Enid Blyton would have been 100 this year. Ann Treneman finds her complex personality more interesting than the well-worn debate about the merits of her books.
I read my first Enid Blyton this year at the age of 40. It was Five Fall into Adventure and the most interesting thing about it was that it was not interesting at all. Oh, there were kidnappings and caves and ragamuffins galore but I had been expecting something a bit more dramatic: rampant sexism, wide-eyed racism and snobbery to cringe for.
The content does not seem as controversial as it is cracked up to be but then it hasn't been for some time now and still the Blyton debate gets dusted off periodically, giving rise to the sort of nostalgia with which people talk about decimalisation. The coming year promises to be one for particularly heavy sneezing as it sees the 100th anniversary of Blyton's birth. Noddy and Friends have already brought Toytown to Regent Street to switch on this year's Christmas lights and many more events are planned. There are films and Famous Five parties and a new award called The Enid, to reward significant contributions to children's welfare.
Some true believers hope that this year will be the making of Enid Blyton. "I would like to see her books on the national curriculum," said her daughter, Gill Baverstock. The chances of this are remote but that doesn't stop one primary teacher from saying with real passion: "I will not have Enid Blyton in my classroom." This teacher certainly speaks for many, but to all of this, one can really only say "Aa-choo!".
However, there are many aspects of Blyton that are not to be sneezed at. "I have a friend who says that Enid Blyton is like a wonderful motorway to practise on: you learn to read lots when you're reading her," says Mary Medlicott of the Society for Storytelling.
"Are you going to ask me to say something rude about Enid Blyton?" asked children's author Helen Cresswell, who has adapted Blyton for television. "Over the years countless journalists have rung me up and asked me to say something rude. Well, I'll tell you that I accept that her books are very un-PC about class and race. They are very xenophobic - it is amazing how many of her villains have German accents.
"She's certainly not Jane Austen but as more time goes by the more I'm backing Enid Blyton because children actually read her. These days, with video, TV and computers we should be grateful to any writer who can get children to sit down and turn pages."
Blyton wrote a lot of pages to turn, of course, as you do when you bang out up to 10,000 words a day on a typewriter perched on your knees. She had an eidetic memory and saw her characters in visual camera. She told psychologist Peter McKellar that it was like watching a private cinema screen: her role was to copy it all down. This she did with eyes closed and great alacrity. In 1951 alone she wrote 37 books. Even in her last year of life in 1968, when she was suffering from senile dementia, she managed four.
She and her daughter Gill compare her writing process to Homer, Dickens and Shakespeare but I fear that process is the only common factor here. Everyone but the most passionate Blyton fans agree that her books (some 700 in all) are not works of art. They are often cliche-ridden, repetitive, stereotyped and strewn with exclamation marks. There may be a lot of food in them - pages and pages of picnics, for instance - but there is very little food for thought.
"Many people were opposed to them because they thought, quite rightly, that there were much better books to be reading, though the Malory Towers stories were good and the first book in each series was always better too," said Nicholas Tucker, who lectures in child literature and psychology at the University of Sussex. "But Enid Blyton is almost unique because there is absolutely nothing for the adult reader. For the first time, we had a writer who was for children only. A A Milne, for instance, always kept one eye on the adults and gave them something too."
Mr Tucker sees it this way. Imagine you are holding a tea party and that one of your guests is Enid Blyton. She enters the room, gives you a quick nod and turns to your children, regaling them non-stop for two hours with simple but entertaining tales. After she goes, the children clamour for her to be invited back but you aren't sure if you want to be so bored for so long again.
Last year, children's television producer Jill Roach decided it was time that at least one adult sat with the children when Blyton came to visit. She interviewed 30 young fans of the Famous Five for part of her masters degree at the London School of Economics. "I wanted to find out why children love her despite the pressure not to read her and I found that they absolutely love the idea of a world where children can come and go as they please," she said. "Of course, many of these children are not allowed out by themselves. They see the Famous Five world as some sort of Utopia."
This is undoubtedly what Enid Blyton intended for she went farther than most people to create her own world, which she characterised as idyllic. In her 1952 autobiography, The Story of My Life, Blyton wrote: "As you can imagine we are a happy little family. I could not possibly write a single good book for children if I were not happy with my family or if I didn't put them first and foremost. "
This from a workaholic who was by then divorced and refusing to let her two children see their natural father. Blyton's own childhood was fairly miserable. Her father left when she was 12 - a fact she was never allowed to tell anyone - and she left home herself to train as a teacher as soon as possible, aged 18. She was estranged from her mother and had no contact with her for 30 years. When Enid Blyton played happy families she did it with a vengeance.
Her biographer Barbara Stoney (Enid Blyton: the biography was updated in 1992) is convinced that in many ways Enid Blyton really was what many children's writers claim to be - a child who never grew up, and that is why she communicated so well with her readers. Ms Stoney writes: "For Enid, writing provided an escape into a world of constant enchantment and surprise, where she could put aside those things which were unpleasant and keep only her dreams of life as she would like it to be."
This all makes Enid Blyton a great deal more interesting and complicated than her books will ever be. We forget, as we dust off the old arguments, that she was a person of much charisma and a career woman before her time. In many ways she had supremely poor timing: her success and her output was simply overwhelming at the time she was writing.
Anthony Tilke of the Libraries Association believes a key reason why many libraries cut back on ordering her books was that there were so many. "If she'd only written 20 books, then that would have been fine but she wrote hundreds, " he says. "Now of course she's been superseded by other authors and other series, like the Sweet Dreams series."
What would Blyton herself have to say about all of this? This is the year that Noddy goes to Hollywood and the hype has it that the Blyton industry wants to compete with the likes of Disney. Last year the Trocadero paid Pounds 14. 25 million to acquire rights to most of her characters and then came to an agreement with BBC Worldwide which has the rights to Noddy. Blyton would be far too good a businesswoman not to see the benefits of sales that already stand at eight and a half million books a year (she is translated into 35 languages) and she would love the challenge of film and CD-Rom.
"Oh yes, I think she would like that. She checked every bit of Noddy merchandise, you know," says Gill Baverstock. "But I do not think she would be writing babysitter romances."
No, she wouldn't, but it would be interesting to see what deeds of derring-do she would see these days on her personal cinema screen.