I recently returned from a family holiday in a rented cottage. A nice thing about staying in such places is poking around in the bookshelves, and having time to read random books. I ended up reading aloud to my son Five On a Secret Trail by Enid Blyton, partly for the nostalgia.
The Internet didn’t exist when I first read Enid Blyton, so I know little about her but vague memories of adventure stories. Obviously I ended up looking her up on Wikipedia, and boy, is that page a hoot.
Blyton’s work became increasingly controversial among literary critics, teachers and parents from the 1950s onwards, because of the alleged unchallenging nature of her writing and the themes of her books
This sounds like fun, and it is.
Many of her books were critically assessed by teachers and librarians, deemed unfit for children to read, and removed from syllabuses and public libraries.
From the 1930s to the 1950s the BBC operated a de facto ban on dramatising Blyton’s books for radio, considering her to be a “second-rater” whose work was without literary merit.
By now I am very much starting to like Enid Blyton. Literary critics and the BBC hate her: this is strong praise in my book.
Michael Rosen, Children’s Laureate from 2007 until 2009, wrote that “I find myself flinching at occasional bursts of snobbery and the assumed level of privilege of the children and families in the books.” The children’s author Anne Fine presented an overview of the concerns about Blyton’s work and responses to them on BBC Radio 4 in November 2008, in which she noted the “drip, drip, drip of disapproval” associated with the books.
Fred Inglis considers Blyton’s books to be technically easy to read, but to also be “emotionally and cognitively easy”. He mentions that the psychologist Michael Woods believed that Blyton was different from many other older authors writing for children in that she seemed untroubled by presenting them with a world that differed from reality. Woods surmised that Blyton “was a child, she thought as a child, and wrote as a child … the basic feeling is essentially pre-adolescent … Enid Blyton has no moral dilemmas … Inevitably Enid Blyton was labelled by rumour a child-hater. If true, such a fact should come as no surprise to us, for as a child herself all other children can be nothing but rivals for her.” Inglis argues though that Blyton was clearly devoted to children and put an enormous amount of energy into her work, with a powerful belief in “representing the crude moral diagrams and garish fantasies of a readership”.
In other words, Blyton writes about children having adventures with goodies and baddies and it’s all jolly good fun, and the protagonists are middle class to boot. Literary critics hate that, and I rather like it. I also like the portrayal of children as independent and capable. In Secret Trail, George goes off camping on her own and her parents are unconcerned. The children suspect they are onto some criminals and they investigate instead of running for help. Someone complains of a broken ankle and Julian does not call an ambulance, he diagnoses it as just a sprain. Jolly good stuff.
Eric Raymond writes of literary criticism being at odds with good science fiction:
Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.
People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.
We do not want character development and moral dilemmas, we want adventure and sense of wonder. I can always spot a good SF read when the Amazon reviews are all complaining about two dimensional characters. Enid Blyton’s critics are unwittingly recommending her in the same way. My son wants to hear about camping in thunderstorms, hidden caves and mysterious ruined cottages.
There are also complaints of sexism and all the other isms. On the subject of the former in fiction, John C Wright (whose Golden Oecumene trilogy I reviewed, and, as I discovered Googling for that link, Brian Micklethwait received email about back in 2004) has interesting things to say.
Yesterday a medical doctor friend told me that these days you have to show ID and sign for laboratory glassware. You may perhaps even be asked why you need it.
When I was a kid, you picked up an Edmunds Scientific or other catalog, used the money you earned mowing lawns and bought your gadgets and glassware by mail order – unless you were lucky enough to live in the same city in which case you went to their outlet and came straight home with it on the same day. No questions were asked. Lab glassware was just part of being a future scientist in a nation of free people.
Why has this changed? The Drug War. It is yet another culturally disastrous bit of police state monitoring enabled by fear mongering about meth labs. Well, to put it simply, I do not care. The people responsible for these sorts of regulation are much more socially damaging in their efforts because they undercut our liberty, our ability to act as free and autonomous citizens. It is my right to buy something ‘because I feel like it’ and to use it for ‘whatever the hell pleases me’ just because I am an American. I need no other reason.
I have no sympathy for the drug warriors. I want them unemployed. As to the people who think up these un-american regulations…
“Hangin’s too good for ’em.”
Due to come into force in August 2016, the Named Person initiative is truly dystopian. Once, it was only abandoned or orphaned children who became charges of the state; now, all Scottish children will effectively be wards of the state under a new, vast system of, in essence, shadow parenting. In an expression of alarming distrust in parents, and utter contempt for the idea of familial sovereignty and privacy, the state in Scotland wants to attach an official to every kid and to keep tabs on said kid’s physical and moral wellbeing.
There’ll be a state spy in every family. In Scotland, Big Brother is not only watching you (it was recently revealed that Scotland has 4,114 public-space CCTV cameras and “camera vans,” which drive through towns filming the allegedly suspect populace); he’s also watching your kids.
