Wednesday 6 February 2019

Polishing Buttercups by Paul May

Over the last couple of months I’ve developed an unexpected obsession with Enid Blyton.  I think it may have started when I read Alison Uttley’s private diaries, in which she recounts a meeting with Blyton in the fish shop in Beaconsfield.  These were two of the best-selling children’s authors of their day, and Blyton, of course, continues to be a best seller. She is the fourth most translated author in the world – the three ahead of her being - according to Wikipedia - Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and William Shakespeare. 

By a strange coincidence Blyton and Uttley lived just a couple of miles from each other in Beaconsfield, where, in another uncanny coincidence, I also lived for a few years as a teenager. What's more, while Blyton and Uttley were meeting in the fish shop, Terry Pratchett may well have been beavering away, 'getting an education' in Beaconsfield Public Library. The fish shop meeting was recorded in Uttley’s diary:

'I was watching a woman ogling [the fishmonger], her false teeth, her red lips, her head on one side as she gazed up close – suddenly he turned to me and introduced her, Enid Blyton! The Blyton photographed and boastful! When I asked her which books she wrote, she replied "Look in Smith’s window" and turned away, and never spoke again.'

There is more to this than meets the eye.  W H Smith in Beaconsfield refused to stock Uttley's books because, according to the manager, they didn't sell. (Her Little Grey Rabbit books sold well all over the rest of the world.)  Uttley took him to task without success.  It seems likely that Blyton knew this, which made her remark about looking in the window even more pointed. To make matters worse, while Blyton had been rejected by the BBC for more than thirty years, Uttley was a regular broadcaster. Asking Blyton 'which books she wrote,' was wonderfully catty of Uttley. 

They never spoke again. And yet they had a lot in common.  Both were great nature-lovers and very knowledgeable about the natural world. Both were acute businesswomen who had achieved financial independence through writing for children, and both had an interest in fairies.  I say 'had an interest in' because, while Alison Uttley believed in fairies, and Enid Blyton wrote endlessly about goblins, elves, gnomes, pixies and brownies, I’m not convinced Blyton actually believed in them herself. 

But in one respect there was a huge difference between the two women – their relationship with children and with childhood. Although, even here, there is an odd, inverted symmetry. It was an account of a disastrous encounter between Alison Uttley and an audience of schoolchildren that led me, first to Uttley's diaries, and then to Enid Blyton. 

Uttley didn’t really get on with children, or maids, or milkmen, but she did have an intense relationship with her only son (it involved a lot of kissing) that resulted in many problems with her eventual daughter-in-law.  Blyton, on the other hand, while sharing Uttley’s problem with maids, did get on with children.  Or rather, most children, for she didn't have a lot of time to spare for her two daughters.  

Blyton also knew what children liked to read, and she gave it to them.  Hodder, in 2016, was still selling half a million Famous Five books a year. But it wasn’t Blyton’s sales that so caught my interest; it was a line in Barbara Stoney’s biography describing the way a room full of small children fell silent when Enid Blyton sat down to tell them a story, and then sat enthralled for half an hour or more.

There are other accounts that confirm this talent, and the accounts identify the key to Enid Blyton’s success.  She was a storyteller, an oral storyteller.  Her voice is always there, addressing the reader as if they are sitting right in front of her. The effect was instantly recognizable to me. I spent many years teaching small children and I know that telling children a story has an effect on them completely different from that of reading a book. After I've told them a story someone almost always asks, 'Is that a true story?'  I don't think I've ever heard a child ask that question after hearing a story from a book.

In the introduction to 'Modern Teaching in the Infant School', which Blyton edited in 1932, she quotes this advice to storytellers:

'Those who first memorise the words work from without inward, while those who visualise, using the imagination, work from within outward. . . Visual memory goes back of words to the cause, to the mental pictures for which words stand. He who deals with imagery is free. If he forgets one word he can use another.  He can tell the story in the simplest way and language to a little child . . .'

This could be a description of Blyton's writing method, which, as I mentioned last month, consisted in her closing her eyes and seeing the scenes of a story acted out in front of her eyes as she wrote them down.  And I think this is why her stories are best enjoyed silently, privately, possibly beneath the blankets with a torch. That way nothing gets between the storyteller and her listener.

