We have just had a week of glorious weather in Scotland – possibly our one and only week like that! It’s forecast to be over 20 degrees today as well, but with rain later and rain through the rest of the week as well, though it will stay mild.
Short stories: Chimney Corner Stories
Cunningham and Petrov: The Mystery of the Missing Children chapter 17
Below W. Lindsay Cable does a grand job of showing Elizabeth squashed between the jolly girls on the train, and looking none too happy about it!
Last time Bill related his evening with Mike and Alan to Allie.
The morning brought a fresh crisp day, one of the better ones of the trip so far. The Evans were just beginning their morning routine with their animals when a big black shiny car pulled up to the main gate and a young man got out and strode forward to the house, glancing around cautiously.
“He must be here for Mr Cunningham,” Mrs Evans said to her husband, putting down the sack of grain she was carrying and hurrying into the yard.
Bill, sleeping lightly, had heard the purr of the engine and the slam of the car door and entered the kitchen just in time to see Mrs Evans bustling around with the tea-things, not paying any heed to Johns’ protestations. He had quickly thrown on some clothes before coming down, wanting to see who had arrived. He had a hunch it might have been someone from the office but he wasn’t sure and wanted to make sure that the visitor wasn’t hostile.
Johns was trying very hard not to let Mrs Evans cook him a full blown meal. He had eaten on his way up, and had had some strong black coffee. She wasn’t listening, however, and he found himself hen pecked into a chair in the kitchen and waiting as she made him eggs and bacon with toast.
“No use,” Bill said to him as he sat down, glad that it was the ever stolid and sensible Johns that would be accompanying him that evening. “She’ll force food on you, no matter what, so best just to eat it.”
Johns sprang to his feet and held out his hand to shake Bill’s. “I’m beginning to realise that, sir,” he said before sitting back down and taking a deep drink of tea.
“Don’t stand on ceremony,” Bill said, letting him know he didn’t have to be so formal. “We’re in for a bit of a strange one. Might be some off the record stuff. OK?”
Johns raised an eyebrow but nodded minutely. He knew better than to question Bill in front of a civilian. “I’m ready for anything,” he confided. “I even brought some equipment down in the car, in case it could come in handy.”
“Good lad.” He looked up as he heard footsteps on the stairs and Allie appeared, wrapping her robe around herself.
“I thought I heard voices,” she said.
“My backup,” Bill said shortly, crossing the kitchen to her and blocking her from Johns’ view. It didn’t seem right for him to see her in her nightwear. “We’ve got a lot of plans to make, so why don’t you head back to bed and get some more sleep. It’s still early yet.”
“As if I could sleep,” she retorted.
Bill fixed her with a stern look but then relented quickly as she was, quite rightly, not sleeping well while the children were missing. “Go and freshen up then and join us for breakfast,” he said softly. “Mrs Evans is making eggs and bacon so it won’t be long.”
Allie disappeared with a swish of her robe and Bill returned to the table. “How’s she holding up?” John asked, tilting his head in the direction of the now-empty hall.
“Better than could be said for most women with missing children,” he said graciously but not really wanting to discuss Allie with Johns. He liked the stolid-looking agent and thought he was very good at his job, but the one thing Bill knew from his longer service history, was that it was easier to not discuss anyone close to you with work colleagues. The less they knew about each other the better. Anatoly was an exception to the rule and Bill sometimes wondered why he had ever allowed himself to get close to Anatoly and his father in the first place. It was easier not to think about it especially as it brought up a lot of emotions for Anatoly, never mind lots of questionable missions that Bill had scraped out of with Grigori Petrov’s help and knowledge. Lost in his thoughts for a moment, he hadn’t registered what Johns had said. He grunted, as he tuned into the lad’s voice. “Speak up lad. Don’t mumble.”
To his credit Johns simply repeated his words which had been; “Hopefully we will bring them back tonight for her.”
“Hopefully,” Bill agreed. With breakfast served he insisted that Mrs Evans leave them to continue on with her early-morning chores. “I can serve Allie some breakfast, and get us seconds if need be,” he said. “You just get on.”
“Well,” she said dubiously. “You just shout for me if you need anything, look you. There’s more bacon in the larder, and eggs too, and…”
Johns grinned as Bill finally ushered the woman out the kitchen door and closed it. “She’s something, all right.”
“She’s been very kind and looked after us well, especially Allie, er, Mrs Mannering,” Bill corrected himself. “Her heart’s in the right place,” he added.
“Her cooking’s good as well,” Johns added.
Allie reappeared soon after and Bill put out some food for her. “I assume you two are going to shut yourselves away later and make your plans?”
“We might emerge for food, eventually, but yes, we’ll need to shut ourselves away for a good while,” he agreed.
“And will you tell me… will you let me know what you’re planning to do?” she asked.
Bill considered this, it wasn’t standard practice, but none of this was. “I’ll let you know what I can,” he agreed, just cautious that Johns shouldn’t know too much about Bill’s own brand of rule breaking other than what was strictly necessary.
With breakfast eaten, though plenty was still left on the stove, Bill and Johns set off to find a private place to make their plans. There wasn’t anywhere suitable in the farmhouse. The kitchen and sitting-room were too open, the scullery and larder too small, the bedrooms impractical unless they wanted to sprawl on the bed. In the end they settled on one of the smaller barns, one which had an old wooden table in one corner. It had been lying on its side and when they went to turn it upright they discovered it was missing a leg, but they were able to prop it up using an old barrel and it made a reasonable work-surface then.
Bill spread out a couple of maps and placed his notebook beside them. “So, about this mountain,” he began.
Following on from finding a true Hollow Tree House we recently made a trip to Auchmithie beach, which just so happens to be the home of several caves and even a ‘secret’ passage or two.
How do they compare to the ones we read about in Blyton’s books? Let’s find out.
About Auchmithie beach
Auchmithie is a little village on the Angus coast, a short distance from Arbroath. There’s a glorious cliff-top walk you can take from the north end of Arbroath right into Auchmithie and along the way there are lots of interesting rock formations to see (including blow holes ala The Rubadub Mystery) and a couple of little beaches.
It’s definitely not somewhere I’d be comfortable taking a three-year-old though, far too many sheer drops! Plus he’d never walk the four miles along and four back. So, we drove up to Auchmithie and squeezed into the last car parking space in the tiny car park (previously I’ve taken the train to Arbroath and then the bus up to Auchmithie, a slightly more Blyton-worthy way of travelling, but not by much).
It was a warm but extremely foggy day at the beach, at times we couldn’t see the top of the cliffs from the beach or one end of the beach from the other which only added to the adventure. It was a bit like Mystery Moor – only we never got lost thankfully. (Some of the photos in the blog are from a previous trip, which was on a clear day.)
Anyway, the beach is accessed by a long track that winds down the hill, at the moment it’s very torn up due to water running down it. Several cottages back onto the gully – looking rather precarious in places as they really are perched on the sides.
At the bottom of the track are a couple of old sheds, and some old boats – a couple half-rotted away. Just to the left is the old (1889) harbour which is no longer in use. The walls have fallen in in several places but you can still walk along one side and scramble across some of the rest.
The beach itself is a stony one – covered in very round stones of varying sizes which form several ‘shelves’ (there’s probably a scientific word for this, but I don’t know what it is!). The cliffs around it are said to be 120 feet high and are red sandstone so they are full of cracks and crevices and loose bits which have fallen down. Sandstone is very soft so you can see so many places the tide has worn it away a little at a time – hence the many caves.
There are also lots of rocky ridges running out to sea, forming channels and gaps where softer rock has worn away.
Auchmithie reportedly has a history of smugglers using the caves. Due to the cliff erosion I doubt many of the caves there today would have been there even fifty years ago. The video at the end of this post was taken a year before my visit at the start of the month and in that time the archway shown at the end of the beach (3 minutes 15 on the video) has fallen in.
Still, if you go and explore the beach it doesn’t take too much imagination to turn it into a smugglers’ haunt in your mind, particularly as you walk through the ‘secret’ passages in the rock…
What did Blyton have to say about caves?
I described some of her caves in Blyton’s homeliest secret homes but only one is a beach-cave, the one on Kirrin Island which the Five found in Five Run Away Together.
As I wrote in that post it has:
a soft sandy floor, a rocky ledge which makes a good shelf for their cans and things and a hole in the roof which is part skylight, part chimney and part doorway.
I can safely say that this is not the sort of cave we found at Auchmithie. What we found were dark, damp spaces with uneven rocky floors from where the cliffs above had fallen in to create the caves!
Other books that feature sea-side caves include Five Go Down to the Sea, The Secret of Spiggy Holes, Smuggler Ben and The Island of Adventure.
None of these are turned into homes by the children – rather they are pretty inhospitable places at least at the seaward end.
The children put their three candles together and looked round the small, low-roofed, seaweedy cave. It smelt very dank and musty.
– The Island of Adventure
“It’s cold and dark in there.” She was right. It was. The sunshine could not get inside the deep caves, and they felt damp and mysterious.
– The Secret of Spiggy Holes
Auchmithie had a mix of higher and lower-roofed caves, though none of them were particularly seaweed-y. They were definitely a bit dark and dank, though.
