ENID’S LAST INTERVIEW
Or: The Boy Who Came Back
May 24, 2012. I’m going to explore the last interview that Enid Blyton gave. If things go well, this piece will build up towards - and complement - some photos of Enid in her final year that are as revealing as any that were ever taken of her.
Three years ago, Tony Summerfield posted a single photograph on a thread called ‘Photos of Enid’ in the Forums of the Enid Blyton Society website. It showed Enid sitting in her study at Green Hedges in the spring of 1968, the year she died. Rolf Adlercreutz, who took the picture, explained to Tony that his mother had been a journalist and that he’d accompanied her on a visit to Green Hedges, where he took several photographs, the one he was submitting to the EBS being his favourite:
The photo has been taken in the same room in which Enid was interviewed by French television five years before. She is wearing the same brooch, which goes all the way back to the portrait in oils that was done of her in the 40s. The mantelpiece is as it was in 1963, with a candelabra at the end of it. The open coal fire is blazing. Has time stood still for five years? Well, Enid has changed her seat. When interviewed by the French TV crew she sat in an armchair to the right of the fire. This time she is sitting in the armchair she used to type in, though it must have been several years (again, about five) since she actually wrote any books.
The photo was well received by Society members who posted their appreciation to Rolf and Tony. A detail I like is the cup and saucer balanced on the brick fireplace that suggests Enid was still, at 70, both flexible and capable of precise movements. She may have been suffering from dementia for several years by 1968, but if the fairies were good enough to provide her with a cup of tea at ankle height, then she was still able to take advantage of their generosity.
Later the same day the first photo appeared, Tony posted two more photographs that Rolf sent in. A variation on the first photograph, plus the wonderful shot taken in the garden at Green Hedges. In the latter, Enid is standing with her back to the back of the statue of the little girl reading a book. It’s a place she regularly posed for pictures, with Green Hedges, her splendid house for nearly thirty years, visible behind her. I’m holding it back for now. Hopefully, 5000 words later, you’ll feel that your patience has been rewarded.
As I say, Enid was several years into her illness by this stage, and Society members disagreed in their interpretation of the photograph taken outdoors. Belly wrote that there was a haunting sadness about the image but that Enid still looked ‘together’. Julie disagreed, suggesting that Enid’s expression was almost child-like, implying no knowledge of a once active and full life. Julie went on to wonder if Enid’s family had taken photos of Enid at this stage in her life. The answer to that, according to Tony Summerfield, was no. Which made these sensitive portraits, and in particular the close-up taken out doors, all the more valuable.
Prompted by the photos, Tony asked Imogen (Gillian was no longer around by 2009) about the interview. She knew nothing about it and was very surprised that it had taken place, as by 1968 Enid's dementia was very severe and she almost certainly wouldn't have known who these people were or what they were doing at her house. Imogen was surprised that Enid was even at Green Hedges by this time and she thought that the likely explanation for this was that Enid was between care homes. She had already reached the stage where she required 24-hour supervision. Imogen told Tony that certainly nobody would have arranged this interview and she could only presume that Rolf and his mother had turned up at Green Hedges on spec.
The bit about the care homes was interesting. Barbara Stoney’s biography suggests that Enid was in a nursing home in Hampstead for the last three months of her life, but doesn’t mention any others. Asked by Tony about this, Imogen clarified that Enid had spent time in several different nursing homes in her last two years (she first had to go into one when Kenneth was ill in hospital in 1926), but she didn’t like any of them and the homes all found her very difficult to deal with.
All this moving around might explain Enid’s reported mental restlessness in those last years. Barbara Stoney tells us that early in 1967, Enid telephoned her brother Hanly who had not heard from his sister for seventeen years. She told him that Kenneth was in hospital, her daughters were away from home and she was ‘desperately lonely’. He made the journey from Kent to Green Hedges a few days later only to find Enid unable to recall her urgent summons and hardly able to recognise him. Later, at Enid’s request they did travel ‘home’ to Beckenham together. But on returning to Beaconsfield Enid soon forgot about the excursion and begged to be taken ‘home’ again.
