As you can see this week I decided to read Five Go Parenting. You might be wondering why given my scathing review of the only other one I’ve read before now (namely Five On a Strategy Away Day). But, this and a few others, also unread, have been sitting on a shelf in my hall for at least four years now. I knew it would be a short read and something to review, so I braved it.
Stef has already reviewed it, and reasonably favourably. So let’s see what I thought.
The basic plot
The Five have apprehended Cousin Rupert once more, and his wife this time. They are sitting smugly afterwards when Wendy, from social services, drops by and persuades them to take in Rupert’s baby daughter Lily, at least until after the trial. The rest of the book is the Five lurching from one disaster to another while taking care of Lily.
Despite being from the same author as Five on a Strategy Away Day, the Five are not the same people in this book. Thankfully, they are much nicer people. Not as nice as they were as children, but they are not bitter, jaded or drunk at least. I wondered if this had been written after Strategy Away Day, and feedback had come in that the Five were too unlikeable, but it’s the other way around. Parenting was published later, so if it was too do with feedback it must have been that the Five were a too nice and bland.
The Five are all clearly good people in this book, as they take in Lily and all genuinely try their best to look after her. However, they seem to have lost most of their personalities somewhere between 1963 and 2016. The Five are now watered-down versions of themselves. Julian is not at all bossy or confident. George is not sulky, or prone to fits of temper. Anne is no more maternal or housewife-like than the rest of them, and Timmy just happens to be in the room most of the time. Dick is the only one who has retained any sense of self – he’s still the cheerful, joking one. He is, though, the one who screams – and yes I mean screams out loud (the phrase is screamed like he had never screamed before) when he sees Lily and realises what Wendy is asking of them. Which is not really like Dick, not really a normal human response, and isn’t at all funny either.
The Five do OK at the parenting. It’s hard, the housework slides, they spend too much on a fancy pram, but they keep Lily alive and well for several weeks so they do about as well as most new parents.
It all just falls a bit flat, for me. I’ve been there – the sleepless nights, the exploding nappy disasters, the moments when you think they’re going to cry for ever more. I’ve talked to other parents about it, and read blogs, articles and books, and watched TV programmes where the main joke is how hard parenting is. Some of these conversations, blogs, books, programmes etc are really, really funny. This book is not.
I don’t know if Bruno Vincent has kids, but I rather suspect not. The book reads like he has visited the big tell-it-like-it-is parenting blogs (I follow a few, and I love them) or perhaps Mumsnet and written a long list common themes like:
Lots of people asking – Why won’t my baby stop crying?
Nappy changing disasters – poo everywhere (check how far baby poo can realistically be fired)
Parents take it in shifts to sleep
Everyone’s got baby sick down themselves because they’re too tired or busy to change
Haha, some of these parents are really snobby about wooden toys
People really start obsessively applying for schools before their child turns one?
Mums get really mad when dads try to sneak off to the pub
Sling-wearing is really popular now, everyone recommends doing it while doing the housework or anything else that needs done…
Neurotic parents panic at the slightest thing like baby going red while crying
Posh mummy vs slummy mummy cliques
Everyone seems to have a Sophie the Giraffe
And so on, then just crammed them all in. Now all of these are true. But they are also only funny if you know enough about them to make it seem real. Nothing the Five do or experience is wrong, it’s just really flat. I mean it helps that there are four adults tag-teaming, but even without that nothing that happens has the same impact as when reading a mummy-blogger rage posting about her little devil of a child.
Similarly there are references to Ubers and so on which seem added purely to look incongruous to the original setting.
There are at least two ways this book could have made itself funnier.
Firstly, the book entirely misses an opportunity for an actually funny joke. Dick and George are persuaded into looking at the prams beyond the cheap-and-basic ones, and Dick settles on a BabyCrooz Metro-Glider. It folds itself up at the press of a button, has a phone charger and running lights, and an LCD display that shows you your step count and calorie burn. Now I’d buy it for the steps and calories alone, but that’s not the point. Later in the book Dick and Julian join a dads’ class at the park and end up haring around trying to keep up. By the End Dick is bent double, leaning heavily on the buggy, his chest on fire, sweat dripping from his chin. Now surely that’s the prime opportunity for him to look at the calorie display and have it tell him he’s burned something ludicrously low, like 50 calories – enough for one Jaffa cake. Instead the fact the pram has counted his steps and calories isn’t even mentioned.
Secondly, there was an opportunity to poke gentle fun at the four humans’ personalities. If I had written it I would have had Anne be the keenest to take Lily in, full of confidence that she could manage it (at least mostly) by herself. “I’ve been training myself to be the perfect wife and mother since I was eight, you know.” But of course it would be a lot harder than she thought, and so the others would step in to help. Julian would insist on a strict set of rules (a Gina Ford-type routine) as “You’ve got to show them who’s boss.” Dick would be the opposite and insist Anne just needed to relax, as babies can tell when you’re stressed. And George might say that Lily was protesting at wearing pink, frilly dresses all the time and being gender stereotyped at such a young age.
The slightly offensive bits
Blyton gets a lot of flack for her out-dated attitudes, but there are a couple of things in this book that are surprising for 2016.
The main one is that when Dick and Julian go along to the Dads’ club Dick is absolutely desperate to work in to every conversation that he and Julian are not a couple. Now obviously, as bothers they don’t want people thinking they are a couple as that’s weird, but instead of saying they are brothers Dick just bleats on about them not being a gay couple three times in as many pages. (It later turns out that the man running the group is married to another man, so it might have been mildly funny if he had challenged Dick the first time he’d said “were’ not a gay couple”.)
Secondly, although not offensive, but just inexplicable, Rupert is released thanks to his lawyer but cannot take his child back until her mother is also released. Just why?
Also not very offensive but pointless is Dick holding a breast-pump then dropping it in horror once he realises what it is. Firstly, why would the social worker bring that from Lily’s house, as it would serve no purpose, and secondly it’s just so immature.
On one hand it’s great that they’ve used the original illustrations inside, and have had Ruth Palmer do her wonderful imitation of Eileen Soper’s work for the cover.
Unfortunately the internal illustrations are not reproduced well, they are shrunken and so much thicker and heavier and a few are covered in black flecks. What’s worse is that many of them don’t fit at all with the caption underneath, all quotes from the book. None of the pictures appear near their the pages their quotes are from and the cynic in me thinks that’s so readers hopefully forget the context. (Some examples above and below).
One example is a bit of dialogue between Dick and the dads’ club organiser, put under a picture of Mr Barling’s next door neighbour leaning on his wall, spade in hand to speak to the Five. Only Dick’s conversation occurs while they’re running with prams. It would have been easy to have that conversation, or a similar one, occur with a neighbour who wanted to offer unhelpful advice.
One which would have been funny is the one with George and Anne sneaking down some stairs in a passage captioned with Desperate not to make a noise, each footfall was a slow delicate manoeuvre, and they moved with the careful deliberation of a pair of astronauts on a moonwalk. Only in the text it’s Dick and Julian that are creeping silently through the house.
I could keep going on and on as there are many more things I could highlight in this book, but I won’t. It’s the best Famous Five for Grown Ups I’ve read, but as I’ve only read two that doesn’t say much. Best avoided. If you really want to read funny parenting stories, try Sarah Turner (The Unmumsy Mum), Kathryn Wallace (I Know, I Need to Stop Talking) or Helen Wallen (Just a Normal Mummy).