Something Blyton’s caves often had in common is how dangerous they are – the ones at Spiggy Holes, Craggy Tops and Tremannon are mostly filled by the sea at each high tide.
Quite terrified now, the boys floundered into the cave, the waves running round their ankles. Jo-Jo came splashing behind them. Ah—he had got those boys now! Wait till he had done with them! They wouldn’t leave their beds again at night!
He stood outside by the entrance, waiting for the boys to come out. He had no idea there was a secret passage there. He stood, panting heavily, the rope-end in his hand. A big wave covered his knees. Jo-Jo muttered something. The tide was coming in rapidly. If those boys didn’t come out immediately they would be trapped there for the night.
Another wave ran up, almost as high as the black man’s waist. It was such a powerful wave that Jo-Jo at once left the cave entrance and tried to make his way back across the beach. He could not risk being dashed to pieces against the cliff by the incoming tide.
– The Island of Adventure
The children explored the beach, which was a most exciting one, but rather dangerous. The tide came right up to the cliffs when it was in, and filled most of the caves.
“We shall have to be careful not to get caught in any of these caves when the tide is coming in,” said Jack. “It would be very difficult to get out.”
Miss Dimity warned them too, and told them many stories of people who had explored the caves, forgetting about the tide, and who had had to be rescued by boats when they found that they could not get out of the caves.
One day there was a very high tide indeed. The waves splashed against the cliffs and all the caves were full of water. There was nothing to do down on the beach, because, for one thing, there was no beach, and for another Dimmy said it was dangerous to go down the cliff-path when the tides were high because the spray made the path slippery, and they might easily slip down and fall into the high water.
– The Secret of Spiggy Holes
‘This is exciting,’ said George, ‘Caves, and more caves, and yet more caves! And cove after cove, all as lovely as the one before. I suppose when the tide’s in, all these coves are shoulder-high in water.’
‘My word, yes,’ said Julian, who was keeping a very sharp eye indeed on the tide. ‘And a good many of these caves would be flooded too. No wonder Mrs Penruthlan warned us so solemnly about the tides here! I wouldn’t want to try and climb up these cliffs if we were caught!’
– Five Go Down to the Sea
Something else they all have in common is a secret way out (or in!). The cave on Kirrin Island has a hole in the roof, while all the rest have secret passages.
The cave in The Island of Adventure has a passage that leads through the rock to the cellars of Craggy Tops, and also some interior caves though not much is said about them.
It really was fun exploring the caves on the shore. Some of them ran very far back into the cliff. Others had queer holes in their roofs, that led to upper caves. Philip said that in olden times men had used the caves for hiding in, or for storing smuggled goods. But there was nothing to be seen in them now except seaweed and empty shells.
– The Island of Adventure
The Spiggy Holes cave leads to at least one other inner cave which still contains evidence of smuggling – old crates and so on – then carries on to the Old House. The one in Five Go Down to the Sea leads up to an old ruin on the cliff, passing an inner cave along the way. There’s also the wrecker’s way which leads from Tremannon Farm to the beach but it’s not clear if any caves are involved.
The caves in Smuggler Ben, at first appear to be perfectly normal but they, too, lead inland to deeper smugglers’ caves.
The three children began to hunt carefully along the rocky cliff. They ran into narrow caves and out again. They came to a big cave, went into that and came out again. It seemed nothing but a large cave, narrowing at the back.
How does Auchmithie compare?
To be honest, the Auchmithie caves are most like the description of the caves in Smuggler Ben! A load of small caves that go nowhere – but of course we didn’t do a great deal of exploring. Who knows what secret tunnels were lurking behind some of the rocks? We had a torch but it was Brodie’s and I think in need of a new battery so it barely illuminated anything. Plus being in caves where you could literally see all the places the roof had already fallen in meant we weren’t keen to spend too much time in the caves!
A few were a bit more interesting, though. The first we saw was tiny, a few feet in any direction, but just along from that we spotted a narrow opening… we couldn’t get too close as the tide was in at that point but as it went out and we got a close look it looked like it went quite far in.
It turned out to be a ‘secret’ passage. It went right through the rock several meters and came out in another bay! As the tide retreated further you could just walk around the outside of the rocky outcrop but that’s just no fun!
In that bay were another couple of caves, at first it looked like two separate ones but if you went in you could walk from one into the other. Not exactly a secret passage, but close.
Above, the first photo is the cave on the left. The second is looking into that cave from the one on the right, the last two are the deeper portion of the right cave.
As above the secret passage definitely had at least a few feet of water in it at high tide, but the rest of the caves seemed out of reach of the tide. Several had an abundance of grass and weeds growing in them. I suspect this is because the caves aren’t made from the tide constantly wearing away the rock, they’re formed by the cliffs falling in – though probably aided by winter storms.
Here’s a video where someone goes through that secret tunnel and into the joined caves, it’ll probably give you a better understanding of the layouts.
Although I usually write these posts on a Sunday evening today it’s already Monday morning. I’ve had to debate with myself over what I’ll write for Wednesday – my plan had been to review Five Go to Billycock Hill. However I haven’t even taken it off the shelf yet, and my chances of reading enough of it to start writing a review tomorrow evening are slim! Billycock Hill is one of my lesser favourites so I haven’t felt very motivated to start reading it, but I’ll have to if I want to move on to the one I do really like, such as Five on Finniston Farm, Five Get Into a Fix and Five Go to Demon’s Rocks.
Caves and secret passages – the reality
Cunningham and Petrov: The Mystery of the Missing Children chapter 16
Jack knocks Horace Tipperlong into the puffin hole in The Sea of Adventure. Stuart Tresilian is my second-favourite Blyton illustrator (after Eileen Soper of course).
Just look at the shock and anger on Horace’s face, and his hand clenched into an impotent fist.
Last time Bill met the two pilots, Alan and Mike, and discussed their secretive helicopter job.
Bill was driving back to the Evans’ farm after the pub closed and Alan and Mike had gone off for their holiday, thinking over everything that had been said in the pub that evening. Bill’s feeling of dread about what the children had gotten themselves mixed up in, was increasing at every moment. He wasn’t going to tell Allie everything because he knew she would get upset if he did.
He had already called in to the SIS, requesting a co-pilot for the next evening. Tomorrow! Alan really had left it until the last minute to recruit someone. Apparently he’d had someone in mind but it had fallen through, which was a stroke of luck for Bill. If they hadn’t been desperate he’d have stood no chance. It didn’t give him much time to prepare, but there wasn’t an awful lot to do, really. Someone would arrive the next morning to be his co-pilot, bringing a pair of phony pilots licences in case anyone asked to see them, and they’d have the day to make their plans before flying out in the early evening.
He hadn’t updated Inspector Morgan as he hadn’t yet decided how to proceed on that front. He’d make a decision in the morning. First he had to worry about what to tell Allie. Mike and Alan had been cagey on the details themselves. What he had heard, though, was hard to believe. Anti-gravity wings? It sounded like something from a science-fiction story. Alan had made vague comments about there being some teething problems with the wings. If these men were jumping out with wings that didn’t work, well, there was only one possible outcome. That made the dogs an even more important asset. A dead man couldn’t get up and make his own way back.
Allie was still up when Bill returned to the farm. “I was getting worried,” she chided, coming out to meet him at the car. “Come inside, Mrs Evans has left you supper and you look like you could use a good rest and some cocoa!” She led him inside and let him go and wash while she warmed some cocoa in the fire for him. She wanted desperately to ask him lots of questions but held her tongue, knowing how tired he was. Allie was nervous about the children but she didn’t want Bill to think she was nagging.
Hoping he didn’t smell too much of the pub, Bill returned downstairs after freshening up. He’d only had a few pints, and they’d been part of his cover but he didn’t want Allie thinking he’d been off boozing instead of working. Mrs Evans had left an enormous plate for him, what must have been a full quarter of a meat-pie, three hard-boiled eggs, heaps of cold new potatoes, lashings of tomatoes… He’d be hard-pushed to eat even half of it.
Allie was at the table, trying not to be impatient. She was flipping ideally through the daily paper she must have read about five times that day. She got up when the metal kettle began to whistle for the cocoa.
“I’ll sort that,” Bill said, but Allie brushed him off. He supposed she found it easier to keep busy. He sat down to his mountain of food as she poured the drinks. “I have a lead,” he told her when she joined him at the table again.
“You do?” she asked eagerly, leaning forward in her chair. “Do you know where the children are?”
“I’m still working on the assumption that they’re in that mountain,” he told her. “I met someone who just happens to have landed a helicopter on top on more than on occasion and he told me that there’s a trap-door in the mountain top. He doesn’t know where it leads to, he’s never been near it, but he has seen men come out of it.”
Allie gasped. “A trap-door in the mountain? Do you know what’s going on there, from this man?”
“He’s given me a fairly good idea,” Bill replied. “There’s some sort of testing outfit been installed there. A new-fangled sort of parachute that resembles a pair of wings. Sounds highly dubious to me, which is why I’m going to be flying in tomorrow night.”
“Wings?” Allie asked startled. She looked fearful. “You don’t think those people would make the children try these things?” she looked very worried that the children could be in more danger than she could have even imagined to begin with.
