I landed in Singapore Sunday evening after a great relaxing three days. I took two days off to walk two sections of the South Downs Way, 37 miles in all (more on that later in the week) and then Saturday saw myself and the children have a great day out in Cardiff before an evening meal and a drop off at the airport – its good that they can now drive! Monday morning I woke up early enough to watch the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games live. A contrast with the opening ceremony where I was in the US and NBC chose to show it on a time delay so they could insert ads. Either way, like the opening ceremony I went from confused, to worried, to enjoyment and appreciation as the various themes developed. The Eric Idle moment will stay in my memory for ever! Both ceremonies celebrated the ordinariness (and I mean that in a good way) of British life. Reflecting afterwards there was none of the pomp and circumstance, the harking back to Empire which has typified ceremony for over a hundred years. One dares to hope that the country has finally move on from romanticism about past imperial glories, and the onwards march of the Butcher's Apron (pejorative reference to the Union Jack in Irish republican circles and elsewhere, referencing the blood spilt in the creation of the British Empire).
So what has this got to do with Enid Blyton and the Famous Five? Well I had just downloaded the latest Jasper Fforde novel The Woman who died too much, in the Thursday Next series. Now I love all his novels, most are situated in and around Swindon which is near where I live and his son was in my son's class at school. He has a wonderful alternative world in which England has only just stopped fighting the Crimea War and Croquet (played with the same moral abandonment as Canadian Ice Hockey) is the national sport. Wales is a dark socialist republic smuggling cheese across the border while recovering from its own VIetnam: the attempt to hold on to its colony in Patagonia. In this latest book God has come out and thus abolished all religions at a stroke and is about to smite Swindon a là Sodom and Gomorrah; a fate that anyone living over the hill in Marlborough as I do would think more than justified. Now if you have read Fforde you will know about the fact that his books are layered with literary references that make them eminently re-readable, as you always discover something you missed.
In this book, the heroine encounters the leader of the Blytonians, a society dedicated to restore Enid Blyton's books to their original glory. I quote from the book to give you an idea of the flavour:
… a time of sandwiches, fizzy drinks, English supremacy, endless summers, cranberry jelly and a firmly entrenched and highly workable class system that was the envy of the World. Everything was a lot simpler in those days and the twisted and corrupted morals we see in modern life are but an aberration that we Blytonians aim to put right. By returning the books to their original and unsullied state before the heinous hand of political correctness trampled their true and guiding spirit, we will build a new England. One that smells of freshly baked bread and echoes with the sprightly call of rosy-cheeked farmer's wives, dispensing fresh milk from churns to children dressed in corduroy and summer dresses. To deny modern children the historical context of an age in which most foreigners were untrustworthy and women were useful only in the kitchen denies our chider a realistic window into a bygone era that we should be promoting as an ideal to be cherish rather than a past to be improved and airbrushed.
Now that is a delightfully affectionate but satirical comment; one of many I could have chosen. When I was young most children's books had that quality of cherishing a lost ideal. I never read Blyton as like Biggles it was banned by my mother as unsuitable. In our house that did not apply to sex or violence but to anything imperialist, racist or whatever. OK I sneaked a lot of Biggles books from friends (my secret shame to this day as they really were racist and sexist) but the one Famous Five book was so truly stereotypical that even the rebel in my could not summon up the energy to read them in secret.
I think that quote illustrates what I meant by saying the olympic ceremonies moved on from the past while reflecting it. The history of Britain was portrayed with with a sense of downbeat humour and irony. The musical theme of the final event was a celebration of a very international aspect of British Culture and finishing off with The Who had be intoning various themes from Tommy most of the following day.
There is always a time to move on from past success before it becomes present failure. Wallowing in past glory does not allow a new identity to emerge which respects the past, but also acknowledges its weaknesses.
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