.

The consequence is the titular run-away: the Five stock up on supplies and take George's new boat over to Kirrin Island with the intention of subsisting there until Uncle Q. and Aunt F return, thus having nothing more to do with the Sticks. What actually happens is they discover a kidnapped and imprisoned young girl. When the Five free her and take her to the police station the inspector declares 'Bless me! Here's the child the whole country is looking for!' It transpires the Sticks (of course) are behind a nefarious plot to ransom the child for £100,000. Naturally this validates all the earlier horrible behaviour meted out to the Sticks.

But, golly, how unashamedly de-haut-en-bas that behaviour is! Here, from the early chapter actually called 'Julian Defeats the Sticks', is a sample. Julian tells the Sticks that the Five are going on a picnic:
"Good riddance to bad rubbish," murmured Edgar to himself. He was lying sprawled on the sofa, reading some kind of highly-coloured comic.

"If you've anything to say to me, Edgar, come outside and say it," said Julian, dangerously.

"You leave Edgar alone," said Mrs Stick, at once.

"There's nothing I should like better," said Julian, scornfully. "Who wants to be with him? Cowardly little spotty-face!"

"Now, now, look 'ere!" began Mr Stick, from his corner.

"I don't want to look at you," said Julian at once.

"Now, look 'ere," said Mr Stick, angrily, standing up.

"I've told you I don't want to," said Julian. "You're not a pleasant sight."

"Insolence!" said Mrs Stick, rapidly losing her temper.

"No, no insolence—just the plain truth," said Julian, airily. Mrs Stick glared at him. Julian defeated her. He had such a ready tongue, and he said everything so politely. The ruder his words were, the more politely he spoke. Mrs Stick didn't understand people like Julian. [ch. 6]
I suppose the point here is that a great many 19th- and 20th-C children's stories interpellate their readers as posher than many of them actually were. The obvious point of comparison is Harry Potter and the Dursleys. Now the Dursleys are of course have money; but what they don't have is class. The point of the scenario is that they treat Harry abominably because they recognise that he is, in some way, better than them; and certainly better than their horrible son Dudley.

The Dursleys, I think, point to a crucial ideological blind-spot in the Harry Potter books. Rowling makes a great deal of play in her writing with the evils of racism; the way 'muggle' is a term of abuse, the quasi-Nazi regime the Ministry of Magic runs on the reappearance of Voldemort. But if the books are 'good' on race, they are bad on class. From that moment in Philosopher's Stone when young Harry is taken out of a horrid secondary modern school and whisked away not just to an ancient Public school, but the most exclusive and marvellous school in the world, the books never shake off a rather Blytonesque sense that class hierarchies reflect some natural justice in the world.

In this illustration, the Sticks are finally arrested for the wicked crime of being lower class and dropping their 'h's. Notice the angelic halo around the policeman's helmet.

Thursday 2 January 2014

Enid Blyton, Five Go Adventuring Again (1943)

If you'll pardon an excessively numerical opening sentence, this is the second Five of twenty-one. We start with the pals/relatives in school (the by no means sniggerworthily-named 'Gaylands' school), looking forward to spending Christmas at Kirrin Cottage. But when they get there they discover that George's parents have engaged a private tutor to teach them over the holidays. Boo! This turns out to be a tall, well-dressed, gentlemanly figure with a beard 'like a sailor'. He is strict but fair with the kids, and Julian, Dick and Anne immediately warm to him. But Timmy the dog takes against him from the first, and when he is beastly to the dog and refuses to call George anything but 'Georgina', George takes against him as well.

Look at him there! Playing pocket-billiards whilst the dog pointedly 'cuts' him. Can't trust a man with a beard, see. And there's worse: he has 'thin, cruel-looking lips'. You may assume this is nothing more than an arbitrary variation in human physiognomy. You're wrong! Everybody is born with full, plump lips; evil people's evil withers the lips from the inside.