He had hoped that Allie’s mind wouldn’t have gone there, as his had, but she was a clever woman. “No,” he said, putting as much confidence into that one little word as he could. “They’re children, not trained paratroopers.”
He had questioned Mike and Alan as much as he could without arousing their suspicions. Mike had stressed that the guys trying the wings all seemed too heavy, and he’d warned them to try someone smaller. That had immediately had Bill’s heart in his throat, thinking of the children. Jack and Philip were sturdy for their age but still a good bit lighter than your average paratrooper. “Someone a lot younger might be lighter, perhaps?” he had managed to say quite calmly.
Alan had shrugged. “If they’ve got any skinny young lads we’ve not seen them. Just them great hulking blokes.”
“I told them I’d not take any big blokes up again, so goodness knows what they’ll do. You might turn up to find there’s no-one to jump tomorrow. I doubt it, though. I told them I’d be sending someone less particular than me next time, so I’m betting they’ll try to push the usual types on you. It’s up to you if you take them, though,” Mike had said and it had taken Bill a moment to catch up to what he had said about sending someone new.
“How do you know how particular I am? Or that I’d be the one going, in fact?” he’d asked.
Mike had laughed awkwardly. “Well, I had a mate of mine in mind for this but he’s… otherwise engaged right now.”
“At her majesty’s pleasure,” Alan had said into his pint.
That explained why he, Bill, was being trusted at this eleventh hour. So, if he went, he might well be faced with them trying to make the children jump. At least he would be able to intervene, then. If Mike and Alan had gone… it didn’t bear thinking about.
Allie listened to what he was saying, her face very pale and her lips set in a thin line. “You won’t let them try it on the children will you, Bill?” she said eventually when she had digested what he had said.
He bit back a retort about not being as stupid as all that. “No, of course I wouldn’t,” was what he said instead. “I’m flying in tomorrow to take out the next trooper testing the wings, and I’m going to do as much snooping around as I can. If I can see the kids and get them away then I will do, if not I’ll hopefully have more to go on for another attempt.”
The Mystery of Tully Hall is the first novel from Zöe Billings, who I know from the Enid Blyton Society Forums and the Enid Blyton Day. If you’ve visited the forums yourself you may know her as George@Kirrin, who calls herselfThe definitive 78 series nut (I’ve seen her photos of some of her memorabilia and I think she’s definitely earned the right to call herself that.)
I first read this book as a Word file a few years ago when Zöe asked me if I would read it for her and give her my thoughts. Well, of course I proof-read it and sent it back with any corrections I made in red, because that’s just the sort of person I am. Then, last month Zöe self-published her book via Amazon and kindly sent me a free physical copy.
So here’s my usual (but necessary) disclaimer: I received the book free of charge but am under no obligation to review or link to it. All opinions are my own and are absolutely honest.
The Mystery of Tully Hall
Every old hall has a mystery or two – or at least Enid Blyton would have you believing that! Tully Hall is no exception. It has been closed for several years but now, with a renovation underway for it to open to the public, various pieces of historic silver have been stolen.
The police have no clues – they just keep stopping and searching the builders but finding nothing – so while on a weeks’ holiday together James, Jenny, Barrie and Liz decide they are going to do their best to solve the mystery.
James, Jenny, Barrie and Liz are all in their first year at Grey Owls Boarding school, and made friends at the start of the year. Liz is the youngest at 11, and the others are 12. Despondent at not seeing each other during the holidays due to living in different parts of England and Wales, they hatch a plan to spend a week together at Barrie’s new home in Wales.
The children are very equal in this book – although Liz is a little younger and a little more hesitant at times, they all have equal input into decisions and there’s definitely no ‘we boys will go explore while you girls wash the dishes’. Of course the book is set in modern times where that attitude generally doesn’t fly!
A modern setting
I love the era of Blytons’ books (if I could live in a 1950s world with the internet, smart phones, other mod-cons and less of the rampant sexism and racism, then I probably would, I mean Dior’s The New Look is just fabulous even if I don’t have the waist for it) but I also enjoy books set nowadays. I think it can be hard for authors to write a modern book that captures the joy and freedom of the sort of stories Enid Blyton wrote but still include modern technology. (It’s hard to get lost on the moors with Google Maps on and so on…).
It can be tackled in different ways: The Knights Haddon boarding school bans all technology so it feels like a 1950s world, while the Adventure Island books have the children using phones and computers to look things up, and the boys argue about computer games, but they are not glued to their tech!
The Mystery of Tully Hall goes down the second route – the children all have mobiles which they use but they are not your typical pre-teens obsessed with TikTok or anything so inexplicable to me. They use their phones for Google Maps, to look up information, take photos and to keep in touch with their families. And of course – in the depths of North Wales there isn’t always a good signal when you need it!
Liz’s mobile phone is actually an important plot-point on two occasions which is a nice way of including modern technology without it taking over. Once she leaves it behind and in collecting it witnesses an important clue, and then later… well, I’ll quote from the blurb to give you a clue without spoiling anything:
With nothing but an empty bag and a useless mobile phone to save them, things seem increasingly bleak for the four friends.
All I’ll say is what they come up with using those things is downright ingenious.
I really enjoy this book – and it held up just as well on a second reading. The children are likeable and believable and while there are a few adults in the book (who ensure that safety gear is used and are the providers of many meals and picnics) they don’t get in the way of the adventuring or mystery solving.
There is a mix of mystery solving/investigating and exploring/adventuring in the latter part of the book, while the beginning is full of the sorts of adventures children have purely being a new place, so the book has a good pace without being head-long at all times. It’s like one of those Famous Five books where the first several chapters are dedicated to the Five travelling to their camp-site and eating a lot of picnics, and then with a mystery afoot things kick into a higher gear. The end chapters are particularly suspenseful as they stumble into some serious trouble.
Oh – and one very pleasant surprise is that there are illustrations – something that’s sorely lacking in so many modern books! There’s even a map, and you know how much me and my poor visual imagination loves a map!
I’m a bit late with this one, having taken a weeks’ annual leave I’ve rather lost track of what day it is!
If You Like Blyton: The Mystery of Tully Hall by Zöe Billings
Cunningham and Petrov: The Mystery of the Missing Children chapter 15
The circus was going to Little Carlington. As it came by all the village children ran beside it, cheering and shouting in excitement.
“Look at the great big elephant pulling that caravan! See him waving his trunk about!”
“I say, is that a chimpanzee? Why, he’s all dressed up! He’s wearing a jersey and trousers and a straw hat!”
Although it is Mr Galliano’s Circus that is going to Little Carlington this is not the beginning of any of the three books in the series. It is the beginning of A Circus Adventure, a short story first published in 1952, in Sunny Stories numbers 529-532. It was later included in Enid Blyton’s Omnibus which is where I am quoting from.
Last time Bill checked out another airfield where he met two interesting characters.
Exiting the phone box Bill returned to his car and took out the packed lunch from Mrs Evans. He had eaten her food enough times now to not be surprised about how much she had packed for him, but he was grateful of her generosity. After eating as much as he felt able, and putting the rest back into the basket, he decided to call Cardiff to see if Inspector Morgan had found anything out.
There was no news yet, but it had been less than an hour. Bill decided to ask around about the airfield, wandering in and out of a few shops to make small purchases and striking up small-talk in the process. The responses were uniformly uninformative; suggesting that there was nothing of note about the airfield itself. One or two of the pilots had caused a bit of bother in the pub; being rowdy, getting into the odd fight but nothing out of the ordinary.
Bill then went back to the phone booth and tried one more phone call to Inspector Morgan before he went to meet the men at the local pub. This time his call netted some information. He got the last names of Alan and Mike as well as their somewhat colourful police records. Neither had committed any serious crimes but their rap sheets were long and varied, both serving several short sentences in the past. But then, curiously, nothing for at least five years. It seemed for some reason or another both had turned over a new leaf and had ‘gone straight’. Until now.
“They aren’t what I’d call dangerous, but they aren’t the most pleasant of people,” Morgan said down the phone. “Though, I do not know if they would be armed, if they are mixed up in what you think they are, it’s possible, so I would be careful, sir. Would you like me to send up some back up?”
Bill considered it for a moment. “No, I don’t think there’s any need for that. We’ll be in a public place and they seem eager enough to tell me what they know, I doubt I’ll have to do any fishing that might make them suspicious.”
Still, he decided to visit the local constabulary to give them a heads up. The pub would likely be on someone’s route for patrol, and it couldn’t hurt for a constable to pass by slightly more frequently early that evening.
The policeman behind the counter looked up as Bill walked in, and looked a little bored with life. “How can I help?” he asked, stopping short of sighing but it was clear he wanted to.
It was like magic, Bill thought with an internal sense of amusement, at how quickly attitudes changed when he flashed his phony warrant card. Policemen suddenly grew taller, more officious or obsequious. He briefly explained that he would be meeting with two possible witnesses and would like the bobby on the beat to keep a special eye out when passing the Lamb and Flag.
“I will make sure we maintain a presence at the pub sir,” said the constable. This was possibly the most exciting thing that had happened in the village on his watch since the end of the war. “Would you like us to be visibly present or remain outside, sir?”
“Just have someone pass by regularly, that’s all. Nothing more. I don’t want my witnesses getting scared off,” Bill said firmly, wondering if involving the local police was a mistake.