The interest of the Enid Blyton Society soon moved on to other things. But it seemed to me, looking at the postings and the photographs last week, that a few avenues had been left unexplored. So having obtained Rolf Adlercreutz’s email address from Tony, I wrote to him, asking him if there were any more photographs and if the interview that his mother had conducted had been published. I added: ‘I see from your website that you would have been 23 at the time of your visit. Had you read Enid Blyton books in your childhood? If so which ones? Did anything you saw or heard at Green Hedges that day link back to those early experiences with books? Sorry to trouble you with questions about such a long time ago.’
The next day Rolf, who is a freelance photographer in the Stockholm area, wrote back: ‘Yes, I did read Blyton books as a kid. All of them. The intervju was my idea. I was living in London at the time and my mother was visiting. She was a well-known Swedish journo. The other shots I have are variations of the ones you have seen. I have the article somewhere, but in Swedish. It was published in the Swedish daily Aftonbladet. She was fairly into her illness at this time as she mixed stuff up, like one minute she was talking about her first husband and in the next the second one. Mother had some trouble sorting it all out.’
Now this was intriguing. The interview had been published, but in Swedish, so it may not have been read by English-speaking Blyton scholars. It may not even have been read by Tony Summerfield or Anita Bensoussane, whose combined knowledge of Blyton is close to encyclopedic. So I wrote back: ‘She didn't do many interviews. People seem to have been remarkably incurious about Enid Blyton back then. So her last interview with your mother would be extremely interesting to read now. Could you possibly dig it out and send it to me? I'm developing an Enid Blyton website and would love to be able to present the material there if you thought that might be appropriate: www.enidblyton.me.uk ’
My email could have finished there, but it went on: ‘In her last two years Enid constantly went back, in her mind, to her childhood home in Beckenham, south London. I wonder if this came up in the interview? I'm surprised she mentioned her first husband, Hugh, as in her 1952 autobiography he is not mentioned at all. It's as if the two daughters were the issue of the second husband, Kenneth. But as Kenneth would have died a few months before your visit perhaps her past marriages and husbands had become more fluid in her mind.’
And I signed off by saying: ‘Great initiative you showed that day in turning up at Green Hedges. Did Enid sign anything for you? Either something she had to hand or a favourite book from your own childhood?’
Rolf’s reply came back the same day. Short but sweet: ‘Here is the cutting. Sorry for the bad glue I used in my clippings-book. It's not an interview as such as you'll see. Not any straight quotes….We didn't just drop in, we had an appointment… No, no signatures on anything. I'm not really into that.’
By this time I knew I had a compelling story and that I must savour each stage of it. In fact, this was a whole week to savour. Just the day before I’d drawn the Society’s attention to the first piece I’d posted on my new Enid Blyton website, and responses to ‘SS Dementia’ had been coming in. I was constantly moving from the Enid Blyton Society website to my Inbox in a state of anticipation.
The first thing that struck me about the interview was the obvious: I couldn’t read it. Even the headline: Enid Blyton – världens mest lästa författarinna. What the hell did that mean! And the very last sentence: ‘För skräckens skull.’ What could that be about? For cracking skulls?
At least I could engage with the photograph that went with the piece. It’s another taken in the study at Green Hedges:
I wrote to Rolf: ‘Thanks very much for the article. I'll get it translated then get back to you. The photo that goes with the piece has Enid looking more posed than the other interior shots you took. She looks almost shy in the shot that you took from the side. She looks relaxed and poised in the shot taken from in front that you initially sent to the Enid Blyton Society. In the photo printed with the piece, Enid’s back and her right arm seem tense and she is gazing over-intently at the camera. The photograph you took of her in the garden is infinitely more open, it seems to me, even though Enid’s arms are crossed. I'd love to see the variations of that exterior shot in particular. Any chance? (Sorry to repeat my request of the other day.)’
And with that fired off, I got down to the translation. Or, rather, Google did. First, I had to type the scanned article to make a Word document, a process made considerably slower than it would otherwise have been by the preponderance of three special letters in the Swedish alphabet, that’s å, ä and ö. Anyway, this is what Maud Adlercreutz wrote. I’ve tidied up Google’s grammar where I’ve been confident I know what is being said. I’ve left it uncorrected where I can’t be sure exactly what Maud is asking and Enid answering. Where a word hasn’t been translated by Google, I’ve highlighted it in red:
Sunday, April 21, 1968
Aftonbladet calling on
Enid Blyton - the world's most widely read woman writer
By MAUD ADLERCREUTZ
‘For fifteen years I've been curious about Enid Blyton, children's writer. At ten-years-old my son devoured her books without doing himself any harm other than that he has long believed that the key to the English, is to eat copious high teas. In the fifties, I found the Swedish children's book critics harsh attack on her mass production partly fair, partly exaggerated.’
