English colonialism has left a long and often miserable legacy. Cricket and tea have often been cited as the most positive contributions to its former colonies, but my interest today is not in exploring the quality of those exports.
Something else triggered me.
I was thinking of the impact of Enid Blyton, the writer of mostly children’s books (more than 600 of them), and how they must have influenced so many childhood minds.
Blyton, born in 1897, began to achieve commercial success in the 1930s. Checking out her background, I learned that 600 million copies of her books have been sold, and they have been translated into 90 languages.
In 2019, she was the fourth most translated author in the world, coming behind Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and the divine Will Shakespeare. Even after her death in 1968, the books are still widely popular—being churned out throughout the Commonwealth with editing to remove or tone down some of the sexist, racist, outdated and prudish content.
It might not be too far a stretch to suggest that she has perhaps been the biggest purveyor of the ideals and values of a particular English class. The empire’s strongest weapon of conquest!
Her writing style has been knocked for its simplicity, and she had quite rightly retorted that her books were meant for a certain age group, and not for nit-picking, critical adults.
I remember that Enid Blyton books were the delight of my childhood. I bet every reader enjoyed them during that age of curiosity and wonder. The Famous Five, the Secret Seven, The Enchanted Wood, The Wishing Chair, The Faraway Tree, Mr Pink Whistle—all those series were treasures. She was publishing up to 50 books a year!
Wherever the British Empire sunk its teeth into foreign conquests, Blyton took root. Indian novelist, Sandip Roy, said she “colonised young Indian minds far more easily than the British East India company”, as he commented on how her books “shaped not just our childhoods, but an entire trajectory of our reading”.
Writing about her in an essay in 2021, he suggested that: “Blyton’s greatest accomplishment as a writer might have been not in her home country of England but in the spell she cast over its former colonies, especially India. She colonised us with crumpets and make-believe.”
It was true for me, and I am sure all of her readers. Those lands of “make-believe” were wonderful places for the imagination to visit. They bred a sense of excitement at possibilities and adventure—vital supplies to enrich otherwise humdrum lives.
Perhaps the allure might now be referred to as escapism, which is what I suspect fuelled Blyton. It was also an introduction into a way of life that was completely alien, especially in the descriptions of the foods.
One could only guess at scones and crumpets, tongue, blancmange, marzipan and treacle—staples of her picnic feasts. It was only a few years ago, trying to make Guinness bread, I discovered that treacle was molasses.
This came to me as I thought about a suggestion made by an English cricket writer who was reviewing my Worrell biography manuscript. He thought I should explain what mauby is for English readers. I had mentioned it as a popular drink made from the refreshing bark.
I didn’t say it to him, but I immediately thought two things. Enid Blyton never felt she should tell me what treacle was; and I was not writing a book for the English audience, and they could do what all of us do when we encounter the unfamiliar: look it up.
But many things emerged from this mind excursion. Primarily, how powerful the influences of our youth can be—and how here in T&T, in the Caribbean, we still do not see how early a child’s development begins.
When educators lament that students arrive at secondary schools and tertiary level institutions woefully unprepared for the standards expected, it is because we have tailored systems that deprive little children from experiencing the joys of the imagination and the pleasures of discovery. We want to drill them into becoming soldiers of rote.
I also thought about the subtleties of the colonial experience, which have seeped into foolish practices that we perpetuate without reflection.
The woman who donned a curtain as a cape in order to be allowed into a public building was a magnificent example of the absurdity of that backward thinking.
A friend revealed that she too was recently turned away for wearing a sleeveless top. I recalled being told I could not enter the building in Chaguanas to either renew my passport or my driving permit (I can’t remember which), but I was able to retrieve a shawl in my car and proceed.
That was many years ago and it boggles that these are considered sensible and practical rules. Are they meant to uphold some kind of standard? We live in the tropics—have we forgotten that?
Is it that in our unfriendly state towards the climate we feel that a building is more reputable if its air-conditioning requires occupants to wear overcoats and scarves? It doesn’t make sense at all.
What does this have to do with Enid Blyton? It has everything to do with the way our minds can be conditioned, especially through childhood exposures.
Colonialism in coats and tails sipping a cup of tea—up the Faraway Tree.