– Brendan O’Neill
The Times 11 April 1914 p4
It would appear that the busy-bodies of a hundred years ago have it in for child labour (or “half-time” working, as it was then known). Luckily, there are some willing to defend the practice:
I worked for nearly 20 years in the same factory. Contrary to the opinions expressed by some people, my health never suffered as a result of the half-time system, and I was never at home for more than a few days during the whole of my factory life. Again, I never had any trouble to pass the required “standard” at school, and I certainly cannot remember to have fallen asleep over my lessons, or even to have felt inclined to do so.
Love the scare quotes.
So, why do we have child labour?
To speak generally, the half-time children belong to parents of the unskilled labour class, where every shilling earned makes a difference at the week-end…
Unfortunately, our correspondent then makes a serious error:
In my estimation the half-timers employed in the factories are far better off than the unfortunate children who work in barbers’ shops, hawk newspapers in the streets, run about mornings and evenings on milk rounds, card hooks and eyes or make match-boxes.
Don’t give them ideas!
I had to laugh at this:
In these progressive days parents almost invariably allow their children to sit up until their own bed hour: the children have just what they fancy for supper, not what is most suitable…
Plus ça change…
President of the Adam Smith Institute Madsen Pirie is recruiting them even younger than Brian suggests in his previous post — in a way. He has written children’s books. I recently read Children of the Night.
My older son is only three, but I am keen to fill the house with books that he might like to discover when he feels like it. Whenever I read novels I worry about how the author’s worldview infects the fictitious world he has created. With Madsen Pirie I can relax, confident that his fictional universe will have sensible laws of economics and will not subconsciously implant socialism into my children’s heads.
Not only that, it is a very good adventure story. In genre it is a kind of steampunk — it has an outward appearance of fantasy but is really science fiction, which is the best kind of fantasy because it leads to an internally consistent and believable world. This leads to consistent and believable politics, which are never spelled out in exposition but form the backdrop to the action. And it is nearly all action, as makes sense for a children’s book, but there are many lessons.
On the origins of political power:
Shocking though the violence was, he was used to it. That was the way the world seemed to work. Those on high bullied and terrorised those below them.
On class and ambition:
“I do know this,” Quicksilver thought back, “that a wagoner’s son is destined to become a wagoner, and a nobleman’s son is destined to become a nobleman. But those with special talents can break free of this destiny and achieve things their parents could not dream of. Extraordinary things.”
In fact the protagonists are a poor orphan, a nobleman’s daughter who would rather be a pilot than a nobleman’s daughter, and an engineer dwarf, who all end up friends because of their differences.
On the intersection of economics and politics:
“It’s partly the cost,” Calvin replied. “There aren’t many places where people need to go up a mountain, and it would cost too much to lay miles of track and cable across open country.” He shrugged before adding, “And of course the Church limits the number of dwarf machines allowed into the Realm. They don’t want anything to upset the social order. That’s fine by us. We make the machines, not the decisions.”
“This stuff isn’t for sale anyway. It’s the share we have to pay to their high mightiness.” There was a real bitterness to his voice as he said it. “Who’s that?” inquired Mark, puzzled. “A far-off fat bishop who never set foot out of his abbey, and a far-off lazy lord who never did a day’s work in his life.” “You mean tithes,” said Mark, “a tenth for the church.” “A tenth?” Anderson laughed bitterly. “Round here it’s a sixth. And another sixth in taxes for using the land and sea which some noble calls his own.” Gene uttered a low whistle. “That’s a third gone before you start! Do they take a third of everything?” “Everything.” The word was spat out in bitterness.
On changing the meta-context:
We spread stories and provoke people to see the injustice of their rule, and to resent it.
There is also a problem with a fuel source that is mined by slaves. Many an author might have his characters fight against the slavery, and Madsen does, but he also has them realise the importance of the fuel, the suffering that its increase in cost would cause, and the possibility of a technological solution. This is a world in which technology offers hope and improvement despite its problems, rather than simply causing problems.
And there are murder mysteries, exotic flying machines, chase scenes, narrow escapes and double-crossings aplenty. It is all good, wholesome fun.
Over at the CATO Institute, there is an excellent discussion of a topic that often divides libertarians as much as it does anyone else: children, their safety, and liberty. It looks interesting.
D-MYST was formed by young people in the city who were concerned that they were being targeted by tobacco companies in their favourite films. They launched a campaign called ‘Toxic Movies’, to put the spotlight on the issue, and have gained international publicity for their cause.
D-MYST members say that taking smoking out of youth-rated movies is not about censorship – but is about asking film-makers to think again before they make films which young people can see, which contain smoking.
– the SmokeFree Liverpool “youth group”, D-MYST (Direct Movement by the Youth SmokeFree Team).
Inspiring is it not, the young people spontaneously coming together in their milk bars and discothèques to defend the innocence of their favourite films that they love to watch of a Saturday morning? Perhaps one could even make a film aimed at the “youth market”, as I believe it is called, depicting the kids’ plucky struggle, interspersed by lively songs and numbers from some popular beat combo. It would show how they
damn darn well went out there and got funding from a Quasi Autonomous Non Governmental Organisation called SmokeFree Liverpool who in turn got funding from an NHS Primary Care Trust who in turn got funding from the Department of Health who in turn got funding from the taxpayer.