‘The books are more or less flat, but still give the children a form of entertainment that is after all less poor than magazines. The fiesta soon turns, fortunately, to other and better reading.’
(I take fiesta to be an evocative word for child.)
‘Enid Blyton has been and is nothing of this. She is a gråburrig little lady in her seventies, slightly woozy in the charming way that older women tend to be of English detective novels, but that she could solve some problems I doubt it. How she ever managed to keep apart and to not confuse its many series and their little heroes and heroines in the Five-, Seven-and other famous gang is the only mystery in this context.’
(I’m not sure what the first sentence in this paragraph means. Gråburrig does not get translated. But if I introduce a space in the middle of the word, Google comes up with’ gray frizz’. Enid is a grey frizzy-haired old lady? Anyway, let’s go with the flow because by the end of the paragraph Maud Adlerkreutz is talking about Enid’s confusion of mind and this is important…)
‘Her lack of precision about dates and names is overwhelming, even her own daughters and their children get tangled in her mind. And the only really exciting thing she herself seems to have experienced is that once she was bitten by a mad dog and rescued and sewn together – looking at the old wound, it is not visible at all - by her husband, who was a surgeon.’
(My own mother has dementia. I recall a time when she had a cut on her forehead. I assumed this was from a fall in the care home, but when I asked how she’d got her wound she told me in all seriousness that a child had jumped onto her back and hit her with a stick. But rather than the product of a demented mind, what we could have with the mad dog business is metaphor. Hugh, Enid’s first husband, left her badly wounded and Kenneth came along to put together the pieces…)
‘He was named KF Darrell-Waters and is dead. When did he die? She does not know really, it was a few years ago. He admired her highly and she loved him deeply. Judging by his portraits, he was a handsome English gentleman. Over the traditional open fire, he hangs in oils, a uniformed military doctor during the war.’
(Kenneth died just six months before the interview.)
‘What ghost writer and secretary? She has never had any, Miss Blyton assures me, and I believe her. She does not even write her books by hand, it would take too long. With a typewriter in her lap in the chair beside the fire, she sat and wrote down the books, sometimes it has taken a few hours, sometimes a few days.’
(The grammar of that last paragraph needs more careful sorting out. I’d like to know whether Enid discussed her writing in the past or present tense. But I’m in too much of a hurry to read on. First a mid-article headline…)
Never scare a child!
‘The environment is English. An old house in a large garden in the village of Beaconsfield a few miles from London. When she bought "Green Hedges" she does not know exactly, but it was when she started earning big money and the girls were small and needed a garden to play in. That is, when they were not in boarding school, for their upbringing was traditionally English and middle class.’
‘Even her own childhood was similar and was also spent in Beaconsfield. Her father went every day to London and worked, and she and her two brothers had a nanny and lived much like the children in the Blyton books do today. On being asked, she admits that times have changed, children today do not live in the same way, that their world contains new elements. The next question is whether she should not draw attention to this in her work, but from this she turns away.’
(Unsurprisingly, the Swedish interviewer would seem not to have picked up that Beckenham, in South London, is a different place from Beaconsfield in rural Buckinghamshire. Enid didn’t have as privileged an upbringing as her daughters, but she did go to a good local girls school. I think the second half of the paragraph is Maud Adlercreutz making the point that times have changed, and asking Enid if her writing should reflect these changes. To be sure of this, the Swedish would have to be translated by a professional. But I’m confident enough, so let’s push on…)
‘For her there is only one rule: never to frighten a child. This she will return to again and again. Adventure, excitement, yes, fear never. The worst thing you can do to a child is to frighten it.’
The children call for more
‘Enid Blyton lives alone in her big house with a housekeeper, but she often gets visits from the children in the village. The children are curious, they may at any time go and call on Enid Blyton, which is a name that every English child knows. It is not only on book covers, it is in advertisements for various children's healthy products, spark hug and cornflakes, in television programs and radio dramas. Enid Blyton lets them in and they ask her to write about their favourite animal or Miss Blyton's own two cats.’