The policeman nodded, “Understood, sir. We will be discreet.”
Hoping to god that they would be, Bill walked back to the Lamb and Flag and got himself a pint which he sipped slowly as he waited for Alan and Mike to turn up.
Bill didn’t have to wait too much longer. He was on his second pint when the two airmen walked into the Lamb and Flag. He nodded at the men as they joined him at the bar. He asked the barman for two more pints for the men, and then went to sit at a table in the corner.
“Cheers, mate,” Alan said, gesturing with his pint before taking a drink. Mike had already taken his first drink but raised his pint in thanks afterwards, wiping foam from his moustache with his other hand.
Bill didn’t want to seem too eager to hear about their ‘under the radar’ job and so he let the Alan lead the conversation, it began as their favourite aircraft, then went into some scrapes they’d gotten into while flying. Soon Bill began to get the impression he was the one being pumped for information. These two wanted to know how much flying experience he had, how willing to bend the rules he was… He answered everything the best he could, mixing some fabrications in with the truth. He’d had enough flying experience to be able to answer a lot of things with more or less of the truth but he added things he’d seen and heard on the job for authenticity.
‘Golly, this is like a job interview for the wrong side of the law,’ he thought to himself a while later as he went up to get another round. He thought he was doing fairly well, but one could never tell.
When he sat down again, however, it seemed that the flow of the conversation was changing. Suddenly Alan was doing most of the talking while Mike was nodding along with Alan as he revealed what the job entailed. It was clear that there would be a big climax to the story, one that could be the deal breaker as to whether Bill would get the job.
Bill knew that he appeared calm on the outside but he was wracking his brains to work out if these men had anything to do with what was going on at the mountain the children had apparently disappeared into. Obviously he couldn’t just come out and ask them that. If they were only testing some new parachute or some such, why the secrecy?
“So it’s just flying to a remote location,” Bill said for clarification, “and taking a couple of paratroopers out for some tests?”
Mike and Alan shared a look that Bill couldn’t decipher. “That’s about the size of it,” Alan said.
Bill shrugged nonchalantly, “That sounds easy enough. Then I guess we have to collect the troopers to go back to their base? Or is there someone on the ground to take them back?” He looked at both of the men as he spoke, really wondering what the big secret was, this collecting paratroopers for trials didn’t seem too much of a secret deal, given that if it was legitimate they’d have been covered under the official secrets act and there hiring would be done through the proper channels. He didn’t like the feeling he was beginning to get that suggested there was something darker and more dangerous at the end of this “simple” job.
“You don’t have to worry about taking anyone back,” Alan said. “That’s the ground crew’s job.”
The pack of Alsatians? Bill thought to himself. Who better to find someone who had just parachuted into the Welsh valleys. “So, what’s the catch?”
June has been a better month, weather-wise. We’ve had some sunny days and even quite hot days, though it has been a bit mixed with chillier days in between. The schools – and nurseries – came off on Friday for the summer holidays. It doesn’t seem so long since they went back, but as they were closed January and February we were a bit short-changed this year!
What I have read
June was another not-so-good month for books. I read a couple that I didn’t hugely enjoy and so those slowed me down quite a bit.
The Fey and the Furious (Rivers of London graphic novel #8) – Ben Aaronovitch
Dark Light (Elizabeth Cage #2) – Jodi Taylor
Soulless (The Parasol Protectorate #1) – Gail Carriger
The Lost Symbol (Robert Langdon #3) – Dan Brown
The Dead Fathers Club – Matt Haig
And I’m currently reading:
The Mystery of Tully Hall – Zöe Billings
Inferno (Robert Langdon #4) – Dan Brown
What I have watched
Hollyoaks, as usual and Richard Osmond’s House of Games
I finished The Vampire Diaries and moved on to True Blood, which is making me want to read the books again (and I only finished my second read-through 2.5 years ago).
My sister and I have continued our Tuesday movie nights and watched Bring It On 4 – In it to Win it which is a cheerleading version of West Side Story which in turn is based on Romeo and Juliet. We also watched an Australian cheerleading film – Going for Gold, Disney’s The Ice Princess with Michelle Trachtenberg (also featuring Kim Cattrall, Hayden Panettiere and Joan Cusack), and lastly Full Out, a gymnastics/hip-hop movie based on the real-life story of Ariana Berlin.
The first few episodes of the new Loki tv series, imaginatively titled Loki.
What I have done
Another jigsaw – “Herstory, featuring a gallery wall image with gold foil gilded framed paintings of famous women in herstory, this jigsaw puzzle is beautifully illustrated by Ana San Jose.” Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History indeed.
We made a trip to the beach – and there was actual sunshine! – and lots of visits to parks. We did some walks as well, looking for geocaches along the way sometimes. Brodie can’t walk past trees without trying to climb them, now.
Brodie finished nursery for the year, too, see below for the difference between his first week and last week!
What I have bought
As Brodie has been getting quite into Noddy recently I bought him a couple of 80s reprints for himself – though looking inside they have been butchered more than any other reprint I’ve seen so far. I’m sure he will still enjoy them, though, and I don’t have to worry about the gollies.
So here I am sitting writing this for tomorrow when I realise that today is in fact Monday, and not Sunday. I knew that tomorrow was Tuesday but somehow that didn’t clue in to the fact that today was Monday…
Anyway, welcome to July on the blog. I have started the month on a weeks’ annual leave, though today was spent self-isolating after taking Brodie to get tested as he is full of the cold and coughing badly. Can I use that as an excuse for not knowing what day it is?
June round up
Cunningham and Petrov: The Mystery of the Missing Children chapter 14
“But where’s the caravan gone?” asked Susy-Ann, in amazement. And then suddenly she saw it!
“Look! she said. “It’s gone out to sea!”
And sure enough, floating on the water like a Noah’s Ark, there was Madame Clara’s adventurous caravan!
Thankfully Madame Clara was not aboard at the time, and the caravan was able to be rescued even if it was a bit wet and sea-weedy after. From Boys’ and Girls’ Circus Book (reprinted as Enid Blyton’s Circus Book).
Last time Bill and Allie woke up in the same bed (the scandal!) and Bill set off for another day of investigating.
Bill had studied his map well, and without fault managed to get to his first airbase of the day, outside of Abergavenny, Gwent and Powys. He arrived mid morning and stopped just short of the base to get the right identification out for inspecting the base.
With the little card ready and his gun snugly in its holster hidden under his jacket he proceeded on to Cwrt-y-gollen. He was glad he had checked the pronunciation with Effans that morning, as it turned out to be Court-y-gothlan, which was nothing like what he’d had in his head.
The owner of the airfield – a slightly larger one than some of the others he had visited – was just as polite and helpful as any of the previous ones, despite his incongruous accent, and at first Bill felt like yet again he had nothing to show for his efforts. But as he looked around he began to feel like something was ever so slightly amiss. At least two of the men there had deliberately, if discretely, avoided him as he had passed by. Now why could that be? He made noises about thinking of returning to flying, just to see what that idea shook loose.
“I’ve got no space for extra workers at the moment,” the owner said, cigarette hanging from the side of his mouth. “I got some good men with me at the moment, but my competition is fierce, gotta keep me overheads down. I’ll take a name and address off you though, in case something comes up? What experience have you had with flying freight?”
Ready for this, Bill spun a smooth set of lies about his flying experience. He could fly – both helicopters and planes – but he had never done it commercially. “This inspecting business isn’t really my thing,” he confided, though he didn’t lower his voice as he hoped that others would be listening. “A lot of driving, a lot of paperwork… the pay’s not bad, and it’s steady work, but I think I’d rather get back up in the air. I thought I could pick up the odd job here and there and see where it took me.”
“Things are tight, we have too much competition to run a big staff of pilots,” the owner confided. A few of the pilots were nearby, smoking and looking daggers at Bill, who they saw as trying to muscle in on their pitch. But two looked genuinely interested as the owner took Bill’s details and promised to let him know if he had a spot on staff come up.
Two of the men wandered over to pick up the conversation when the owner had sloped off to get a plane loaded. “You new round here?” asked one of the men, offering Bill a cigarette.
“Passing through, more or less,” Bill said, accepting a cigarette with a nod of thanks. “They send me all over, usually, but I’ll be here for a bit what with all the funny business that’s supposed to be going on.” He took a drag on the cigarette and shook his head. “Waste of my time, if you ask me. So a few helicopters have taken longer flights than they were supposed to, so what, it’s hardly a crime.”
The men shared a look through then haze of the cigarette smoke. “They send you to check up on us?” one asked with a raised eyebrow. “But I thought you said you were a pilot?”
Bill gave a casual shrug. “The Air Registration Board likes to stick its nose into every airfield’s business these days. I’ll tell you, though, I’ve just about had enough of it. When I went for the job I thought I’d be working with planes, see, not looking over flight manifestos in every airfield from Cardiff to Liverpool. I should never have given up the flying,” he said, and stubbed his almost finished cigarette against the wall in an angry gesture.
“Those guys suck,” grumbled the first man. “Sticking their noses into things where they don’t belong.” And so began a lengthy session of the three men ranting about the ARB, the police, and anyone else who tried to regulate their ability to fly freely.