A nasty, cynical man called Christopher Snowdon wrote a report called Sock Puppets that said “D-MYST is the very model of an astroturf group”, and that the story of it being formed by the youth of Liverpool was “slightly implausible”. Wrong-O. It is very implausible indeed. However it did lead me to the wonderful ABC Minors Song, which goes:
We are the boys and girls well known as
Minors of the ABC
And every Saturday all line up
To see the films we like and shout aloud with glee
We like to laugh and have our sing-song
Such a happy crowd are we
We’re all pals together
We’re Minors of the ABC.
I bet that crazy D-MYST gang would love it as a theme song!
I came across the nine-year-old girl blogging about her school dinners a few weeks ago. Now the local council have banned her from taking photos of her meals because they did not like the attention she generated. I think this amounts to a freedom of speech violation because the school canteen is not private property, it is controlled by the state. The council has annoyed the Internet; The Streisand effect looms over them.
David Cameron, who clearly does not have enough to do, has pledged to consult on campaigners’ proposals to force internet service providers to block porn by default. I am against the proposals because of the force. I also agree with Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group that non-porn will get blocked by mistake. There will likely be other technical problems. And it will make the perceived problem it is trying to solve worse because parents will have a false sense of security while savvy children figure out how to work around the filters. And I am not convinced that porn harms children.
But mostly I want the government to stop messing with my internet.
A post at Climate Lessons reminded my of my own childhood experiences of environmentalist indoctrination at school. It could have been any post – the whole blog is about how children are frightened and mislead by environmentalists in the classroom.
The topic is closer to home now that I have my own two-year-old son, and it cropped up sooner than I expected. Someone bought him a book about Noah’s Ark. It is perfectly charming: thick cardboard pages; bright colours; but on the last page:
Noah helped save the animals of the earth hundreds of years ago by building an ark. Now we must help to save them too — not from floods, but from human beings who are hunting them, and cutting down the forests where they live.
I mean, come on! It is a story book for toddlers. A silly story from the Bible I can handle, but children should not be worried about this nonsense.
At the turn of the nineties I was at secondary school putting up with some of this. Most of it came from geography class. Deforestation was the big one. An area the size of Wales was destroyed every so often, we were told. Apart from all the extinct animals, the rain forests were needed to turn the carbon dioxide into oxygen. They are the lungs of the planet. These days the rain forests still seem to be there and I am fairly sure that, carbon going round in a cycle, the rain forests are only the lungs of the rain forests. The plants that I (and the animals I eat) eat produce enough oxygen for me.
We also learnt about acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer. Both these problems seem to have gone away, arguably as a result of timely state intervention but more likely because the problems were not so bad in the first place and now they have been replaced by more urgent and dire concerns.
Assuming the BBC exam revision guide is a good proxy for what is taught in GCSE geography lessons in schools, acid rain and the ozone layer are gone from the curriculum. Deforestation is still there, and now we have to worry about climate change, pollution and (oh no!) globalisation. If you follow that last link you will learn about Thomas Malthus and Esther Boserup but not Norman Borlaug.
I remember another strange lesson: not geography; possibly personal social health and flim flam studies or whatever it was called. I can not imagine why but we were made to watch a video that included abattoir footage and there was a class discussion in which we were asked whether the video made us want to be vegetarians. Some of the girls became vegetarians on the spot. I wonder what their parents made of it.
GCSE Double Science was a mostly sensible affair involving the Carnot cycle and electrons apart from one odd day when a guest speaker came in to tell us that more oil was used in the last ten years than in the entire history of humanity before that. The lesson was that this was because oil use doubled every ten years (or whatever the number was). I recognise it now as the standard limits-to-growth spiel, but what was it doing in a fourth year science class? Some organisation must have bribed the school or something.
What harm did it do? Here I am after all, not believing a word of any of it. At the time I believed it, but I was more interested in tectonic plates, magnetic fields and playing Elite on my computer. Most of the rest of the class was only interested in who was snogging whom. We were bombarded with doom and gloom but it was boring and irrelevant.
But I bet a lot of it stayed there, in most of the rest of the class, deep down, in a way that causes them not to question it when they see it on the news. They are not interested: they think about it when they are forced to; they give money to charity when they want to look like nice people or feel good about themselves; they moan about the taxes and they forget about it and get on with their lives. They do not write to their MPs or vote and they do not rise up.
Teachers hate legislation. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers is a British teaching union. In 2010 its then president Lesley Ward said:
What was being debated in the 1970s is pretty similar to what is being debated four decades later. I am onto my 15th secretary of state for education and my 29th minister for education. I have lived through, endured, survived, call it what you like, 54 pieces of education legislation since I started teaching. One more and it would be one for each year of my life.
Clearly she wants to get the government out of education and her life. “Trust us and leave us to do our job,” she concludes. Good for her!
A motion at the [ATL] conference called on ministers to introduce “stringent legislation” to counter the “negative effects some computer games are having on the very young”.
I imagine that most teachers have no difficulty holding both of these views. Most people would like government to leave them alone and stop other people from annoying them.