(Obviously ‘spark hug’ is not right. Tony or Anita may know if some specific product is being alluded to here… Doris Cox, Enid’s housekeeper from 1946 until after Enid’s death, confirms that latterly Enid had two cats and that she, Doris, looked after them when Enid was gone.)
‘“Never scare a child,” says Enid Blyton. When we leave her sitting at her coal fire in "Green Hedges" and return to London, we recall the research study carried out by an English children's book library. The researcher had 35 children select one book from the library. 34 chose real horror stories. One chose Enid Blyton. But, wrote the magazine that discussed it, Miss Blyton should not be sad. One child chose her, but none chose a classic English children's book.’
‘I think Miss Blyton has become sad. Because of horror.’
So that’s it. Enid’s last interview was not a particularly easy ride for her. How was it for me? I need to lie down before I try and answer that question.
I travel to Green Hedges. Why did I not make the journey before? Well, I did make the journey with Kate while researching Looking For Enid. But that was done with tongue-in-cheek, because what I knew we’d find was a modern suburban street on the site of the demolished house. This time things are going to be different.
I’ve had a look at my diary for 1968, when I was a 10-year-old. These are the highlights for January:
Monday, Jan 8:
Today it is mum’s birthday. John and I gave her 8/- and wished her a happy birthday. I have now finished the book five go off to camp it was a very interesting book.
Tuesday, Jan 9:
We went down to the library. I got a new ticket and gave John a loan of one to get five have a wonderful time and I got five go to mystery moor.
Wednesday, Jan 10:
I have now finished five go to mystery moor and have started five have a wonderful time. Tonight we played wild life and I won.
Sunday, Jan 14:
Dad took us to baths mum came to watch. I dived jumped somersaulted swallow dived and jumped off the first board with Sara and Jonathan at the same time. I read five go to finnystone farm the best famous five book I have read.
Monday, Jan 15:
Went to the library and got Five on Kirrin island again. Last night there was a gale which blew down garages and dustbins. Our house had 7 slates off.
So by the time of Enid’s last interview, which I now know took place on March 8, 1968, I was well into the Famous Five. Had I read any of the Mystery books as well? The only Blyton books I still have from my childhood are the following Armada paperbacks: The Mystery of the Invisible Thief, The Mystery of Banshee Towers, The Mystery of the Bunt Cottage and The Mystery of the Missing Man, all of which are editions printed before 1968. Does this qualify me to conduct Enid’s last interview? Not in itself, no. But sometimes one has to push oneself forward, regardless.
I walk up the drive that faces west and go round to the south side, slipping into the house itself through the loggia where Enid used to write from April to October when the weather allowed. I pass through the library into the hallway and from there I enter the study where Enid used to write between 10am and 5pm, five days a week, when she wasn’t able to work outside. I do not expect to be disappointed. I am not disappointed. Light streams into the room and onto the back of a seated figure that is shyly smiling:
“There you are, Fatty. I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”
I can see that the newspaper on the arm of her chair, is The Daily Express. That’s the paper we used to get at our house in the Sixties. I used to read the Rupert Bear cartoon every day. The sight of the paper and the clock in the middle of the mantelpiece makes me feel quite at home. That and Enid’s pellucid voice:
“I expect your school has broken up for the hols. You’ll be calling round on the other Find-Outers and will be on the lookout for a good old Easter Mystery. Won’t you, Fatty? Well, that’s fine, but first you can stay with me awhile. Goon won’t be solving any Easter mystery in a hurry, will he? I think you can afford to give him a head start.”
“I’d love to stay and talk, Enid. That’s why I’m here.”
“What have you been up to, Frederick? Apart from eating buns and reading Rupert and the Icicles.”
“I’ve been reading your last book. Which is not as easy as it sounds. When you stopped writing, some of your publishers went on printing whatever of yours they could get their hands on. For instance, Lutterworth Press published two bible stories in 1965. The Boy Who Came Back and The Man Who Stopped to Help.”
“You’re the boy who came back, Fatty.”
“Actually, I’m more the man who stopped to help. But never mind that. The books were illustrated by Elsie Walker, who also illustrated two religious books published by Lutterworth in 1948 and I suspect that all four stories were written and illustrated back then and that you held two back, or the publishers did.”
“Think how long it would have taken Goon to work that out - about a million years! Well done, Fatty. Brains will out!”
“För skräckens skull.”
