by Enid Blyton
284 pages, Award Publications
Review by Pat Black
There was a whole lot more to Enid Blyton than the Famous Five. She wrote so many books it’s hard to believe she managed to cram a life in between all the typing. The Secret Seven, and the disappointing-sounding Adventurous Four, were part of the many mystery and adventure stories she wrote for boys and girls.
You wonder if any ideas didn’t quite make it past the planning stage. The Creepily Inseparable Two. The Unadventurous One.
This book was part of one such series called “The Barney Mysteries”, focusing on a brother and sister, their cousin, his crazy dog and the eponymous Barney, a young boy who runs an amusement stall in a travelling fair.
It places us in familiar Blyton territory. It’s the school holidays – hooray one! – and Roger and Diana Lynton’s cousin Snubby is coming to visit – hooray two! – and he’s bringing his dog Loony (“short for lunatic,” Blyton elucidates) – hooray three! – and the fair is passing through Rilloby – hooray four! – and there’s a mystery involving stolen antiquarian manuscripts and papers – hooray five!
But whereas the framing of this story won’t surprise anyone familiar with Blyton’s work, I was taken with some the things going on beneath the surface. It’s unwise to read too much into such simple children’s books, but there was still food for thought in this strange novel.
First, there’s the way the children interact with each other. Although many of the children in Blyton’s stories are unreconstructed snobs, I picked up on several notes of discordant reality.
First, there’s the way in which Snubby is treated almost dismissively by his cousins Roger and Diana. Snubby’s a far more interesting character than either of those two blank slates – scruffy, mischievous and with a more sympathetic back-story, being an orphan apparently shunted from relative to relative once the school holidays come around.
But although the two cousins love having him around, they are sometimes cruel to him, easily irritated by his habits. In one sequence, the two children simply decide to abandon Snubby and Loony, his loveably daft black spaniel, in order to go off on a bike ride. Blyton seems to present this as an acceptable punishment for the Snubster’s tall tale-telling and troublemaking, and there’s never a suggestion that this ignorance was cruel on the boy.
But it’s true to the activities of children in groups. And we sometimes continue that behaviour. If you’ve ever watched in astonishment as someone tried to engineer social situations to include some people and bar others, then that’s only really an extension of what the Lynton children do, here. And we’re all guilty of this at some time. Much as we hate to admit it, there are outcasts in some groups, even among our own peers, in adulthood. For example, you might have some friends whom you would have no problem with whatsoever if they were to accompany you on a night out with work colleagues. And you may have some friends for whom this mingling would be out of the question.
Snubby could be the poor kid in class whose clothes, haircut and footwear was a great big canvas upon which the other boys and girls could project their insecurities. It seemed uncomfortably, painfully true. You have to credit Blyton for that.
The plus-side to this truthful depiction of child behaviour came as a main drive of the plot. Great-uncle Robert is also coming to stay with Roger and Diana’s mother and father at the same time as Snubby, and through a complete coincidence the two share a train carriage on the way to the house. As much to amuse himself as anything else, Snubby tells some outrageous fibs to the old man; a story about him being on the run from a gang of robbers called the Green Hands Gang. The old man is all-aquiver at this piece of villainy – but what a sweet moment, when Snubby realises he’s gone too far with the prank, and can’t back out. The misunderstandings surrounding the Green Hands revelation continue throughout the book, and provide a rich seam of comedy.
But there are other things going on in the background, ones that are less easy to deconstruct. We begin The Rilloby Fair Mystery with a breakfast-table scene in which Roger and Diana’s father is painted as tetchy and short with his kids. It is hinted that he has a dreadful temper, and the youngsters are fearful of it. This is referenced a couple more times in the book, in particular when the children are anxious about his reaction to their invitation for Barney the gypsy to take tea with them. By contrast, Roger and Diana’s mother is sometimes exasperated, but always dutiful, and does some great work in the kitchen.
What’s going on here, at all?
On a minor note, there’s also the character of great-uncle Robert. For the most part he’s a confused, befuddled old chap, but there was one searing reference to him having had “one of his bad nights”. There’s no other hint as to what this could mean. Perhaps the old man has a health condition, or maybe he’s suffering from dementia. It’s never outlined, but I was fascinated that Blyton thought to put it in there at all.
