No nineties child has ever lived so much in the 1940s. Between the ages of about 6 and 10, I was obsessed with Enid Blyton, whatever form her stories took. The Famous Five, and reckless adventure? Check. The Twins of St. Clare’s, and boarding school mischief? Check. The Faraway Tree, and all the different worlds in its uppermost branches? Check, check, check. For a long time, that’s all I’d read, and looking nostalgically back at those books, I can pretty much understand why.
They were wholly different to anything I knew, and anything I would ever see. The Famous Five, with George, Dick, Anne, Julian, and Timmy, were free; Britain was safe for them to run around, although they always ran into mischief and mysteries, and that was alien to me. Even at such a young age, I romanticized picnics in the country, just with other kids, eating food I’d never heard of; the unspoiled, beautiful, whimsical landscape that Enid Blyton described; and the sheer independence that these kids had, in an England that’s changed.
Granted, these books were not true to life. Kids outwitting smugglers (Five Go To Smuggler’s Top), kids solving creepy mysteries (Five Go To Mystery Moor), kids rescuing kidnap victims (Five Run Away Together)… but in a way, they echoed my own parents’ childhoods. The hours of solo biking, swimming in rivers, going out when it got light and coming home at sunset, with endless exploring and games. Times change, and so do childhoods… but The Famous Five were a gorgeous escape.
And what child doesn’t like to imagine themselves beating baddies with their brains?
The boarding school books were a similar thing. The Twins of St. Clare’s, and Malory Towers, and Anne Digby’s 1980s Trebizon books… it was adventure, and yet another realm of it. No parents? Tuck boxes? Odd-sounding sports (as a kid, lacrosse seemed very odd indeed), the occasional boy scandal, and trips into the nearest quaint town?
Perfect. The dream, in fact. I saw these books as constant sleepovers, loved the drama, and got weirdly obsessed with the lesson plans. I even wrote my own boarding school stories, where I’d plan the lessons, and create students of all ages, with character sketches to boot.
Case in point, from a story I wrote age 9, about teenagers who march around Surrey collecting students, and then set up a boarding school in Switzerland. As you do.
They had 18 pupils (counting Rayanna): Ray, Hazel, Maria, Sophia, Holly, Claudine, Jessica, Melissa, Hannah, Janitiana, Katie, Zoe, Lindsay, Emily, Rosa, Fiona, Lucy-Anne, and Arianne.
Those names, and that detail. At least I had a good grasp of the Oxford Comma. This also made me smile:
“Listen up everyone, I’ve decided that today is going to be the day where we sort out the uniforms, furniture, text and exercise books, and classes - for cleverness - and if you’re a Senior, Junior, or Infant… The name of this school is Sundown! Oh, and Lunch will be at 12:00am!”
It was very, very cute. But why was I obsessed with this kind of thing? Again, it was so different, and something I’d never see - even if I had gone to boarding school, I wouldn’t have had the fabulous old fashioned uniforms, or lived by the same old fashioned rules, or come from the same types of families and home lives, because I was sixty years in the future.
And oh, how they talked in these books! I couldn’t get over the 1940s ‘posh’ language that’s naturally gone out of style. I devoured Roald Dahl autobiographies for the same reason - it’s a time out of time, and something I could fully immerse myself in, imagining my own innocent adventures. I loved the magical thrill of his first trip in a motor car, in Boy, and although it ended with him flying through the windscreen, you could fully feel the family excitement. His trips to sweet shops, and his holidays, too… it was magic, and I read and reread and reread again.
As I did with The Faraway Tree. It stayed with me for years, even after I’d stopped reading the books. Before I went to sleep, I’d imagine fantastical predicaments for myself in the different crazy worlds - having a grand old time in the Land of Goodies, and surviving kidnap attempts in the Land of Dame Slap. It was innocent, if daring, as were all the adventures in these books, and they painted such a deep picture of everything they described.
I think that was very much part of the appeal: adventure without real threat, in a modern world that’s scary for kids and adults alike. You knew the Famous Five would escape their scrapes, as would the children in the lands above the tree. It’s good old fashioned escapism, without the nastier elements that creep into even kids’ books today, and without the exhausting chop-chop-chop pace. The books flowed, they were gentle, and the stories were inspired.
This is a desire that clearly lingers on. The Magic Faraway Tree will soon be a film, exciting all those kids who grew up on the books, and all the adults who knew them a generation before. I hope it’ll excite the next generation, too, and give them the innocent escapism they need to keep them fresh, and sane, and young, in the crazy, crazy world. If it makes them read the books that send me looking wistfully back at my childhood, and even more wistfully beyond, then that’s nothing short of amazing.