“Have they been teaching you Swedish at that boarding school of yours? I expect you’re top of the class. How many languages have you teased Goon with already? French? Chinese? Swahili? And now this Easter you’ll be able to ask him if he’s a real policeman in Swedish!”
“That’s not Swedish, that’s the little Princess Bongawee in The Mystery of the Vanished Prince! More Princess Bongawee, please, Fatty.”
‘Ribbly-rookatee, paddly pool,”
“Oh, I remember that line! Goon asks you what the Princess - that’s little Bets in fancy dress, of course - has just said. You tell Goon that you‘d rather not say as it was rather a personal remark. Goon insists on a translation. You insist that you can’t possibly translate it. Then Bets pipes up with “I only say – why he got FROG face?” which has all the children exploding with laughter and Goon exploding in a different way... Ah, happy days!”
The Mystery of the Vanished Prince was illustrated by Treyer Evans. Apart from several such Fatty and the Find-Outers books, his only other EB commission was an earlier one, The Christmas Book which came out in 1944. The original for the dust-jacket of that book, showing people travelling along a snowy road, from biblical times in the background to citizens of the 20th Century in the foreground, is hanging on the wall, visible to the right of the framed photo of Kenneth that Enid is sitting in front of. I compliment both the portrait of her husband and the portrayal of Christmas since time immemorial, and Enid smiles her acknowledgement.
The telephone rings. Enid asks me to excuse her and leans over to pick up the receiver with her right hand. “Beaconsfield 1091,” she says, leaving me to admire the furnishings. Complex floral pattern in her suite’s upholstery... Intricately woven Turkish carpets...
“You want to speak to Kenneth? There must be some mistake. He died several Christmases ago.... That’s quite all right. Goodbye.” Turning back to me, she says. “Now where were we, Fatty?”
“I’m so sorry to hear about Kenneth, Enid.”
“What do you mean? He’ll be back from golf at 5 o’clock! He’ll be very sorry to have missed you if you’ve gone by then, Fatty. He loves all my children very much.”
“Give me a cigarette,” says the voice of what I take to be an old man. The quavery words seem to come from above the mantelpiece.
“This is a no smoking day, Kenneth, you promised,” says Enid, turning towards the chimney.
Enid asks me what I think of the portrait of Kenneth above the mantelpiece.
“The photograph behind you?”
“No, the large portrait in oils resting on the mantelpiece.”
“There is no picture above the mantelpiece.”
“Give me a pipe and some baccy, Fatty,” says the voice from high on my right.
This is spooky. The voice does seem to be coming from above the mantelpiece. Could Kenneth be hiding up the chimney? No! Could he be standing outside the house playing a trick? I’m beginning to think he might be.
“No smoking today, Kenneth! All the golf, tennis, tobogganing, scuba-diving, kissing-under-the-mistletoe you want, but no smoking!” says Enid.
I move seats. And, to cover my confusion, I change cameras.
“Oh, I love box brownies!” says Enid.
I look through the viewfinder. My God, there is a portrait up there on the mantelpiece.
“I’ve never seen a boy with so many boxes! Is that one hanging round your neck a box pixie or a box fairy, Fatty?”
“GIve me a cigarette,” says the quavery voice from above the fire. Actually, the portrait of the uniformed figure sporting a moustache looks remarkably like Enid’s first husband, Hugh. He smoked cigarettes, and I recall that the photo taken of Hugh and Enid on their wedding day showed him with one hand on Enid’s right shoulder and the other holding a fag. While Kenneth, if I remember rightly, was a pipe man.
“Give me my pipe and my bacco, Fatto,” says the voice from the chimney.
Is it Kenneth after all, then? I’m going to take another photo, because the camera never lies:
Kenneth on the left, definitely. Hugh over the mantelpiece, possibly. My opinion is that for several books, Goon’s humiliation by the Find-Outers was Enid’s revenge on her first husband for breaking up the family. While, again in my opinion, it was Kenneth who helped put the pep into the Famous Five, in part by holidaying with Enid in Swanage each year from 1942.
Enid sitting between Kenneth, her husband for 24 years, and Hugh, her husband for 18 years. The loves of her life. But let’s just double-check with the bigger camera:
Oh, Lord, the large portrait’s gone!
“Give bacco box here, batty Fatty,” says the voice that still sounds like its coming from where Hugh’s portrait stood above the mantelpiece.
I have to say it: “Enid, I’m scared!”