“So why don’t you jack it all in with the ARB?” asked the second man after a while.
Accepting another cigarette Bill lit it and took a few drags before he spoke. “If I can get another job, you can be sure I’ll be telling them where to stick it.”
“Any job? Even under the radar?” asked the second man with sly interest.
Bill’s grin was, if he said so himself, quite wicked. “You mean get one over on the ARB before I go? Now that would be something.”
“You’d be interested then?” the first pilot asked with a slight smile. “Pay isn’t bad either!”
“How about you meet me for a pint at the pub down the road when you knock off?” Bill said, thinking it might be easier to find out what he wanted to know once the men were well-lubricated and away from the eyes and ears of the management.
The men agreed, the offer of a free pint was always welcome. “I’m Alan, by the way,” said the pilot with the scar down one cheek, just as Bill turned towards his car. “And this here’s Mike.” Bill nodded at Alan and the swarthy-looking Mike, and then walked to his car. He got in slowly and took his time to start the engine and drive off, even though he was suddenly desperate to reach a telephone.
‘This might be nothing to do with anything’, he said to himself as he drove towards Abergavenny. ‘They might be ferrying counterfeit cheese for all I know.’
He parked in the town centre and walked back to where he had seen a telephone box, as he felt he needed to phone the Cardiff police and make some enquiries about the men he had just met. After that he knew that he needed to eat some of the massive lunch that Mrs Evans had provided.
He called Inspector Morgan and briefly appraised him of the situation, careful to assert that this could well be a red herring. He wasn’t sure he believed that himself, he now had that indescribable and inexplicable feeling that he was on to something. After Morgan a description of Alan and Mike he promised to update him as soon as he knew anything, and ended the call.
On a day out recently I visited a very old and very hollow tree, and it got me thinking.
Hollow Tree House
Hollow Tree House is one of my favourite stand-alone stories by Enid Blyton. In it two children – Susan and Peter – live with their aunt and uncle. Aunt Margaret is a vicious woman who makes the children work hard around the house but never has a kind word for them. She is snappish and downright nasty to them, in fact, liable to punish them harshly for the smallest of mistakes. Although Uncle Charlie is kinder to them he is lazy and forever out of work, and slopes off to get away from his wife whenever possible.
Things come to a head when Uncle Charlie leaves his wife and moves away to take a job. Aunt Margaret then refuses to keep the children and they are to be put in a children’s home.
For a time they had been using the little time off they had to explore the nearby wood with their friend Angela, and had found a large hollow tree in which they made a play-house so they make their plans and run away to live there for good.
In front of them was one of the biggest trees they had ever seen!
“It’s an oak-tree,” said Peter. “An enormous old oak-tree – hundreds of years old, I should think. Look at its great trunk – twenty people could stand inside it, easily!”
It certainly was a strange old tree. Its trunk was enormous and the tree itself rose tall and sturdy. But some of its branches were dead. The tree was so old it was dying bit by bit.
Really, twenty people inside a tree? I’ll put this one down to Peter exaggerating in his excitement.
I mean, I love it – that cosy little house inside the hollow tree with all its home comforts:
They found a little woody shelf sticking out from one side of the tree-trunk, and they decided to make it their mantlepiece.
Angela had brought a little wooden candlestick and they put the candle into it, and then balanced it carefully on the rough little “shelf”.
But I struggled to picture a tree truly big enough to be a whole room – big enough for three children – when hollowed out. I’ve seen large trees right enough, they just never seemed large enough – until recently.
It also doesn’t help that the internal illustrations have a tree that just doesn’t look big enough. It’s hard to show a tree large enough close, up, though. I had that problem when trying to take photos of the Birnam Oak – it’s so big that you have to go quite far back to see it properly! I imagine Elizabeth Wall (the original illustrator) couldn’t show the children in detail and get an enormous tree in at the right scale at the same time.
As you can see below the tree is not wide enough across for the children to lie down – but drawn much bigger and it would have taken up the whole page.
As shown above the second edition dustjacket does a better job of conveying the side of the tree, making it squatter but wider while the Armada version goes for a tree that although old is very narrow at the bottom.
Hollow Tree – a reality
The hollow tree I found (not by accident, it’s well signposted, and even has a Tripadvisor page!) is in Birnam, which is part of Dunkeld and Birnam, Perthshire.
It is called The Birnam Oak and along with a nearby sycamore – the aptly named Birman Sycamore – is thought to be the last tree still standing from an old forest which appeared in Macbeth – yes, Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Although the tree wouldn’t have been around in Macbeth’s time it is thought to have been there when Shakespeare supposedly visited Perthshire in 1589. If you do your maths that makes it at least 432 years old now. Given its size, however – a whopping seven metres (24 feet) around the trunk – it’s more likely that it is around 600 years old, meaning it was already a mature tree in Shakespeare’s day.
The hollow portion of the tree is accessed through a large opening in the lower part of the trunk, rather than having to drop in from the top – but inside there is around 3 metres (10ft) of clearance which really makes it feel like a room you could camp in. I expect a couple of fully-grown adults could lie out on the floor fairly comfortably.
He climbed higher still. When he next looked down he gave a cry of surprise. He could see right down into the hollow trunk of the great tree! It had rotted away through many long years, and now the old tree was really nothing but a dying shell, still putting out leaves on its many great boughs – but fewer and fewer each year.
Just like the fictional Hollow Tree House despite missing a significant portion of its trunk the Birnam Oak is still alive – as you can see from the photos it was in leaf when we visited it. It does, however, have its lower branches propped up with wooden stilts to protect them from breaking under their own weight.
Below is the photo with Brodie inside the tree – he’s about 3.5 feet (105cm) tall for scale!
How to find this hollow tree
The Birnam Oak is very easy to find as there are signposts through the wood leading you straight to it – some have humorous messages like It’s not me – I’m a sycamore which is placed in front of what you would think was a very large and old tree until you see the real thing.
The easiest place to start – the one with the shortest distance to walk – would be from out front of the Birnam Arts which houses their Beatrix Potter museum (and a nice café). The Beatrix Potter garden there is worth a look, too, it has statues of several of the characters from her books. There’s plenty of parking available at the art centre, too.
Directly across the road is Oak Road, a narrow road running between the Birnam Hotel and the Birnam Village Shop. Following this down the side of the hotel the path curves to the right and past a playpark before you enter the woods. From there its just a matter of following the signs!
Or if you’re looking for a longer walk there’s this Walk Highlands route which starts in Dunkeld and takes you through Birnam before coming back along the banks of the Tay to Dunkeld again.
Whatever route you take the tree is well worth a visit. You could even bring a torch and sit inside (I know a candle would be more authentic but there’s already been a fire inside the tree and it’s not worth the risk of another one!) for a while and pretend to be Peter, Susan or Angela.
I completely failed to post my Hollow Tree House blog yesterday – and in fact when I went to check what had happened later in the day I realised I hadn’t even finished it! (It’s not good to publish posts which still say [Add quotes from book here].)
I will make sure I actually finish it for this week, though.
Hollow Tree House – the reality
Cunningham and Petrov: The Mystery of the Missing Children chapter 13
Nora and Peggy were picking the wild strawberries on the island. Certainly the patch Nora had found was a wonderful one. Deep red strawberries glowed everywhere among the pretty leaves, and some of the berries were as big as garden ones.
Wild strawberries were just one of the bounties to be found on the Secret Island. We found wild strawberries yesterday but they were all small ones (that didn’t stop Brodie eating them by the dozen of course!)
Last time Bill returned from his first day of investigating and comforted Allie.
Allie stirred the next morning, and was surprised to feel something warm and breathing beside her. She opened her eyes and allowed herself a small smile and buried herself a little closer to him, enjoying the feeling of being close to someone. She hadn’t been close in bed with anyone since her husband died and it felt nice.
Bill lifted an arm and draped it over her, a small hum of contentment escaping his lips. He pressed himself closer to her, too, and then as he woke more fully he realised that things were starting to veer towards the exact impropriety he had been trying to avoid. The sun was creeping around the curtains enough that he knew it wasn’t particularly early, so he cleared his throat noisily as he carefully put a little space between them again.
Allie stretched out, and rolled over, “Bill?” she blinked sleepily, reaching over to him.
“Who else were you expecting to find in your bed?” he asked with a laugh.
“I thought you’d slip back to your room,” she murmured. She sat up a little. “Did you get any sleep? I didn’t many your arm go numb did I?”
“Well, I did plan to,” he admitted, answering her first question first. “But I fell asleep and I slept quite soundly, I think.” He lifted his arm and tested it out. “No, I can still feel it. I don’t think you were lying on it all night.”
Allie smiled shyly and reached for her dressing gown, making a move to start getting dressed. “I hope you don’t think I was too forward asking you to be here last night?”
“No, I think that your reputation is still intact,” he assured her with a smile. “I didn’t mind.” He got up and retrieved his shoes. “I’ll see you at breakfast.” He returned to his own room where he quickly messed up the bed to make it look slept in and then went to the little bathroom to wash and shave before dressing in fresh clothes for breakfast.
