How the Famous Five sold us a myth of Britain—and set the stage for our Brexit fantasies

The fantasy land espoused by some hardcore Leavers doesn't come from nowhere. I've traced the source: and it's Enid Blyton

October 27, 2017
article header image

“Why did Brexit happen?” is a stupid question. Of course it is. A very stupid question, actually, with a thousand possible answers. Like “Why did the Second World War happen?”, it depends who you ask, and how much time they’ve got.

With that necessary caveat in mind, however, I have to tell you: I’ve found the real, true answer.

I have tracked the Brexit to its lair. I am the Poirot of politics, and I know whodunnit. And as in all the best mysteries, it’s the person you least expected: it’s Enid Blyton.

Nigel Farage, you see, is merely a mouthpiece: this goes all the way back to Noddy.

And the Secret Seven. And the Malory Towers girls. And the Famous Five. In fact, especially the Famous Five.

I know I sound like I'm joking, but I’m actually very serious. Five On Brexit Island is more than just a novelty toilet book, and it shouldn’t have come as a surprise: Five have always been on Brexit Island.

(I should tell you that this comes from a place of love: I’m not an academic, but I am a person who has read almost all 186 of Blyton’s novels, up to and including a bizarre fantasia on juvenile delinquency entitled The Six Bad Boys.)

Brexit Blighty is Blyton’s Blighty. It’s white socks, rock cakes, church bells. It’s cricket pitches, jolly hockey sticks, high tea and home for the holidays. It’s Victoria sponge, cucumber sandwiches, and four kinds of fork. It’s pounds, shillings and pence; it’s poles, perches and rods; it’s the boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled; it’s thinking that the Empire wasn’t all bad, come on, what about the trains and the post office? It’s Latin masters and making jokes about cowardly Frenchmen and funny foreigners; it’s knowing that, notoriously, racial purity begins (or ends, depending which way you’re looking) at Calais. It’s “fog in channel; continent cut off.” It’s about Britain—domestic, green, leafy little Britain—as the centre of the universe. That’s what people want when they say “give us our country back”: they want to take it back to Blyton’s Britain.

This isn’t a coincidence. The main architects of Brexit—and, come to think of it, the bulk of the Leave demographic—grew up on Blyton. So did most of Britain, actually.

She is probably the best-selling children’s author of all time. (Yes, more than Harry Potter). Estimates suggest Blyton has sold something like six hundred million copies. She’s the eighth best-selling author in the world, ever—sailing in under Agatha Christie and Danielle Steel, but above, say Tolstoy, Tolkein and Dr. Seuss.

And she’s still selling—with bright cartoon covers and a wash of Tippex over any particularly overt bits of racism.

If you believe—even a little bit—that the things we read have any impact on the things we think, we’ve got to talk about Blyton.

To get a sense of her import, let’s start with the best thing ever written about Blyton, which is Joyce Grenfell’s sketch Writer Of Children’s Books. (It’s on Spotify.) She doesn’t say it’s about Blyton; it’s definitely about Blyton.

“Hallo, boys and girls!” Grenfell carols. “I was so pleased when you asked me to come along and tell you how I write my books for children. Well, I pin a notice on the door, and it says ‘Gone To Make-Believe Land,’ and I sit down at my typewriter, and this time I see a rambling old house in Cornwall, and I hear seagulls, and I see children, three children, and they are scrambling up the cliffs because they are very nearly late for tea! Et cetera, et cetera. It’s always the same with me...”

This last line is the really seductive thing about Blytonland: it’s unchanging and eternal and always the same with me. The rambling house, the easy scramble, tea—that constantly contentious point of British imperialism—at regular hours. Nobody is going to fall down those cliffs—not seriously, anyway—and nobody is going to actually miss tea (they’re only very nearly late). Nobody is going hungry. Nobody is going to face any consequences for anything.

Oh yes.

The Famous Five rarely face any kind of consequences. For anything. The Famous Five do what they want. The Famous Five go where they like. Footpath signs are nothing to them. They just turn up; sometimes pay the farmer a courtesy visit to inform him they’ll be building fires and trampling his heather into beds; ask the farmer’s wife (always the wife!) for a bag of buns and a bottle of ginger beer; and on they go. Sometimes they pay for the buns. More often the farmer’s wife is so happy to see such cheerfully-entitled little prodigies that she hands the buns over free of charge.

In exchange, the Five will chase any other trespassers off the farmer’s land, or out of the mysterious mines, or wherever they happen to be. “Trespassers”? I mean: "gypsies," "tinkers," swarthy-looking strangers, people who work for the circus, people with non-RP accents, people who don’t speak English, foreigners in general. That sort of thing.

We can go anywhere, you see, but we’ve got to keep the foreigners out. The political parallel is so glaringly obvious, when you look at it, that you can’t stop looking at it.

Don’t believe me? Try the Enid Blyton villain bingo next time you’re reading: reference to dark skin; reference to dark eyes; foreign accent; working-class accent; being where the Five want to be without asking the Five first. Check!