“Oh Fatty, don't be scared! I didn't mean to frighten you. I thought you'd guess what it was at once! You are a silly, not to guess.”
“Guess what?” I ask, astonished. I look across at Enid’s smiling face. “It’s not just a trick you're doing, is it?”
“It’s a bit of a secret, Fatty,” says Enid, “I’m practising to be a ventriloquist, like you did in The Mystery of the Strange Bundle in order to humiliate Goon. Didn't you really guess?”
The portrait is there, its disappearance when I use the bigger camera is just a trick of the light. The portrait is there - and it’s Kenneth, not Hugh - but it’s not speaking. Newtonian physics still applies, even within these four Blytonian walls.
Let me just let a sense of normality filter down through my body... Let it filter all the way down to my feet... I can even take another photo while I relax... Yes, I feel I’m regaining control of the situation...
Now where was I? Ah, yes, about to ask Enid about her final book.
“I think the last book you wrote was for Lutterworth Press. You wrote Family books for them, with less back story to worry about than was the case for the Famous Five or the Secret Seven. And the stories were quite short. Do you remember The Hidey-Hole?” It came out as a long story in Playways Annual in September 1963, but it came out as a book in itself in 1964. I think it’s the last longish book you ever wrote. “
“What a lot of detail, Fatty. Anyone would think you were on a case. The Mystery of the Hidey-Hole. Remind me what happens in that, if you will.”
“Oh nothing much happens. Three blackberry-obsessed children realize that there are blackberries growing at the bottom of a neighbour’s garden. The elderly wheelchair-bound man who lives there has no use for the berries, so the children decide to pick them and sell the berries to buy a tricycle for a boy who has weak legs. One of the boys’ dog falls into a hole that’s hidden by the blackberry bushes. The children enjoy playing in the hidey-hole but things they find there make them realise that someone else is using it too. It’s a pair of thieves and they go on to store loot in the hidey-hole. However, the children make sure that the precious things are given back to their owner, the elderly man who lives in the house with the blackberry-rich garden.”
“Now shall we go out into my garden. There you can tell me what you think about the book.”
As we go out the door she hands me a signed first edition of The Wishing Chair. Then Enid and I walk towards the more formal east side of the garden together. Really could anyone ask for more?
Where has the above photograph been taken from? I’m standing on a bench, the same side of the seat that Kenneth was sitting on when the photos were taken in 1951 that appeared in The Story of My Life.
“Come down to earth, Fatty. And come closer to me. I won’t bite, you know.”
“No, but if I hear a voice coming from the pond shouting for help, claiming that he or she is drowning, I won’t be diving in without first making preliminary enquiries of a ventriloquist nature.”
“Oh, Fatty. You know you can trust me.”
‘You were saying about my Hidey-Hole?” asks the beautiful, brilliant, open-faced woman who stands before me in all her time-torn glory. The piece of jewellery that she wears on her collar was given to her by Kenneth in the late 40s. The brooch appears in the portrait by Claude Davidson-Houston that adorns the cover of the first edition of Barbara Stoney’s biography of Enid. Imogen says somewhere that she likes this portrait because her mother is not wearing the closed, defensive and even conventional face that was usually captured by photographs. Well, if Imogen likes that portrait what is she going to think of these pictures, full of inward-looking strength as they seem to be? Here is an individual with decades of a rich inner life behind her, even if some it is beginning to spill out.
“Fatty? I asked you a question!”
“Er... I love the book, though it’s been slaughtered by Robert Houghton in the Enid Blyton Society Journal. He points out that you use the word blackberry or blackberries or blackberrying 93 times in the first eight little chapters.”
“Goodness, me. He would be better to spend his time counting blackberries on bushes rather than in the pages of a book.”
“It’s a shame Robert doesn’t like the book because of what he identifies as limitations of plot. I experience the work as one glowing image, one growing metaphor. Robert does like the other book you published the year before, in the same summer you published the last Famous Five book and the final Secret Seven.”
“What story was that?”
“The Boy Who Wanted a Dog. Robert points out that in this book you’re drawing on your own experience of being frustrated as a child not being allowed to have a pet of your own. He thinks you have dug deeply into those feelings in order to come up with the boy’s stirring story. The book is full of the lad’s pluck and his adoration of all animals. Robert thinks that it’s one of your best Family books, as good as anything you wrote in your forties.”