The voice in Blyton's stories is the voice of the primary school teacher, and it comes through even more clearly in her nature writing.  Here she is in 'Round the Year with Enid Blyton':

'You will feel very pleased when you can actually cut a bunch of flowers to put in your schoolroom, or to take to someone who is old or ill.'  Or: 'Is it a windy day? I do hope it is, because I am going to talk to you about the wind and its work . . .'

From 'Round the Year with Enid Blyton' originally
published as a series of columns in 'Teacher's World' in 1932

Many primary school teachers use a special voice for talking to children. I have seen newly-qualified teachers in their early twenties adopting a manner that seems to be based on Joyce Grenfell’s famous parody. Parody only works, of course, if it has a basis in truth.

I know that voice well. My mother was born in 1927, a year after Enid Blyton published 'A Teacher’s Treasury', a massive, three-volume compendium of source material for the Elementary School for which she wrote the vast majority of the songs, poems and stories. Blyton wrote prolifically for education in the twenties and thirties, and her stories and nature-study books were part of the scenery during my mum’s time at school. It’s not surprising that when she became a primary school teacher herself, the voice that she adopted was very similar to Enid Blyton’s.

Blyton has been heavily criticised and sneered at over the years, not least by the BBC, and she was clearly hurt by this.  More recently, following the publication of her daughter, Imogen’s memoir (1989), much was written about her private life, and a film, Enid (2009), portrayed her in a very negative way.  More balanced by far, and more interesting, was Anne Fine’s piece on BBC radio in 2008, with its account of her daughter’s surprising conversion to Blyton reader.

My exploration of Blyton’s educational writing took me to the Newsam Library at UCL where librarian, Nazlin Bhimani, had written a blog about Enid Blyton, Educationalist, describing the library's collection of Blyton material. Then I spent some time reading Blyton’s stories in 'A Teacher’s Treasury'. Most of these stories have simple morals.  Be tidy, kind, helpful etc.  Naughty children learn the error of their ways. Good children are rewarded. But one story, 'Peronel's Polish', was different.  

Peronel's job is polishing. He tries to impress the king, and when the king doesn't react as he hopes, Peronel starts playing tricks by polishing things to make them slippery. When everyone falls over after he has polished the ballroom floor, Peronel owns up in order to stop the king blaming the other servants. 

The king then offers Peronel an interesting choice.  He can stay in the palace and give up polishing, or he can be banished and take his magic polish with him.  For Peronel this is not a choice.  Polishing is all he knows how to do, so he takes his polish and goes out into the fields where he finds his true vocation, polishing the insides of buttercups.

Enid Blyton wrote this well before her first rejection by the BBC, but before she was twenty years old she had experienced hundreds of other rejections, including the most important of all when her father left the family home to set up with another woman. She then single-mindedly pursued her ambition to write. I'm sure she approves of Peronel and sympathises with his annoyance at not being properly appreciated. In most of her other stories a 'naughty' character tearfully promises never to do it again.  Not here. 

I was reading 'Round the Year with Enid Blyton' this morning.  'Do not forget that you can grow the seeds of wild flowers in pots too,' she tells her readers. 'A pot of sturdy, golden-yellow buttercups is a lovely sight!'

Buttercups on Maypole Green, Norfolk, 1985

Paul May's website is here.  He also has a blog about education, bicycles, trees and various other things called AS IN THE LONG AGO.


Pippa Goodhart said...

Fascinating and funny. Thank you so much for this, Paul!

Susan Price said...

What is it about Beaconsfield? -- And that account of Uttley meeting the schoolchildren is hilarious. Was she prosecuted for assault?

Paul May said...

@susanprice I think there is a certain amount of exaggeration going on in Gwyn Headley's account. Uttley has her own take on it in the Diaries which I would quote if I hadn't lent the book to someone. It's a very good read, and Uttley is fascinating. She was the second female honours graduate from Manchester University in 1906! In physics!!

Lynne Benton said...

Fascinating blog, Paul, about two intriguing women. Many thanks.