I have a confession to make. It’s a shameful one, the kind of confession that leaves you red-faced and truly humbled, but the time has come and I must unburden myself.
I am a fan of the Famous Five.
I know, I know: Five Get into a Fix is hardly the best book ever written. And yes, I know: Enid Blyton shamelessly panders to outdated prejudices about class, race and nationality. (I was about to add “sex” to that list when I remembered that, given the tomboyish, cross-dressing Georgina, aka George, Blyton might actually have been rather ahead of the curve in this respect.) For this reason alone, many adults almost instinctively loathe her books, and think of them as being the literary equivalent of the fatty, sugary, tooth-rotting junk food with which cynical advertisers so blatantly target their children.
No matter. Self-righteous adults may huff and puff all they wish. Children have always loved the Famous Five, every bit as passionately as they’ve loved their Turkey Twizzlers and sherbet flying saucers.
I was one such child. From the moment I happened to chance upon a dog-eared old copy of Five on a Treasure Island, I was hooked. I use the word with accuracy: from that day forth, I yearned constantly for my next fix. I carried at least one of the Famous Five books with me wherever I went, even when I knew there was little chance of my being able to read it. I even took them to school with me, much to the disgust of my teachers.
I think I was in love with the sheer freedom and excitement that the Famous Five seemed to embody. Here, after all, were a bunch of kids who enjoyed the kind of autonomy that seemed unthinkable by the time I was growing up. They went off on their own, unaccompanied by parents or other adults, sometimes for weeks at a time. They set up camp wheresover they pleased or stayed in farmhouses. (And we’re not talking about the kind of posh farm stay you can book online these days, but the old-fashioned kind, where you just turned up at the door of a random farmhouse and asked them to put you up for the night, and – get this! – if they didn’t have a spare room, bedded down in a barn instead.) None of this was without a frisson of danger; in the slightly alternative universe of the Famous Five, the seemingly quiet English countryside was in fact a veritable hive of criminal activity.
And, as if all of that weren’t enough, they even owned their own island! With a ruined castle on it!
Most importantly, perhaps – and this is surely catnip to children – they usually managed to outwit and outsmart the adults who surrounded them.
(Some favourite Five villains: the eerily suave and polite Mr Perton from Five Get Into Trouble; the chain-smoking Maggie from Five On a Hike Together (“Horrid common voice and hard face. Ugh!”); and the smuggler who is so fabulously brazen that he operates out of a house called Smuggler’s Top, no less.)
There is, moreover, a slight gothic tinge to the Famous Five stories. Ruined cottages are rumoured to be haunted. Sinister houses guard unpleasant secrets. There are strange old buildings, secret passages, and spine-chilling country legends; in one book, a storm uncovers a wrecked ship. The past is juxtaposed with the present. Wise old countrymen and women speak of the world they knew when they were children (the mid to late nineteenth century, at the time the books were written), and it’s not just idle gossip: in the course of the books, the past that they describe intrudes upon the present in a variety of hair-raising ways…
Times change, and so too do reading preferences. Nowadays I read a variety of books, most of them far more sophisticated and challenging than the Famous Five stories. But just occasionally, when no one’s looking, I head off for another adventure with Julian, Dick (no giggling at the back there), George, Ann, and Timmy the dog. They do say that you never quite get over your first love…
Which childhood favourites do you remember with fondness? Do you have any embarrassing disclosures to share? Do you too feel nostalgic for the days when smugglers and fraudsters operated from ruined castles and deserted islands?