Of course George is right to mistrust him. He is in cahoots with the two men claiming to be artists, staying at Kirrin Farmhouse not far from the cottage. These three are conspiring to steal the new formula just concocted by George's Dad, Uncle Quentin (a 'brilliant scientist', apparently; although why a brilliant scientist would choose to work in a remote farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, rather than in a university city with access to laboratories, colleagues, research books and papers etc. etc. is never vouchsafed to us). Then the tutor-wallah Mr Rowland actually does steal the formula. Julian follows him and sees him handing it over to the artists, nobody believes him! We're not told what the formula entails. It being wartime, I suppose I assume it has a military significance, which in turn must imply the three men are Nazi-sympathisers or something. But that's not territory about which the novel is explicit.

Anyway, the five discover an old map with some Latin on it:

'VIA OCCULTA' means 'HIDDEN WAY'. I did wonder if Blyton was quoting this from Tertullian's account of the secretive practices of early Christians in Rome: "liceat veritati vel occulta via tacitarum literarum ad aures vestras pervenire'; 'Let the truth only be allowed to reach you via your ears or the hidden path of silent writing'. But then I thought: what, Adam, are you high? Of course it has nothing to do with Tertullian. At any rate, the Five discover a secret tunnel connecting the cottage and farmhouse. There's some exciting running up and down this passageway, the darkness banished by Julian's Magic Globe of Improbable Brightness.

The villains are prevented from spiriting the formula away because the cottage is snowed-in, and nobody can go anywhere. The five retrieve it, convince Uncle Quentin and Auntie don't-laugh Fanny of the wickedness of the tutor, and the police come and arrest the three of them. The police can do this, because they have skis. It's things like this that indicate the fundamental moral superiority of the humble English bobby.

As with the first Five, this is a brisk, enjoyable read; shallow and narrow but clear and, of its type, formally speaking, clean. The moral is: don't trust strangers, even ones your parents have vetted. There's a quantity of stuff about having fun in the snow, about Christmas and its presents, and there's also the sentence 'then she rubbed the dog's hairy chest with the oil', which may be my single favourite sentence Enid Blyton ever wrote.

Wednesday 1 January 2014

Enid Blyton, Five on a Treasure Island (1942)

Check the publication date: this is a wartime story. Easy to forget that because the war is never mentioned, but a moment's thought re-inserts it into its time. Julian (12), his brother Dick (11) and sister Anne (10) are uprooted from their usual summer routine and packed off to the countryside, like the 3.5 million 1940s people, mostly children, evacuated under the, now I come to think of it, rather sinisterly named Operation Pied Piper. Also of the war is the way food is fetishized: kids, obviously, are fascinated by tasty food, but it's hard to recover the sense that rationing made food into a locus of intense desire of the kind not seen since, in our lazily feastful latter days. (See also the Turkish Delight, and Mr Tumnus's tea and cakes, in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; after all, food rationing continued in the UK until July 1954). I think it's also possible to read the main 'adventure' tropes of this story as fabulised versions of contemporary events, including a ship that sinks and then comes back up again (like a submarine) and grown men threatening children with guns and locking them in cells (exciting if we read it as a story; depressing when we consider how many men spent 1939-45 doing exactly that with Jewish, Gipsy or Slav children).

At any rate, Julian, 'Dick' and Anne consider going to Kirrin Island to be a great adventure, awfully thrilling and so on. Here they meet Georgina, one of the more fascinating figures from 20th-century children's literature because of the tenacity with which she insists that her biological gender should not define her. George is a particularly attractive character in the context of this novel, since so many of the other children are so sappy: nice, welcoming, cheery and so on. There is a gnarliness in George's demeanour that stands out splendidly. Otherwise a few things struck me, re-reading this novel after four decades or so. One is that, though I read all the Famous Five books as a kid—indeed, counted myself a proper fan of the series, and had them all on my shelves (with the numbers printed on their paperback spines)—nonetheless I discovered I had no memory of this story whatsoever. It had moved through my consciousness like the hawk over the hill, or the wind on the sea, and left no sign of its passing. Odd, that.

