Tuesday, 24 May 2022

So what's in a story? by Saviour Pirotta

The first brand-new-straight-off-the-bookseller's-shelf book I ever owned was Enid Blyton's The Happy House Children. I think I got it as a first holy communion present from an aunt. It came wrapped in second hand Christmas wrapping paper but I didn't mind. I grew up in an environment where there was plenty of sunshine but not much reading material. Anything with pages covered in print was a treasure as far as I was concerned, no matter what wrapping it came in. I must have read that book until the pages fell out and I had to tape them back in, and it started an obsession with Enid Blyton stories that lasted well into my teens.

I have no idea where my copy of The Happy House children disappeared to. One of my nephews or nieces must have borrowed it after I moved to England. I recently came across another copy at an antiques centre. The same frisson of excitement I had felt when I was seven years old ran through me when I spotted it. It was the same edition (, the same cover with Jane, and Benji frolicking with their dog on the front lawnin their lush front garden and the same title (the book was retitled more than once. I've seen editions called The Happy Home Children and The Children at Happy House). I bought it and took it home.


Well, dear reader, I made myself a mug of cocoa and went to bed early to have a good read. I have to admit I didn't remember much of the story, only a few details. Having read it again as an adult, I can understand why. There's virtually no plot. The conflict when it arises is very much of the domestic kind. The children get accused of lying, get colds, lose their toys. And that's about it. All the little dramas are resolved without much fuss or plot twist. Every chapter has a neat. happy ending.

So what made this book stay with me so long after I read it? It was the setting, the cosy, dreamy, world of post-war Britain that Enid Blyton created. To a boy growing up in a hot, Mediterranean country (think mis-en-scenes by Vittorio De Sica or early Fellini), this lush land of green lawns and thatched cottages felt as magical and out of reach as Narnia or Neverland. The kids there has streams at the bottom of the garden. They were allowed ice-cream even when they had a sore throat. Their cook grew geraniums on the windowsill, INDOORS.

It never occurred to me that this middle-class world of well-behaved pets and chintzy playrooms would be just as much a fantasy for the majority of British kids as it was for me. Call me naive, but it never occurred to me that there was another side of Britain I'd never read about in Enid Blyton books. Not until I moved to London in the 1980s. Working class kids do appear in Blyton books, of course (I'm thinking 'Ern in the Five Find-Outers books here), but they didn't stick in my mind. They didn't come across as real; they were more like characters in a pantomime, inviting you to boo them. I didn't hero worship Ern like I did George or Julian or Fatty.

I guess what I'm trying say in a roundabout way (because I can't really focus after a long day working and I have to post this tonight) is that what we write stays in kids' mind for a long time, even the bits we think of as mere scene setting or plot-pushers. It influences how they think, how they see the world, how they interact with fellow human beings. It's a great responsibility not to be taken lightly.

Saviour Pirotta's latest book, The Heart Scarab is out now. Follow him on twitter @spirotta and on instagram at saviour2858.



2 comments:

Andrew Preston said...

William Brown (by Richmal Crompton) was just about my hero when I was a kid. Of a weekend, my father out in the front or back garden, or greenhouse, digging, tending plants, vegetables, flowers. My mother in the kitchen. Me.., deep in a living room armchair, utterly engrossed in a 'William' book, with the family dog stretched out on the carpet nearby.

I'd forgotten all that.., till a couple of years ago, I heard part of an audiobook, read by Martin Jarvis. Wonderful. It was like being in that armchair all over again.

What I do know is that the class thing never registered with me then, only that I felt I could identify with William Brown.

Class..., the absolute bane of British life.

Vintage Vic said...

I loved William books too, although I did not discover them till I was in secondary school. I still like them today.