Breakfast was plentiful and fresh like every other morning, and Mrs Evans catered for the masses, even if she was only feeding two. Bill was down first and was swotting up on his map, having skimmed the morning papers before Allie came down, clean and presentable as always. He winked at her as she set down and Mrs Evans bustled in to see if Allie wanted a cooked breakfast and what the plan was for Bill today.
There had been nothing in the papers about the children – not that he expected there to be, he had kept it quiet – and nothing about any funny business with helicopters. Newspapers, as a general rule, didn’t arrive at the farm until later in the day or sometimes later in the week, as they came whenever there were other things to be delivered, or Effans made a trip down into Merthyr. However Bill liked to keep up to date with current events, and had asked for the local paper as well as one or two national ones to be delivered daily, in the morning, at no little cost.
He was gratified to see that Allie accepted Mrs Evans’ offer of a cooked breakfast. “Not a big one,” she added, though it would be a hopeless request.
Mrs Evans then dished up what she clearly considered to be a dainty breakfast, there being only two sausages, two eggs, two slices of toast and so on.
Allie smiled wryly at Bill as he lit his pipe. “Small isn’t a word Mrs Evans knows is it?” she said with an understanding smile. She felt that Mrs Evans was very kind but wished she didn’t have to serve up such big portions.
He smiled back in a conspiratorial way. “Apparently not.” He wanted to add that she could probably do with eating a good meal but thought it wouldn’t be wise, it would probably out her off eating more than anything. “I’d offer to take some of that for my lunch but I think she’s already filled a basket for me.”
“She was very worried when you left your lunch yesterday, she wouldn’t stop wringing her hands,” Allie teased him gently. “She’s probably wanting to make sure you have enough food today!”
“She probably thought I would starve to death,” he joked, folding the map and tucking it into his pocket. “Anyway, I’d best be off. I’ve got a fair bit of ground to cover today.”
Allie nodded and swallowed her mouthful of food. “Take care,” she said as he lent over to kiss her. “And good luck!”
Bill grabbed the basket Mrs Evans was preparing for him and made a hasty exit, calling a thank you over his shoulder before she could put anything else in. It weighed a ton already. He slung the basket onto the passenger seat and carefully drove down the rutted farm road towards the bigger road that connected Merthyr in the south to the towns and villages on the other side of the Brecons. Instead of turning towards Merthyr today, he turned northwards, in the direction of Abergavenny.
I’m sure that few Enid Blyton fans have missed the furore over the past week about English Heritage’s website update regarding Enid Blyton. I have seen countless online newspaper articles, individual’s posts and comments and it’s on a couple of forums I frequent, too.
Has Blyton been cancelled?
Well, if you read some of the headlines – and the commentaries that go with them on social media – you’d believe that yes, Blyton was being cancelled and her blue plaque removed (She actually has several blue plaques that I’m aware of but it seems only one was placed by English Heritage).
Have a look at these two Facebook posts, from the Daily Express and Daily Mail, respectively. While both, I suspect, are employing hyperbole (the first with Five Get Cancelled is obviously a joke on some level), these are just two examples I could find doing a quick search on Facebook. I saw dozens of posts like like these last week, some using careful language about English Heritage reviewing blue plaques to suggest that Blyton’s might be removed.
(Incidentally the Daily Express article has inexplicably chosen an illustration from the Ruth Palmer cover of First Term at Malory Towers to go along with their Famous Five-based joke.)
What these posts have done is whipped up a massive defence of Blyton. While that’s not a bad thing in itself, I mean, I frequently defend her myself, these comments seem to use words like woke and snowflake in every other sentence, along with cries of I read Blyton’s books and I didn’t turn out to be a racist.
I’m normally proud to be a part of the world-wide Enid Blyton fan club. But this week… I can’t help feeling that people are missing the point.
an on-going programme of updating the online entry for each blue plaque recipient… includ[ing] actor and playwright Noël Coward and the social reformer Annie Besant. Our website entries aim to provide a fuller picture of each person’s life, including aspects that people may find troubling.
Without having seen the original versions of these pages it’s hard to know what has been added. Noel Coward’s page doesn’t contain anything critical but Annie Besant’s page does call her controversial and talks about her stance on birth control and abortion – along with a quote that more or less accuses her of supporting eugenics.
Last week it was Blyton’s turn, and they added two paragraphs under the heading Racism in Blyton’s work. Those paragraphs are as follows:
Blyton’s work has been criticised during her lifetime and after for its racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit. A 1966 Guardian article noted the racism of The Little Black Doll (1966), in which the doll of the title, Sambo, is only accepted by his owner once his ‘ugly black face’ is washed ‘clean’ by rain. In 1960 the publisher Macmillan refused to publish her story The Mystery That Never Was for what it called its ‘faint but unattractive touch of old-fashioned xenophobia’. The book, however, was later published by William Collins.
In 2016, Blyton was rejected by the Royal Mint for commemoration on a 50p coin because, the advisory committee minutes record, she was ‘a racist, sexist, homophobe and not a very well-regarded writer’. Others have argued that while these charges can’t be dismissed, her work still played a vital role in encouraging a generation of children to read.
They have also made it clear that they are not removing anyone’s plaques.
Are English Heritage the bad guys?
I’ll admit – I wish that English Heritage had done this a little differently. Blyton only has a short bio as it is (425 words) and now around a third (130 words) are negative.
Annie Besant, arguably a more complicated character, has just over 800 words. The majority is in very neutral language – including the controversies, with just a few phrases identifying her as controversial.
The addition of two critical paragraphs to Blyton’s page is clumsy, I think. To give a page with only two previous headings (The foundations of my success, and Early Inspiration) a third which is Racism in Blyton’s Work gives an undue level of prominence to the criticism in that final section. Blyton had a phenomenal writing career, multiple TV adaptations of her work, headed up dozens of charities, wrote teaching guides, poetry, songs and stories and is still relevant today, not that you’d know that from what English Heritage has to say about her. I think I’d find their page lacking even without the last two paragraphs.
To be clear, I’m not saying this information shouldn’t have been included – I actually think there is nothing wrong with highlighting the problematic areas of Blyton’s writing.
I think that what English Heritage wrote is fair. They do not actually call Blyton racist or xenophobic themselves, instead they quote from other sources who have made those criticism. Of course by repeating them the way they have they imply that these are not unfounded criticisms and are criticisms that are accepted by English Heritage.
The last sentence Others have argued that while these charges can’t be dismissed, her work still played a vital role in encouraging a generation of children to read clearly attempts to balance out the criticism but it’s rather weak for me.
Over all, though, I have no issue with this information being included. I also don’t object to minor updates to the books to make remove offensive content where race is concerned. I think that allowing children of colour to pick up a book and read it without seeing a racist caricature of themselves, however innocently meant, is more important than preserving the original language and illustrations in perpetuity. (Obviously the vast majority of updates to Blytons’ books don’t fall into that category and remain frustrating and pointless).
I also don’t think there’s anything to gain by pretending that these problematic bits don’t exist, or that any and all objections are unfounded.
So, was Enid Blyton a racist?
Enid Blyton is not here today to defend herself or to tell us what she was thinking when she wrote her books.
What we do know is that she valued her child readers all around the world and made mention of this many times in her magazines.
We know that she included positive (if sometimes stereotypical) characters of colour in her books.
We know that she used popular toys of the day which included Golliwogs.
So was she racist? Well, of course I prefer to think that she wasn’t – not really. I think that she was a product of her time. She lived in an era when Britain dominated a significant proportion of the world with colonies were spread across the globe, a fact that made it easy for white British people have a false sense of superiority over people from other countries.
Blyton subscribed to this belief at least on some level, there is a divide in expected behaviours between her English school girls and teachers compared to her French ones (the three Mam’zelles between Malory Tower and St Clare’s, Antoinette and Claudine from St Clare’s), the Americans (The Hennings in Five Go to Finniston Farm and Zerelda Brass from Malory Towers) and the Spanish (Carlotta Brown from St Clare’s), and some of these young women did buck up and learn to behave in accordance with British expectations. I never sensed any malice with these scenarios, however. Blyton certainly shows none of the attitudes unfortunately prevalent today about immigrants taking British jobs and houses, or being benefit scroungers.
However she did use the fact that a person could look suspicious purely because they were foreign and her baddies were, on several occasions, swarthy. (As a child I didn’t know what that word meant and assumed it to mean well-built). Given the various wars that Britain was involved in in the periods before and during Blyton’s life foreigners were often given a second look.
This is something that hasn’t gone away even now. It’s disheartening to read that Chinese (and other Asian people) are being abused in the streets because of Coronavirus, or that Muslim communities are attacked for the actions of a militant minority. We shouldn’t be defending these attitudes, and I don’t object to reprints phasing out the more obvious xenophobia that appears, but some understanding of the period of Blyton’s writing is needed.
Blyton is not being cancelled. A large number of her books are still in print and her multiple blue plaques are still in place. English Heritage have not suggested that reading Blyton books causes racism in readers, they’ve just acknowledged that they’re aware of the problems in her works.
I don’t think there’s any point in trying to cancel English Heritage and all the good work they do by refusing to renew or take out a membership over this. (It’s ironic that those who bemoan cancel culture are so quick to try to cancel the perceived offenders).