“Lovely. I must thank Robert when he calls round. All my children call round sooner or later, often to ask me to write about their animals. But when Robert comes I will ask him why he doesn’t like my very last book, in which I dig deeply into myself as I am now, an old woman.”
“Anita doesn’t like it either. The Hidey-Hole is just plain silly, according to that normally very sound judge. So when she comes round to pay her respects you must give her a hard time as well! Treat her to a bit of ventriloquism, that should leave her stirred but not shaken.”
“I knew that my Hidey-Hole wouldn’t be popular. But I wrote it anyway.”
“It reminds me of Agatha Christie’s final book, Postern of Fate. Most readers think it’s boring, with none of the brilliance of Agatha Christie’s mid-life mystery writing. But for me it’s a gentle book, very personal, that doesn’t shy away from the fact that the author is in her seventies.”
“Listen to you with your ‘mid-life mystery writing’, Fatty! Anyone would think you were a 54-year-old critic rather than a 13-year-old schoolboy!”
“Sorry, Enid. I was getting carried away with a sense of self-importance.”
“Not a good habit to get into, but there are worse. Now let’s get back to The Hidey-Hole. I rather wish to be taken there again.”
“I’ll see if I can help out. First it’s the dog, Jiminy, that stumbles upon the hidey-hole, introducing it to his master, Jocko. Robert Houghton is delighted when the hidey-hole actually makes its appearance in chapter seven. But he asks: ‘How could such a deep wide hole exist under a blackberry bush and yet be completely concealed from above?’
Enid smiles. She tells me: “Sometimes my children can be very literal-minded. Perhaps I should have taken more care when digging out my Hidey-Hole with the typewriter.”
“Jocko enjoys it on his own, or with Jiminy, until his friends Bobby and Betty deign to pay it some attention. The children and dog enjoy lemonade, biscuits, toffees and a chocolate bar in the hidey-hole, an added frisson of excitement being given to the snack by their knowledge that other people have been using the hidey-hole. The information that thieves have been using the hidey-hole does not convince Robert Houghton, who asks just how a grown man who is presumably bigger and fatter than Jocko the boy, could possibly have gained access to the hidey-hole in the first place? And why on earth would he want to spend any time hiding there?”
Enid laughs aloud. A thrilling sound that alone is enough to tell you what a joy-filled individual she is and would have been all her life: “I conceived Jocko to be a very fat boy. Even fatter than you, Fatty.”
“A bit fatter than he appears to be in the book’s illustrations then?”
“Oh, ten-times fatter than that. You see, Jocko spends the first eight chapters of The Hidey-Hole eating blackberries. Blackberries on his porridge. Blackberries with his lunch. A high tea culminating in a blackberry tart. Steak pie for dinner followed by an enormous slice of blackberry flan.”
A different expression comes into Enid’s face as she goes on:
“Nowadays I often dream about my hidey-hole. Usually I’m lying in the hole, which has smooth sides. Then I’m no longer lying in the hole but it’s as if I’m part of the blackberry bushes. Yes, I become the blackberry crop. Thousands of berries are growing from me and the children are picking them. Some eat as they pick, enjoying the delicious fresh taste of the berries. Others fill their pails with my fruit. And when they get home they sell the harvest to their mothers in order to buy tricycles for children less well off than themselves. And so I feed all the world’s children.”
Now that we’re standing in her garden, and Enid is talking like this, I can clearly see the woman who wrote all those books that generations of children loved and the present generation still love so much. Before me, I suddenly realise, stands the author of The Magic Faraway Tree.
In The Hidey-Hole Bobby, Betty and Jocko spend quality time in the hole underneath the blackberry bushes. In The Enchanted Wood, Joe, Bessie and Fanny climb up the Magic Faraway Tree. In so doing they meet the Saucepan Man, Moon-Face and encounter the slippery-slip. But Enid is talking again and I don’t want to miss one word of what she’s saying now that she’s in the zone:
“Then in another dream I’m in the hidey-hole again and the children are paying their respects. Their tears run the colour of blackberry juice, dripping down onto me. This makes my own eyes fill with blackberry juice and soon the world seems to be awash with the colour of blood. NOT the sort of image I would ever have written in one of my books. Do you know, Fatty, the worst thing you can do is frighten a child?”
“But as an adult you have to face your fears.”
