28 May 2010

Holiday reading suggestions

I'm going on holidays soon, and there will be a lot of flights involved.

So I need books (budget airlines being low on entertainment)

What would you consider good holiday reading - or what would you like to see reviewed (I can write gut reactions - excellent multi-tasker, I am).

26 May 2010

Treeks and Xenophobia

I had a great opening, but I think I’ll keep it for another day … it’s good but it doesn’t fit here. It did give me an idea for another post, however … the workings of the REGIME …

I want to look briefly at the tricks in the story, the standard comic set piece of every book. As a child, I thought them hilarious, and wondered why I couldn’t be so clever. Looking back at them, I wondered how anyone would ever think it worth the time it took to write them. They are weakly

Alicia is the main perpetrator of these practical pleasantries, coming up with jokes that are (so we are led to believe) clever and foolproof. But there’s a catch — they can only ever be played on the French mistresses, as they are the only ones gullible enough to be taken in by such ‘treeks’. The English mistresses, of course, are far too clever, and far too familiar with the regime from the students’ end, to ever be taken in

I’ll give you a run down on the ‘treeks’ played on Mam’zelle:

Form 1 – Alicia pretends to be deaf. When Mam’zelle says something too her, she deliberately misunderstands, and much hilarity ensues as the students repeat what the teacher says at the top of their lungs. Mam’zelle is completely taken in; Miss Potts susses it out in a second …

Form 2 – Invisible chalk. Alicia’s friend Betty brings invisible chalk that cannot be detected on a surface, but when it comes into contact with another surface, leaves a bright pink chalk mark (No one ever explains why the chalk can be seen on one surface and not another, nor why, if it needs heat to be activated, it stays visible once cooled).
Although first played on the singing master, it is later played on Mam’zelle Dupont — Darrell incurs Alicia’s ire by writing ‘OY’ on Mam’zelle’s seat, thus gaining the upper Forms’ admiration – talk about thunder stealing. The trick is never detected.

Form 3 – Alicia’s brother sends a package of home-made sneezing powder – which is always guaranteed to end well … When played on Mam’zelle, the pellets are found to be too strong and Mam’zelle has the rest of the day off sick from exhaustion.

Form 4 – tablets stuck to the ceiling of the classroom created bubbles that the girls pretended not to see (or hear, as they apparently burst with an audible noise – WTF?). Mam’zelle thinks she is the only one seeing bubbles and becomes hysterical. Miss Potts is called and thinks it good fun to tell Mam’zelle to ask a maid to sweep the ceiling.

Form 5 – the Empire strikes back! Although a first former tries a trick with balloons under her shirt, Mam’zelle hits back with hideous false teeth. She wanders round the school grounds randomly smiling at people. She manages to scare the crap out of a heap of students, half the teachers and Miss Grayling with a couple of parents. IMO, this is the best trick of the series. It inverts the idea of making one person believe a big thing, and instead makes everyone believe a little thing. Once the trick is outed, all of the teachers are quite disapproving, but Mam’zelle is quite unrepentant.

Form 6 – there’s a recurring trick regarding a magnet, hairpins and hissing gas pellets. With improbably perfect timing, random and disparate elements come together to form an ‘astounding’ trick in which the French teachers’ (yes BOTH of them) hair pins are removed with a magnet and stashed around the classroom. The teachers never figure out how it’s done, despite the obvious set up …

If you look at the tricks, they’re not very ingenious. They are utterly dependant on convincing Mam’zelle of something highly improbable. Like clockwork, the students manage to pull these unworkable and rather weak tricks on teachers whose mental powers are repeatedly called into question. The fact that these tricks are only ever played on the French mistresses is the flagship example of Enid’s xenophobia in this series. Readers are expected to believe that the one teacher (it’s always Mam’zelle Dupont) will continually fooled by the same people over and over. No-one is that stupid.
Seriously, this is an upper-class school. Are we really expected to believe that they would hire someone so stupid? All those parents would not be happy that their precious monsters would be getting such bad service, especially given the money they are paying. Besides, the woman has been there for years – where’s her cynicism? Has she the memory of a goldfish? Dealing day-in and day-out with these monsters, are we really going to believe that she will be taken in every time something strange happens?

But she’s French. That’s apparently meant to be reason enough for her stupidity.