I won’t go into a lengthy story here but Brodie has started to take an interest in both Noddy stories and Amelia Jane stories (which he calls the naughty stories) and I’ve felt far more uncomfortable than I expected reading them to him from the original texts – primarily because of the gollies. I doubt that Blyton meant any offense with those, she perceived them to simply be beloved nursery toys, but today, I just can’t do it.
But it means that I’m feeling more aware of the problematic bits of Blyton’s writings which is probably why I’m taking a middle road here. I can see faults on both sides, but I will defend both Blyton and English Heritage as their positives outweigh their mistakes.
In defence of woke
This isn’t directly related to the situation above, but it’s something related that I felt I just had to say.
I despise the word woke used as an insult and the number of times I’ve seen it in response to English Heritage really frustrates me. Knowing better and doing better are never bad things. Being considerate of others – especially minorities who are striving for equality – is never a bad thing. Being woke is not a bad thing.
The idea of being woke, or awakened potentially goes as far back as Abraham Lincoln, when the phrase wide awake was used by those who opposed slavery.
From what I’ve read the first uses of woke specifically were by African-Americans as they talked about the prejudices they faced, but now it has developed a more general meaning of being aware of any sort of prejudice or inequality. By that standard the Suffragettes were woke and Martin Luthor King was definitely woke.
If the these people were woke, then I’m ok with being woke too.
In a similar vein snowflake, cancel culture, PC brigade and political correctness are just words and phrases used to try to shut down debate. 1900s equivalents were shouted at Emmeline Pankurst – the term Suffragette was actually a slur based on the original name Suffragist! – so it’s a good thing that those brave women didn’t listen.
Please keep any comments civil – I’ve made my feelings on words like woke perfectly clear and I will remove any comments where they are used as insults.
I’m sure none of you have missed the furore over what English Heritage said about Blyton this week, but I thought I would express my thoughts on it this week anyway, which means it’s going to be a bumper week here with three posts.
English Heritage vs Enid Blyton,
Cunningham and Petrov: The Mystery of the Missing Children chapter 12
Hollow Tree House – a reality
A classic from Eileen Soper, my favourite Blyton illustrator, for the first illustration of the week. This one is from Five on a Treasure Island. I love how she has captured George’s haughty face and stiff walk, as well as the surprise on the other three’s faces.
Last time Bill visited a couple of airstrips, looking for evidence of any funny goings on that might be related to the mysterious helicopter that the children saw.
Mrs Evans was still talking as Bill was beginning to eat when Allie appeared from the living room. “Hello, Bill,” she said, sitting down opposite him. She was ringing her hands and looked very tired. “Did you find anything?”
Mrs Evans gave the counter top one last wipe with a cloth then quietly left them to it. Bill swallowed a mouthful of the soup Mrs Evans had made with what had been left of the ham. There were a couple of thick slices of bread, thickly spread with butter on the plate beside his bowl, but he refrained from picking it up. It was hard to have a serious conversation with your mouth full of bread.
“Not today, I’m afraid,” he said. “I visited bunch of airfields. It’s mind-boggling how many there are around this area, most doomed to failure without a doubt. All I found out was the same things I already knew.”
Allie sighed and flexed her good hand again. “How many airfields have you got left?” she asked, trying to refrain from nagging him for not trying harder. She knew he was trying his best and he was on his own without his team of agents and he was one man.
“Two or three which are at the top of my list, and then there are quite a lot further afield,” he said. “I’ll be heading to the north-east tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll have more luck. If not, I’ll have to pull some strings and bring in back-up.”
“Will you be allowed back-up?” she asked hopefully. “I’m so worried about the children, Bill. Do you think they are all right?” she was a strong and independent woman who didn’t like to show weakness but she wasn’t sleeping well with her hurt wrist as she couldn’t get comfortable, so she was more fraught and tired than usual. She was grateful for Bill and his hard work but she wanted her children back where she could keep an eye on them.
“They’ve survived worse,” he said, with slightly false cheeriness. “I imagine whatever is going on in that mountain, they don’t want the children running off and telling tales. They’ll be being held somewhere to keep them out of the way, and I wouldn’t even be surprised if they are released before I get to them. The folk in there may know that someone’s on to them by now and be planning to move on already.”
“You don’t think they will hurt them, then?” Allie voiced her concern, she was aware that the men her children ended getting into trouble with.
Bill lowered a spoonful of soup. “They’re just kids, Allie. It takes a special kind of monster to hurt children, and I don’t think that’s what we’re dealing with here. I’m not saying that one of the boys isn’t going to get a smack for mouthing off, or that they’ll be kept in five-star luxury, but I don’t think they’ll come to any serious harm.”
“Why don’t you go up and get ready for bed? You look exhausted. I’m going to eat this and then head to bed myself.”
“I couldn’t sleep, even if I wanted to,” she said tiredly. “And this wrist means I can’t get comfortable,” she added, almost in tears.
“I’ve got some pills in my case that might help. I always carry them in case of emergency,” he said, wishing he’d thought of that before. “They’ll help with the pain and hopefully knock you out a bit. So on you go, upstairs,” he said firmly. “I’m not fussing, I’m bossing,” he added at her look.
“Same thing,” she shot back, a little feistily. She still got to her feet and stifled a yawn. “Will you be long?”
“Not unless Mrs Evans forces other courses on me,” he said, making a weak joke. Mrs Evans did in fact try to make him have more soup and a dessert but he was firm in his refusal, stating that he needed to get to bed – as did she, as she would be rising with the dawn to see to the farm. He made his escape from her and hurried upstairs to his room where he rifled through his suitcase for the little bottle of pills. With those in his hand he went back into the hall and knocked lightly on Allie’s door.
“Come in, Bill,” Allie’s voice called from behind the door. Her voice sounded thick and muffled as if she had been crying. She was sat on the edge of her bed in her night things and a dressing gown, face in a tissue as Bill entered. She looked a little sheepish that he had caught her in a moment of weakness.
He cleared his throat awkwardly. As often as he wished he could avoid Allie when she was furious with him he could deal with her then, he could take her anger. Her tears were another matter. “I brought you the pills,” he said. He fetched a glass from the dresser and poured water into it from the pitcher there, then handed her the glass and one pill.
She nodded and put the pill in her mouth and then took a drink of water. “Thank you, Bill,” she said quietly. “I don’t know what’s got into me, I’m just dreadfully worried about the children and I’m being perfectly rotten to you, aren’t I? Especially when you are doing such a wonderful job trying to find them.”
Bill put the glass on the bedside table where she would be able to reach it later, then sat on the bed beside her. “I wish there was more I could do,” he said. “I don’t like to think of them, trapped in that mountain. I know they’ll be putting a brave face on, but they can’t be having a good time. I can’t imagine how it feels for you.”
“I don’t know that I would be able to put into words how I’m feeling right now,” Allie admitted. She wrapped her dressing gown up as tight as she could with her good hand. “I’m just sick to death with worry and keep thinking that I will never see them again!”
A joke about bad pennies and always turning up was on the tip of his tongue but he swallowed the words. “You should try to get some sleep. Hopefully tomorrow will bring better news.”
Allie swallowed and nodded. “Yes that will help.” She paused, reached for Bill’s hand and asked, “Will you stay close?”
It wasn’t how he had imagined that she might first invite him into her bed, but he understood her not wanting to be alone. Reaching over, he quickly untied his shoe-laces and eased his feet free. He waited as Allie carefully moved under the covers, her dressing gown being tossed out to land on the chair by the bed, but when she lifted the covers for him he shook his head and patted them down. He lay on top of the covers and put his arm around her so that her head rested on his shoulder. “Wouldn’t want anyone to think there was any sort of impropriety going on,” he said gruffly.
She giggled a little, “I’m sure Mrs Evans will be very disapproving in the morning.” She nestled into him and closed her eyes as she breathed in his smell. She felt calmer as she lay next to him. She hadn’t wanted to admit it, but his absence had been part of what was making her jumpy. She hated him being gone so long.
Privately, Bill had planned to return to his room after Allie fell asleep. If the pill she had taken hit her like he thought it would, she would be deeply asleep within fifteen minutes and would be unlikely to stir until morning. However, with his arm under her he would have to do some manoeuvring to free himself. Perhaps he would just sleep where he was, and sneak back to his room in the morning. He doubted he would wake before Mrs Evans rose at dawn, but it wouldn’t be too hard to return to his room before she announced breakfast. The feeling of Allie in his arms had nothing to do with his decision, of course. It was merely the practicalities of not disturbing her, even though she’d be in a drug-induced slumber.
“Mr Cunningham, in your bed, look you,” he murmured in a poor attempt at a Welsh accent, and heard a sleepy laugh from Allie before her breathing grew deep and slow and he knew she’d fallen asleep.
Stef and I have both reviewed the first Laura Marlin mystery: Dead Man’s Cove. I borrowed the second book in the series, Kidnap in the Caribbean, ages ago and have finally read it so I thought I would review it as well.
A reminder of the first book
Honestly, I can’t remember much about the first book, but then I have a terrible memory when it comes to books. I can read the same who-done-it several times as long as it’s a few years apart and still not remember who done it.
What I do remember (reading my review helped…) is that Laura Marlin is an orphan who was living in an orphanage until she was sent to live with her uncle Calvin Redfern who lives in Cornwall.