“Exactly. When talking to myself I don’t use the word hidey-hole. I call a spade a spade, and I will use it to dig my own grave just as I used it to dig my own garden all my life from the day that my father first showed me how. There I’ve said it. And I’ll say it again. Soon I will be lying in a grave that I will have dug for myself at the bottom of the garden. I calculate I have one more blackberry harvest left to enjoy.”
“And then what?”
“Luckily, the grave is, of course, just another hidey-hole!” says Enid, seeming to enjoy contradicting herself. “I will climb out of it and up through the Magic Blackberry Bush, continuing to feed the world’s children as I go along, because it’s a slow climb that might take hundreds of years. But in the end it will be time to climb the ladder which we all know disappears into the cloud that’s found at the top of the Magic Faraway Tree.”
“And then I’ll step into whatever land happens to be at the top of the ladder that day. The Land of Do-As-You-Please. Or the Land of Take-What-You-Want.
“Perhaps Dame Slap will be there to meet you.”
“Dame Slap or Moon-Face or Saint Peter or darling Kenneth, or all of them.”
“They will take me home to 31 Clockhouse Road, Beckenham.”
“Of course, they will.”
“Actually, Hanly, it might be easier if you took me there in your car right now. It seems like a long time since we sat down for tea in front of a blazing fire with mother and father.”
“Good idea. Allow your kid brother to escort you to your vehicle.”
“The Wishing Chair?”
“Well, I’m not insured to drive Kenneth’s Rolls Royce. And the traffic in London is no joke these days”
“The Wishing Chair it is, then.
“Before we go can I read you a little from your Wishing Chair, Enid.”
“That would be lovely.”
I open the red book to page 13, when the Wishing Chair is first encountered in the strange old antique shop:
“Oh, dear!” said Peter, making no movement to get out of the chair, in which he and Mollie were still sitting with their legs drawn up. “I do wish we were safely at home!”
“Please use the correct names, Hanly!”
“How do you mean?” I ask, raising my eyes from the book.
“I wrote the book for my darling first-born when she was little. So, please...”
OK I get it:
“And then the most extraordinary thing of all happened! The chair they were in began to creak and groan, and suddenly it rose up into the air, with the two children in it! They held tight, wondering what was happening! It flew to the door, but that was shut. It flew to the window, but that was shut too...The chair finding that it could not get out of the door or the window, flew up the little stairway. It nearly got stuck in the doorway at the top, which was rather narrow, but just managed to squeeze itself through. Before the children could see what the room upstairs was like, the chair flew to the window there, which was open, and out it went into the street. It immediately rose up very high indeed, far beyond the housetops, and flew towards the children’s home. How amazed they were! And how tightly they clung to the arms! It would be dreadful to fall!
“I say, Gillian, can you hear a flapping noise?” said Peter. “Has the chair got wings anywhere?”
Gillian peeped cautiously over the edge of the chair. “Yes!” she said. “It has a little red wing growing out of each leg, and they make the flapping noise! How queer!”
The chair began to fly downwards. The children saw that they were just over their garden.
“Go to our playroom, chair,” said Peter quickly. The chair went to a big shed at the bottom of the garden. Inside was a playroom for the children, and here they kept all their toys and books, and could play any game they liked. The chair flew in at the open door and came to rest on the floor. The children jumped off and looked at one another.
“The first real adventure we’ve ever had in our lives!” said Gillian, in delight. “Oh, Peter, to think we’ve got a magic chair - a wishing chair!”
Brilliant. But now it’s Enid’s turn. That is, it’s our turn. We sit back to back on our Wishing Chair. Suddenly I remember my manners:
Me: “Can you take a photograph of the pair of us, Rolf. Think: ‘Twin authors, separated at birth!’”
Enid: “Yes, take another photo, Rolf. Think big sister and little brother. Though off the top of my head I can’t think of any big sister and little brother combination in my long stories. I’m sure there must be some...”
Me: “Think ‘mother and child reunion’, Rolf. Think three sets of mother and child reunions. Actually, think an infinite number of...”
Rolf: “The cameras are full. The interview is over.”
High in the sky over Buckinghamshire, I tell Enid about a recent study whereby 35 children were asked to choose a book to read. 34 chose Enid Blyton titles and one poor devil chose Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Enid thinks for a moment, then says: “Oh, well, when I say never frighten a child, there’s always the odd one that needs a good scaring.”