And I really hate that reason. It’s not just xenophobic and socially inaccurate, it’s bad literature. It makes, and forces the reader to accept, large assumptions about all French people. Mam’zelle is too vain to wear glasses, is silly and plays favourites with the pretty girls; therefore all French people are shallow. She’s not a strict disciplinarian and is quite a drama queen, therefore French people are – and that’s why they make worse teachers than English. It’s not stated outright, but the general tone is a dismissive ‘oh, she’s French’. I would love to see how the character is portrayed in French (I’ve tried to research it, but only came up with one article that didn’t really mention the teachers).

Each ‘treek’ scene is ended by an English teacher coming in to bring order to the chaos. Mam’zelle is always in near-hysterics, saying ‘oh-la-la’ in a very French way (that’s all French people say, apparently. I think I wasted nine years learning French – all I needed to learn was ‘oh-la-la’). Funnily enough, the girls only ever get in trouble once – with the sneezing incident. It’s as though the teachers are of the opinion that you either sink or swim in this world.

So basically, it’s fine to play a trick on your teacher – so long as they are French (or at least foreign) …

(BTW, I absolutely love the fact that until the 50s, when her popularity could not be ignored, the BBC had a pseudo-policy of not broadcasting any of EB’s works. Despite numerous attempts (she was a shameless self-promoter) to branch out into broadcasting, the BBC steadily refused our Enid, insisting that her works was ‘second rate’. They hated her dialogue and her plots, thought her work waffly and limited in its vocabulary – and just all round NOT GOOD ENOUGH. This is in addition to the publishers, librarians and academics that also disliked her books on literary and social grounds – she was considered racist and overly class conscious even in her own time!)

Next generation is coming up!

20 May 2010

Third Year at Malory Towers

Look at those crazy eyes, people – she looks like she is thinking about smaking you down … the crazy eyes of Darrell Rivers …

Sorry for the delay. I really liked some of the feedback I got about my Gwendoline post – I’m glad I’m growing the love for big G. Since then I’ve been super busy reading stuff for class, and catching up on my grown-up reading. This week it is Monkey Grip by Helen Garner (I’m going through some neglected classics … thank you Penguin for your cheap and plentiful supply!)

So on to Third year at Malory Towers, or Assimilating Rogue Elements into Your Regime For Dummies. This is arguably my favourite book — it’s certainly the last ‘classic’ Malory Towers. You’ll see what I mean in the next book.

Ladies and gentlemen hold on to your hats – we have and AMERICAN!!! That’s right, one of the great Blytster’s favourite stereotypes has come to the party with a Bang, and doesn’t our E have a field day with the cultural stereotypes!

This is part of a long tradition of UK v US culture-clash. If this were an American production, the American would go to the stuffy English school and really teach them how to live, while simultaneously learning some deep lesson about life that has escaped all those British people. She would also fall in love with the token handbag boy (‘cos it’s that kind of story).
As it is British, the American is loud, clueless and too old for her age. She pretends to be a grown-up and is taught how nice it is to be a child, after being properly humbled.
I’m not sure that Enid ever got over the War of Independence, as she really doesn’t have much time for the new inmate of Malory Towers Juvenile Detention Facility. Our new inmate bangs on a bit about waving the stars and stripes and not letting her country down, but spends the term being indoctrinated into the ways of the regime and learning to love the regime.

First up – the name: Zerelda Brass. That’s right, all Americans give their children silly names like Zerelda, rather than sensible names like Darrell. Zerelda could be an homage to Jesse James (whose wife and mother were both called Zerelda – he married his cousin), or it could just be that she Enid assumed a foreign character needed a foreign name … just so that we really KNOW that they are foreign and don’t confuse them with a normal person.

We first meet the lovely Z at the beginning of the book, as Darrell’s parents are giving her a ride to school. Normally they’d be picking up Sally, but Sally’s in quarantine for mumps or something, so she is separated from her wifey …

(Sidenote: I do find the whole issue of illness at school to be fascinating. An event that occurs at the beginning of each book is the characters handing in Health Certificates, which certify that they haven’t been in contact with infectious diseases – without one they are isolated. Ah, the days before immunisation.
I don’t know whether EB is just using it as a plot device or whether people really did come down with all these illnesses. So far in the series we have had flu, appendicitis, some imperfectly diagnosed stress disorder, now mumps and whooping cough. Later we’ll have a heart condition, measles and injury. I really wanted someone to have had Polio – just because it would have been interesting to see how it was viewed back when it was still common. Up until the 1950s, when the vaccines were developed, Polio was endemic. We probably don’t see it in MT because the recovery is not always as graceful as the other illnesses, but I would have loved to have seen a character dealing with a fairly common illness of the time.
I should really shut up about this now .)