The second thing is that the undeniably arch tone of the books, so famously (and repeatedly) parodied—'lashings of ginger beer' and so on—was much less intrusive than I assumed it would be. Of course the books are dated, but more to the point they are about the past, or about the way the past erupts into the present. I'll come back to that in a moment. Harder to reconcile with my own 21st-century parenting sensibilities was the way the adults in this novel are so utterly careless of the children's wellbeing. They're perfectly blithe about the kids not only going out all day into the countryside to play, but taking boats (without lifejackets) into stormy waters, wandering around a ruined castle that is a series of fatal accidents waiting to happen and so on. It really was another time: nowadays the thought of letting your kid so much as get on a scooter without (a) you running alongside, (b) him wearing helmet and other protections and (c) the shop-person who sold you the scooter being CRB checked is inconceivable. (Inconceivable!) On the other hand, it's a Gordian-knot-cut for Blyton, since it enables her to free her kids for peril, adventures and so on without having any awkward protective parents getting in the way.

There are several other things, key things, that Blyton (because of, rather than despite, her supposed 'emotional immaturity') really understand about childhood. The obvious one is the value kids put on having fun, on going away for the holidays, on not being at school and so on. But there are two related aspects that these novels fundamentally get. One has to do with the primacy of ones friends, and the relative unimportance of parents, teachers and other authority figures. Connected with this is the fascination the novels have with 'secrecy'. The various secret tunnels, caves, ruined castles, maps, codes and so on are actually merely correlatives to a more important secrecy: the mere fact that kids keep certain things from their parents. There are, I don't doubt, good psychological reasons for this, to do with the long-ish process by which children extract themselves from existential immersion in their parents (in their mothers, really) and establish their own separate identities. Having secrets is more important to kids today than ever.

She's good, too, on the ways childhood friendship differs from adult friendships; both more intense and, in a way, less particular. George is horrible to the others, but they befriend her anyway. Tim is an integral part of the friendship-group even though he's not human (I remember, as a kid, my disappointment that Blyton's The Secret Seven is seven human children plus the dog. It seemed to me, shall we say, incoherent to include the dog in the Five but exclude him from the Seven). Blyton also has something of Dickens's deep sense of how fairness centres childhood's apperceptions, or more precisely how hugely unfairness rankles. Her adults are almost always distant, arbitrary, cranky (or, of course, actively villainous). Her kids are almost always right about things.

I don't want to get carried away, mind you. In lots of ways Blyton is an extremely weak writer. She worked deliberately with a limited vocabulary, something she took away from her early experiences as a teacher, so as to make the books more accessible for young readers. That's a perfectly noble aim, but Blyton frankly lacked the technical chops to do eloquent things with her limited tools. To read Dr Seuss, or (a slightly different but nonetheless comparable case) Simenon, is to understand how this 'limited vocabulary' trick can become a strength rather than a restriction. In Blyton it leads to repetition, and a kind of flatness of voice. There's also the (large, important) question of the books' sexism and, in some cases, racism; something I'll come back to in later posts, I think.

