The much-maligned Enid Blyton strikes back. This week, British adults voted her Famous Five series as their own favourite books for children.
The series - which started 63 years ago - pipped Chronicles of Narnia to win first place in a national poll (by YouGov, commissioned by the National Literacy Trust). This is in spite of a couple of decades of derision directed at Mrs Blyton and her creations, and all the current hoo-ha about CS Lewis's Narnia stories.
In announcing the result, John Ezard in The Guardian still couldn't quite bring himself to be gracious:
The Famous Five are a group of clean-living, well brought-up middle class children who take pride in being "jolly good sports". Their adventures, fuelled by their inexhaustible addiction to ginger beer, lemonade and sandwiches ("Oh goody, cucumber," said George), were dismissed as hopelessly outdated and irrelevant by librarians and others in the 1970s.
Blyton's gentle fantasy, The Faraway Tree, came third, followed by Tolkien's The Hobbit and Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Both of which, you imagine, ought to have had a bit of a boost from Hollywood in recent years). Blyton also took 16th and 17th place in the top 20 with the Secret Seven adventure series and the Malory Towers girls school series. There's no mention of my personal favourite, The Secret of Killimoon - my mother's old copy had some critical pages missing, and I nearly cried with the anguish of never knowing what had happened in them.
The Famous Five were Julian, Dick and Anne, plus their cousin Georgina (George) and dog, Timmy. It's fair enough to say that it's hard to tell Julian and Anne from Peter and Susan in Narnia, or any of them from the Secret Seven, but George may well be responsible for me never ceasing to be a tomboy. Still, we won't hold that against poor Enid. I'm sure she didn't intend it.
In defence of Enid Blyton, although I find it hard to read the books as an adult, at least her Five and Seven characters had interesting adventures - a new mystery to solve every time - and they were smarter than the police, brave and energetic, cycled everywhere, and never had to be saved by grown-ups. They were never sappy like dumb old Nancy Drew. They had dogs, which is always good, and big appetites. I remember most vividly the descriptions of High Tea which always came at some point towards the end and sounded terribly grand. "What's jugged hare, Mum?" I'd ask. "Can we have that for dinner? Can you please make scones? It's an emergency." The Famous Five might not have had the grand scale of Lord of the Rings but they were ripping good yarns, well told.
It must be said that adult memories of cherished childhood books are sometimes more faithful to the experience of the reading adventure, than the text itself. My bet would be that the order would be different if all those who voted had to read the books again. But never mind. The people have spoken, and here's the list:
Top 10 books
1 Famous Five
2 Chronicles of Narnia
3 The Faraway Tree
4 The Hobbit
5 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
6 Black Beauty
7 Treasure Island
9 Swallows and Amazons
10 Lord of the Rings
Anyway, what's wrong with being a jolly good sport?