I have joked on this blog and elsewhere about my cultural Anglophilia – a love of all things British that seems to have been instilled very early in my process of identity formation. I’m very happy to live in Australia, don’t get me wrong, but for as long as I can remember I’ve been more Beatles than Elvis, more Black Adder than Seinfeld, more Regent’s Park than Central Park. There is a combination of influences that brought this about but I place a large part of the blame squarely at the feet of Enid Blyton.
I was an early reader, so by the age of 5 or 6, any skerrick of spare time was spent with my nose in a book and my mind up the Faraway Tree. The Famous Five’s Julian (he of the foppish fringe, comfy jumpers and rakish authoritarianism) was my first real crush; indeed he set the standard for many similarly-fringed boys to come. I wanted, more than anything, to live in a caravan like this (see pic, taken in Stratford-Upon-Avon, 2006. My husband said we’d never get it through Customs.) I named our first family dog Timmy (he ate the washing; he didn’t last long). I kept all my childhood books – thanks to my parents’ generous garage – and now have the pleasure of sharing some of these stories with my own children.
My daughter started Prep this year. She will be an early reader: already keen as mustard to sound out street signs and pick out recognisable words over my shoulder as I blog (note to self…). I am reading the children the first of the Faraway Tree series – The Enchanted Wood – one chapter a night, to whet their appetites for what I had always considered ‘good’ children’s literature. To my surprise I’ve found myself having to translate as I read! Rather than being the warmly familiar fantasies of my memory, they show many signs of foreignness, of both time and place. I suppose this shouldn’t have been a complete revelation, since we all know that Noddy’s flamboyant shenanigans had to be reined in for more recent reprints, but in many ways Blyton’s books have not aged well.
For starters, my children have friends called Jett and Mikayla, not Fanny and Bessie. They rarely describe curious things as ‘queer’ and would not expect to be slapped across the face by a teacher for their wrong-doings. Tea is not often drunk at play lunch; fist-sized toffees would fail miserably in any Jamie Oliver school lunch audit. I can’t help but worry about normalising the idea of escaping to the woods in the middle of the night to visit your new friends who feed you syrup-filled ‘pop biscuits’. I have found myself questioning whether these books are in fact ‘good’ for my kids at all, particularly as there are so many fine Australian authors these days whose work might be more relevant to my children’s everyday experiences. Do I really want them growing up with the sort of misplaced envy that I did, where the bush was never as appealing as the woods and every possum I met was but a poor substitute for a squirrel?
My fears were abated this morning when we took off, laden down with bikes and picnics (hey, Anne is still my middle name!) for a local park. The kids did a bit of riding and snacking, but then become completely engrossed in the tangled roots of a magnificent Moreton Bay Fig. This tree – a type of strangler fig native to the East coast of Australia – is perfect fodder for childhood fantasies, full of hidey holes and secret spaces. It dawned on me that my children had found the perfect place to enact their Blyton fantasies, with not a jot of wood-envy. “I think this is where Moon-Face lives!” Miss 3 decreed, gingerly poking fingers into a blunted trunk knot. “I think these are bits of the ladder!” said Miss 5, pulling at stringy bits of vine. They were suspending disbelief as only children can and saw no reason whatsoever why the Faraway Tree might not be smack bang in the middle of Brisbane, near the PCYC playground, just past the off-leash park.
Perhaps my children will be more relaxed about being citizens of the world? Their lives are already a good deal more eclectic than mine at the same age. My mother often reminds me that avocado was exotic when I was a child, as opposed to a staple part of a child’s regular food court sushi. They will probably grow up enjoying literature from all over the world, including a good deal of literature from right here at home, but they won’t get away without a few lashings… of ginger beer, that is.