This is worrying, given that we’re being governed by a parliament of Blyton-soaked nostalgia fiends who really, really took Five Go Off In A Caravan to heart.

And we’re being governed by them, of course, because enough of us believe it, too. “A cultural arrogance is built into their identities,” the writer and author Sunny Singh says of the “(primarily straight, white, male and middle class) British students” she teaches—and it is.

This is where it starts. It doesn’t start primarily with the actual Empire itself, which had largely gone by the time most politicians were old enough to vote, but with this scale model of the Empire, sized down for children. It starts right here, with Julian and Anne and Dick and George and Timmy the dog. Back to the golden age! Back to Blyton’s Britain! Vote for Theresa May, who ran through fields of wheat! Vote for characters from a PG Wodehouse novel! Vote for anyone who can get us back where we belong!

We’ve had a national failure of imagination, and we’d like the same again now, please. Like rebooting Spiderman, it seems less scary to go over and over the same ground.

The problem is, of course, that the ground, like Spiderman, never really existed.

Peak Blighty—Blyton’s Blighty—might, possibly, have existed for a handful of very rich, very lucky people, for a very short time. The picnics alone make it impossible for most: the sugar needed for all those rock buns and ginger beer never came off a ration card, to say nothing of the eggs.

This isn’t Blyton’s childhood, and it definitely didn’t exist for her children either. Blyton herself grew up in a London suburb with separated parents; her daughters remember her as “arrogant, insecure and without a trace of maternal instinct.”

It’s Blyton’s fantasy of her own childhood, and of her children’s childhood. It wasn’t real. It was never real.

We’re stuck in nostalgia mode for a fantasy: what A. A. Gill called “the warm, crumbly, honey-coloured, collective ‘yesterday’ with its fond belief that everything was better back then, that Britain (England, really) is a worse place now than it was at some foggy point in the past where we achieved peak Blighty...”

You’ve got to feel for the kids who fell for it. The Five make it clear that they don’t think their childhood is anything exceptional (“'Posh, aren’t you?' said Lou sneeringly. 'Not particularly,' said Julian, still polite”)—so why didn’t you get it, if they did? The Five claim this is normal. Maybe the kids who read it thought it was normal, too, and wondered why they didn't get the same wonderful freedom.

White, middle-class English people in their fifties grew up on Blyton’s portrayal of a world built exclusively for them, and grew into a world far more diverse, difficult, and interesting. You see where the disconnect comes from: a sense of unfulfilled entitlement, subsequent resentment, and dangerously flawed leaps in logic. If the diverse world lacks this kind of childhood, then the diverse world is to blame; if we made the world less diverse, we would be enabling that kind of childhood.

“[Enid] just wanted,” Helena Bonham-Carter said, once (she was playing Blyton in a BBC biopic) “to carry on creating this fantastic world that, actually, millions of others wanted to escape to because it was so convincing.”

It’s convincing, if you want to be convinced: if you want to believe that it’s all going to be ok, that you never have to grow up, never have to face any real consequences for anything, you can probably do it. We can leave the EU without falling down any cliffs; we can have one rule for us and another rule for everybody else without even being late for tea. We won’t go hungry; we won’t pay more for less. We can stop freedom of movement any time we like: it won’t mean British expat pensioners coming home from the Costa del Sol, it won’t mean the end of middle-class Inter-railing gap years, or London’s financial markets, or anything at all. Like the Five, our actions will be consequence-free.

“The hated freedom of movement applies to those nasty foreigners coming to the UK, while Britons traipse across the world at whim,” says Singh. “Even left leaning young Britons are convinced of exceptional global status .... they cannot even imagine a world where Britons are not only equal to the rest of the world but one of its minor economies and nations.” It’s a failure of imagination again: a failure to imagine what might go wrong and a failure to imagine what might go right.

We need to realise that Blyton and her ilk created comforting fantasies for a particular time and place: a story for little children a long time ago. You can Tippex Dick into Rick, Fanny into Franny, Dame Slap to Dame Snap and take out every single instance of grotesquely racist language, but you can’t take out the basic imperialism. You’d be Tippexing out whole novels.

Like I say: I think I’ve read almost every Blyton novel. I’ve read The Christmas Book and Six Cousins At Mistletoe Farm and a really rather bleak one about a doll that I can’t remember the name of. The pull of that world is strong. But so is the pull of Middle Earth, or Hogwarts. That’s what makes a good book. That’s why she’s sold so many copies. I’m not denying that Blyton is a good read—and I’m not denying that there are some good things in there, too.

Mostly, there’s a moral to Blyton’s books, and mostly the morals are pretty good.

So, here’s my best attempt at an Enid Blyton moral: if you loved the Famous Five, you never loved them for their everyday imperialism. You loved them for their sense of decency; their belief in kindness, thinking your way out of trouble, adventure, fresh air, good food, girls with short hair and a boy’s name. You loved them for their total freedom.

Take that away with you, and leave the rest where it belongs.