It's tricky to hit the nail on the head as far as this goes, not because Blyton is 'of her time' (though I suppose she is) but for a more fundamental reason: because her appeal is grounded in the social dynamic of the childhood affinity group, where people who are 'other' are nakedly mistrusted and disliked. The flatness and repetitiveness of her writing is, by this logic, both a failing and a strange strength: strength because it inculcates precisely the familiarity, the small-c conservatism sense of safeness and groundedness, that many children value, and that many readers come to the books for in the first place. That familiarity is why Blyton wrote series (twenty-one Famous Five novels in total, not counting non-Blyton-authored extras) and why her fans were content to reading the same characters going through essentially the same story again and again. Five on a Treasure Island even, it seems to me, plays games with this very repetitiousness. When they first explore the underground caverns, the underground caverns, there is a whole section, and whole section, section, about echoes:
'Isn't it strange? said George, in a low voice. At once the echoes took up her words, and multiplied them and made them louder -- and all the dungeon caves gave back the girl's words over and over again. 'Isn't it strange ISN'T IT STRANGE, ISN'T IT STRANGE.' [ch 12]
There's quite a bit of this ('Where do you suppose the ingots are?' said Dick ... INGOTS ARE! INGOTS ARE! ARE! ARE!') which works, neatly enough, as a metatextual parody of the way the books themselves, in each iteration and one after the other as a series, echo the strangeness (chapter 2 of Five on a Treasure Island is called 'The Strange Cousin' -- George herself, of course) and the cookie-cutter repetition of finding treasure, uncovering secrets, foiling dastardly plots and so on return and return with a positively Nietzschean incessance: 'Chapter 4: An Exciting Afternoon'; 'Chapter 12: Exciting Discoveries'.

It also speaks to the way in which Blyton handles her intertextuality. As far as this novel goes, that is most obviously to do with Stevenson's Treasure Island. Quite a bold move, in fact, flagging up the influence, right there in the titles, especially since Stevenson's is so much more, so hugely more dynamic and rounded a story. The other intertext that struck me (apart from L'Île Noire, which I doubt Blyton knew: it first appeared in 1937 but only in French) was Carroll's Alice. Specifically, the scene in chapter 11 where Tim literally chases a rabbit down a giant hole in the ground, which leads to the underground world and the golden treasure.

There's one place in Five on a Treasure Island that interrupts the pleasurable death-drive repetition of the familiar interactions and events, and that is when Blyton's prose goes uncharacteristically Gothic and a summer storm, blowing and raining onto the surface of the sea, manages to disobey all relevant laws of physics, reach down to the seabed and hoik up an entire shipwreck, depositing the whole thing unbroken, like an egg, on the sharp rocks.
The waves were like great walls of grey-green! They dashed over the rocks that lay all around the island, and spray flew from them, gleaming white in the stormy sky. They rolled up to the island and dashed themselves against it with such terrific force that Julian could feel the wall beneath his feet tremble with the shock. ... There was something else out of the sea by the rocks beside the waves—something dark, something bit, something that seemed to lurch out of the waves and settle down again. Wjhat could it be? [ch. 6]

This is so ridiculous it is almost Dada. A moment's thought, even in childhood, is enough to focus its foolishness. Sky-storms don't work that way (and if they did, the shores of the world would be littered with up-sucked wrecks, and the Kirrin Island wreck would long before have been deposited on the rocks). But the ridiculousness is, in a way, the point. The slightly pop-eyed tone of Blyton's writing here shows that this is a symbolic upheaval; this is the repressed being dragged up by main force. What is it actually about, this novel? It is about the past, or more specifically about the way the past wrenches itself back into the present, no matter how deep it has been sunk or how cunningly been hidden away. The twist at the end is that, on first inspection, the past appears noisome ('everything so battered, sea-drenched and seaweedy. The smell was really horrid' [ch. 8]) it turns out to be golden. How this relates to Blyton's own life-habit of denying, repressing and Stalinistically rewriting her own past may be left as an exercise to the reader. I'm more struck by the social than the personal resonances: that a book written in the middle of the Battle of the Atlantic comprehends, on a rather inchoate but nonetheless potent symbolic level, that ships are sunk for reasons that go back a long way; for reasons to do with gold and with the possession of land. That the past is never really past, but is continually erupting into the present. 'George gave a curious choke. Her eyes burned as if they were on fire. "Mother! You can't sell my island! You can't sell my castle! I won't let them be sold!" Her father frowned. "Don't be silly, Georgina. It isn't really yours".' [ch. 10]).