Calvin turns out to be a rather mysterious person who says he works for the fisheries department, investigating fishermen who over fish etc, but Laura soon works out that there is more to his job and life than he lets on.
She makes friends with Tariq who is also an orphan, though at first he is living with two people who claim to be his parents. They are in fact entirely unrelated to him, and have bought him as a slave as he is skilled in tapestry making. These people then get involved with the Straight As gang who Laura, Tariq and Calvin are working against, and as the story has a happy ending Tariq is freed from his slavery and he ends up being fostered by a nice couple in St Ives. (I had to look through the first book to check most of those details…) Laura also ends up with a three-legged husky called Skye.
And so for their second adventure
Under slightly strange circumstances Laura has won a cruise for two to the Caribbean and after some hard work persuading her uncle that is is a good idea, the two pack their suitcases. Tariq and Skye come along to say goodbye, and after having a sneaky tour of the ship end up accidentally staying on board when the ship sets sail!
This would be a big enough problem to deal with if Uncle Calvin could help them, but he can’t as he somehow fell down the stairs on board and is laid up in his cabin on strong pain medication.
Kidnappers in the Caribbean
Laura, Tariq and Skye manage to look after themselves for a few days on board the cruise ship. They avail themselves of the many kinds of entertainment and of the food, of course.
There is the slight worry that Uncle Calvin thought Laura had been sneaking around his room in the night, but she knows it wasn’t her, so who was it? And there’s some hooks at the side of the stairs Uncle Calvin fell down, but no carpet or anything loose he could have tripped over.
Then a group of actors, performing as pirates, board the Ocean Empress and Laura thinks they were serious about stuffing her into a chest, though she’s rescued by Tariq However, that’s not the kidnap that the book’s title refers to.
In fact it’s ambiguous, as there are two kidnaps that occur. First Uncle Calvin disappears – and all his belongings, too, and worse the ship’s staff refuse to believe he was even there as they’ve never seen him!
So when a flashy couple board the ship and announce themselves as Laura and Tariq’s parents, the ship’s staff easily believe them. Especially as the cabins were booked by the couple’s travel company. Laura and Tariq are then rather stuck. Do they insist they’ve never met these people in their lives, and hope the ship staff believe them – but then that leaves them accused of being illegal stowaways. Or do they go with their false parents to get off the ship, and hope to find Uncle Calvin?
I think you can guess what they do.
Kidnap on the Caribbean Ship of Adventure
I found some similarities between this book and The Ship of Adventure. Nothing major, but just a couple of parallels that could be drawn.
First up is the fact that Skye and Tariq shouldn’t be on board at all. But with the help of a few kindle staff members, their needs are taken care of. Tariq is safe to wander the ship, but Skye needs food brought to the cabin and a way of exercising. This is not dissimilar to the fact that Kiki, and later Mikey, should not be on the Viking Star, yet the steward and stewardess for the children’s cabins keep their secret.
Then there’s Jimmy. In The Ship of Adventure the children get stuck with Lucian as they’re the only children of a similar age on the ship. They don’t particularly like him but they mostly tolerate him. They very much dislike his uncle, though.
Laura and Tariq get saddle with Jimmy, who although is loud and overconfident compared to Lucian’s gawky awkwardness, is still a bit of an unwelcome addition. His parents are similarly loud and annoying. The difference here is that Jimmy is putting on a front and becomes more likeable as the book goes on.
I don’t think this was as good as the first in the series but I still enjoyed it.
The plot can be a bit silly at times – the free holiday and everything that happens after at was a carefully orchestrated plan by the baddies, which relied on so so many things going exactly to plan, so it’s all a bit over the top. (For example if Uncle Calvin had refused the holiday, or agreed to see the ship’s doctor after his fall it would all have fallen apart.)
The portion on the ship was probably best, I enjoyed as the tension slowly rose with every strange occurrence, though it was nicely interspersed with some lighter moments.
What happens after they leave the ship isn’t necessarily bad – there’s an escape, some hiding out and the oft-used breaking into the dangerous place in order to affect a rescue. The end scenes resemble a children’s version of a particularly cheesy Bond-movie, down to the threat of poisonous sea snails, plus the bumbling presence of Jimmy and his family, but it’s still fun all the same.
This is worth reading if you’ve already started the series (though I wouldn’t start with it) and I plan to continue with the Laura Marlin Mysteries.
We are halfway through June now which in Scotland means the schools come off for the summer holidays in two weeks. The weather now actually resembles summer at least some of the time, which is a good sign.
If you like Blyton: Kidnap in the Caribbean by Lauren St John
Cunningham and Petrov: The Mystery of the Missing Children chapter 11
This week I’m taking the opportunity to promote a new book – one inspired by Blyton rather than written by Blyton.
The Mystery of Tully Hall is a children’s mystery/adventure story written by Zöe Billings who is a big Enid Blyton fan. Set in Wales it features four children who go up against a dangerous band of antiques thieves at the rambling Tully Hall.
It just came out last month (on Amazon) but I read it in draft form a few years ago. I plan to reread it and review it soon.
Last time Bill travelled down to Cardiff to meet with an inspector about the suspicious helicopter activity.
The next morning, Bill set out in his car to the first airstrip on his list to do some investigations into the helicopters’ origins. He had got back from Cardiff late last night and had filled a worried Allie in with everything he had found out the day before. She had been disappointed that he hadn’t yet found the children but appreciated his progress. She let him go the next day looking brave but forlorn, hoping that he would have some luck today.
He drove down to Merthyr, already feeling fed up of what had seemed a quaint little town just the week before, and then took the road to the east, which ran somewhat parallel to the road to the Evans’ farm, but continued much further North on the other side of a ridge of mountains. This road took him up to Sennybridge in under an hour, the location of an RAF airfield in the later war years. Wales was dotted with these abandoned airfields, most of which only operated for two or three years at most. Several, according to the files he had read in Inspector Morgan’s office, had been taken over by various enterprising folk who were trying to make a living out of ferrying goods and passengers by light aircraft or helicopter, whilst a few others were now private and for the use of an individual or business.
The base at Sennybridge didn’t turn out to be anything to do with the mountain. The chaps there were simply flying cargo between Wales and Ireland. Posing as an inspector from the Air Registration Board, Bill checked their paper work and work practices. He allowed them an hour of his time to prove his legitimacy and make sure that he wasn’t dismissing the airstrip out of hand. He got back in his car and looked at his list of airstrips and chose to head north to Llandovery and search there.
Llandovery had reported one or two of the discrepancies which had been flagged up when the Cardiff police had been contacting airfields to ask about such things. They had kept meticulous records, detailing the air-planes and other aircraft which had used their airfield, most of which were not owned or employed by the business itself. As the owner, an older man with a shock of white hair, explained, anyone could request a ‘runway slot’ in advance and land there. Of course they checked licences and so on, and everything checked out, apart from one or two flight plans that didn’t match with the times the helicopters had been gone for. As they weren’t paying the pilots or hiring the equipment they hadn’t thought anything of it. The beauty of helicopters, after all, was you could land them just about anywhere as long as it was a wide open space. If someone was behaving criminally, they’d hardly be likely to file flight plans and land at an established airfield.
Bill wasn’t so sure he agreed. The airfields were a good way to make an operation look legitimate, plus you could hardly refuel a helicopter at a roadside petrol station. Helicopters taking off and landing in fields would be highly noticeable to anyone within a mile or two.
He made some notes anyway, and thanked the owner for his time. After that he decided to head back south. There were other airfields further north and east but none had reported anything amiss, and most were at the farther edges of what was likely for a helicopter return trip. He couldn’t rule them out entirely but he liked his plan of starting in the centre and working out in increasing circles. That took him back towards Cardiff, but near enough to Merthyr to be able to head home whenever he was ready. He realised fairly quickly that he was unlikely to have any luck in the Cardiff area. The two airfields there, private ones this time, were much more professional affairs, and had been established businesses before the Second World War.
Still, he went through the motions of his false role and spent some time chatting with employees of both businesses. As the afternoon shadows grew long Bill decided that it was time to call it quits for the day and inform Allie of what little progress he has made. He knew she wouldn’t be happy but there was only so much one man could do on his own. Yawning he drove back to the Evans farm, hoping that there would be a decent meal to be had when he got in.
Mrs Evans began fussing around him as soon as he walked in the door. “You’ve been out all day, look you,” she said, ushering him into a chair at the well-scrubbed kitchen table. “And you didn’t even take the lunch I made up for you!”
“Oh… I got some lunch from a little place near Llandovery,” he said. “You needn’t worry about me. I’m sorry about forgetting your lunch, though. I hope it didn’t go to waste.”
Mrs Evans sniffed, putting a pot of something onto the top of the range to heat up. “No, that it didn’t. I made sure we ate it with our lunch, not that poor Mrs Mannering really touched anything I put in front of her. It was a fine ham, too, and the bread was baked fresh yesterday evening. The raspberries were picked this morning, and the cream made fresh, too.”
Bill let her chatter wash over him as she expounded the fresh quality of all the things she had tried to tempt Allie with at lunch time and again for dinner. He would need to speak to Allie again, before he turned in.