Zerelda is very good natured, but is considered rude as she hasn’t been primed to worship the regime and falls asleep while Darrel waxes lyrical about the Towers. Frankly, I say GO ZERELDA! I would prefer to sleep too. Darrell is quite miffed and decides to cold shoulder her. Zerelda doesn’t notice.

The main thing that strikes me as off when I read the first few chapters is how Zerelda is treated as a sort of exhibit in a zoo. It is as if a wild animal has been let to roam the halls of the school for everyone to stare at. I half expected an Attenborough-like narration to follow her: ‘the American shows no sign of apprehending the approaching danger, letting out its cries of ‘Gee’ and ‘Wunnerful’ upon spying humans …’. The girls, meanwhile, stand around staring and saying “golly” and laughing behind her back, because, as we all know, being different gives the majority licence to deride. And she really is the school freak – even if her mother is English (although ‘she’s forgotten that she ever was English’ says Zerelda). Even the teachers are a bit at a loss as to how to deal with her. Her teacher, Miss Williams, is wrong-footed a couple of times, not recognising her after she’d taken off her make-up (seriously, how many Americans were there at the school that the teacher couldn’t identify her by accent alone?).

Just to rub in the UK superiority, Zerelda turns out to be stupid. Due to the dreadful teaching at ‘those American Schools’ the 16-year-old Zerelda gets bumped down into a class with all of the 14-year-olds. Everyone from her old form was most happy to see her go – the novelty of having an exotic pet obviously wore off when they realised that she wasn’t properly potty-trained (they really objected to cleaning up her droppings). Really, the staff just put her in the too hard basket. Like Gwendoline, Zerelda is considered to be not regime material. So she is ignored. The solution of the teachers is to move her around so that she won’t be in the way of the real children. Miss Grayling is claims that bumping her down will be good for her, which makes me wonder why she doesn’t use phrases like ‘moving forward’ or ‘wellness’ – Grayling is a BS queen.

Zerelda’s defining character trait is her determination to be a film actress. With true devotion to the art, our intrepid American discovered early what it required to make it big in the movies – looks. The girl is obsessed about her looks, constantly fixing her hair, make-up and nails (she wears lipstick in school – oooOOOooo), and doesn’t really bother with honing talent. Seriously, the girl knows the business. Today she would be a megastar with a sex tape floating around, or something like that.

Coincidentally, the Form has rehearsal for a play this term – Romeo and Juliet, with a never before and never after mentioned drama mistress. Zerelda’s world is devestated on finding that the teacher thinks that she is a dreadful actor (can I just point out that after the rehearsal, all mention of the play ceases? PLOT DEVICE!!!). She turns up to the play all ready for her close-up, and gets a complete verbal bitch-slap from the Mistress, much to everyone’s delight. Belatedly, they kind-of realise that it might have hurt her feelings, but no-one thinks of apologising …

OH! And Zerelda has Gwendolinitis, as does another girl, Mavis. With Zerelda going to be an actress and Mavis a self-centred opera singer, there is something of an epidemic. After Zerelda is told she’ll never be an actress, and Mavis possibly loses her voice (she gets caught in the rain after running off to the local village to enter a talent contest – the others poo-hoo the idea because it would certainly be too lowbrow for them, but Mavis is an applause whore), both decide that it would be ever such a good idea for them to be friends and are thus magically cured of the life-threatening illness of Gwendolinitis. Suddenly they are perfect little English school-girls. The opinion of girls? Sucks to be Gwendoline.

When I step back and look at the Zerelda story, all I really see is the Regime breaking an individual. Held captive in this fortress by the sea (ooooOOOOoooo – how very Mrs Radcliffe), Zerelda is first stripped of her individuality (hair and makeup), isolated (the Zoo exhibit treatment by all of the girls), humiliated (twice – class and drama), then, when she is at the nadir of her existence, she receives scraps of praise from her captors. It’s all very Stockholm Syndrome-ish. By the end of term, she is identifying with her captors and mimicking their behaviour in order to earn their praise. And what has she taught them about America? That it isn’t as good as Britain — so all is well with Blyton world again! Hooray!