Then there’s the children’s interaction with Barney. This boy is an almost beatific figure, clear-eyed and honest. The party doesn’t seem to get started until Barney’s in the house. He is not the main character in the book, but the series bears his name and things only start happening once he’s involved. The appalling phrase “salt of the earth” trembles on the tip of my tongue.
The two boys recognise that he’s a really decent chap, and Mr Lynton’s ire is instantly mollified when he realises what a gem of a boy good old Barney is. But most intriguing of all was Diana’s adoration of the fair-haired, blue-eyed gypsy. I always envisage Blyton’s children as being stuck at around about the ages of 11-13, right on the cusp of adolescence. Love lives are never given a glance in her books... Except that in this story, maybe they do get a very fleeting one. In Diana’s deep interest in and affection for this unusual boy, I wonder if Blyton was – ever-so-subtly – introducing a more adult world to her young characters.
Barney presides over a stall at the travelling fair along with his pet monkey, Miranda. Miranda and some scooter-riding chimpanzees appear in one long sequence set at the fairground which is a snapshot of past times in itself. I didn’t know whether to be heartened by the scenes featuring the apes and the monkey performing tricks to the delight of the children, or disgusted; I’ve certainly got a cherished memory of going to the circus as a very young lad and being awe-struck by close proximity to lions, tigers and elephants. Won’t happen so much nowadays, that stuff.
But Blyton then puts in this amazing scene where a male chimpanzee cuddles and cosies up to a collection of soft toys, and gets upset when one is taken away from him. Not upset enough to tear anyone’s face off and go 2001 on their asses, thankfully, but the implication is there. So whereas in one part Blyton exults in scenes which modern readers would recognise as the result of animal cruelty, in the other she is painting the monkeys and apes of her stories as near-as-damn-it human, with actual feelings.
Then there’s the travellers themselves – as much a part of Blyton’s stories as packed lunches, meringues and ginger beer. It’s clear Blyton was fascinated by gypsies, but never slow to paint them as “the other”. Their behaviour can certainly be as brutal as it is interesting, as we can see in the quick-tempered Tonnerre and the nasty Old Ma, the matriarch of the fair.
Nowadays, it’s arguable that the travelling community suffers some of the worst examples of ingrained racism, certainly in the UK. In a matter of days, a long-established community at Dale Farm in Essex is set to be forcibly evicted by the British authorities following a court order. Some of those on-site don’t want to go, and violence is feared. Amnesty International has an ongoing campaign seeking to prevent this from happening.
Fear and suspicion seems to follow travellers’ every move. They are outright demonised by some sections of the press, augmented by many reports of swindles and house-breaking and assaults. I’ve heard a few variations of one surely-apocryphal story about someone who was given an on-spec quote by some passing gypsies for gardening work. When the householder declined the offer, he was told that the house would be burned down unless he reversed the decision. And so, in fear of his property and his life, he consented to some shabby DIY before paying them hundreds of pounds over the odds, just to get them off his property.
What a complete load of bollocks.
In contrast, Blyton’s casual racism and ingrained sense of superiority almost seems like a softly-softly approach, reminiscent of a well-meaning educational film. So in many ways, we’ve progressed since dear old Enid rather blithely turned these stories out. And in a few ways, we haven’t.
This is an exciting adventure story with an engaging central mystery and rather deft plotting – an area of her writing Blyton has faced criticism over. Apart from Roger and Diana – blank canvases upon which children can project themselves – the characters are excellent. And I get the impression Enid was very sweet on Barney, or someone who looked very like him, in her own young life.
In the adult stuff that I extrapolated from the text, old aunt Enid was surely being a little more sly with this book than I’d previously given her credit for. I’ve got a feeling that Roger and Diana weren’t brought up in a very happy house, at all.
Reading this book closed a chapter of sorts for me, too. I started reading it at the age of maybe seven or eight after my mum brought a pile of books home one afternoon. It was rare for me at the time to get through a book, preferring the thrills of comics as a young lad – but this story was an exception. I really liked the fair and Snubby and the idea of the Green Hands Gang and Loony the dog and Sardine the cat and then there was the missing manuscripts and then –
The books disappeared. I’ll never know where they ended up. I think the old dear was passing them on to the jumble sale at the church round the corner. And I never knew how the story finished, until now. And so ends the mystery of The Rilloby Fair Mystery.