Other stuff

Sorry – I had such fun with Zerelda, I forgot about the others. Really, Zerelda really is the star of this book. Darrell is a lazy protagonist. She shows up and goes through the motions of doing stuff, but it’s always the new girls who do the heavy lifting (dare I say it, but apart from the smackdowns … Darrell is a boring cow). She probably sits in her trailer and refuses to come out until her scene.

Let’s see. There’s another new girl, Wilhelmina (Bill for short), who is brown and freckled (ten points for anyone who can remember what that means, apart from Enid’s lack of comprehension regarding skin types – tanned AND freckled? BTW – hello skin cancer!) and is horse mad. She constantly gets into trouble with the she-man third form teacher, Miss Peters, and is forbidden to see her horse, which is apparently a tragedy for her (I’m thinking there is something potentially Equus-like in her devotion to her horses – but loving animals is so very British, so jolly good for her! Incidentally, we never hear of the school stables until this book …PLOT DEVICE). Right at the moment of this ban, the horse develops colic, and Bill, with Darrel to help her (why, I don’t know. As I told you, LAZY protagonist!) simply has to disobey the rules and go down to him. I suppose Darrell has to go down because, as a devotee of the regime, she fetches the she-man teacher to help. She-man teacher rides off into the night to fetch the vet (why the school doesn’t have a car is beyond me – did she really have to ride the horse?) and on the way back, she coincidentally finds Mavis collapsed on the road.

I should put in a word about Mavis. I don’t really mention her because she is not introduced as a new girl – she was new during an invisible term and is part of the furniture by the time we are ushered into their little world. She has an amazing voice and is ‘going to be an opera singer’ one day. She apparently has extra singing classes every week, but I have some misgivings. She has the classes at night with the singing master Mr Young without supervision. Does that seem dodgy to anyone else? I find it extremely disturbing – all I can think is ‘grooming’.

The horse survives, Mavis gets sick (and thus gets her come-uppance for being so vain about her voice) and bill and She-man become firm friends. All wrapped up ready to go home at the end of term!

Darrell Smackdown

Is there one? Alas no, my children, and there are two very good reasons for this.

First off, Darrell has to play peacemaker in a cat-fight between Alicia and Sally. Alicia’s friend Betty is off for most of the term with whooping cough, so Darrell and Alicia, both friendless, become temporary BFFs. But when Sally returns, Alicia doesn’t want to stop playing BFFs with Darrell, much to the jealousy of wifey Sally. Cue schoolgirl bitch-fight! WOOT!! Darrell thinks they are both being silly; they should both just chill - there’s enough Darrell for everyone. With no handy mud-pit around, Darrell is disinclined to let them fight it out, and spends most of the time placating Sally (you know, talking about Alicia behind her back ‘she is soooooo annoying – I can’t wait until Betty comes back next week and she leaves us alone’ — so very schoolgirl). The PMS is spread out too thinly for sufficient smackdown concentration in Darrell. Sigh.

Secondly, Darrell is given an outlet for her violence – Lacrosse! Given a stick and a piece of field, Darrell is licensed to kill … as long as the victim is from another school. Darrell has played tennis before this, but there’s nothing like ‘accidentally’ hitting another person with a stick and being praised for it, is there? Darrell is the only third-former picked as the ‘third reserve’ (which means she sits on the bench in uniform and watches). I think a quiet word from the head was had, as later on she gets bumped onto the team (I know it’s supposed to be because she practices so hard, but I can’t help it – it feels like she is put on as an enforcer) runs around hitting people with sticks and winning the game. WOOT!

So no smackdown. I was most upset over this turn of events, until I remembered what book was coming up (happy dance for mindless violence!!).

I realised that I’m well over 2000 words, so I’m going to shut up now. Next up is the 4th book, which might well be titled Malory Towers: The Next Generation.

PS. If you’re reading this, and you haven’t already, can I humbly request that you click the little ‘follow’ button in the sidebar? I’m not going to stalk you down, I just wouldn’t mind knowing how many people are actually reading.

14 May 2010

Gwendoline Mary - a Heroine of Our Time

Let’s talk about Gwendoline Mary. I really want to talk about Gwendoline Mary. I have been restraining myself over the past two books, knowing that I have a good one or two thousand words to say on the girl. I’ve been waiting to tell you my revelations about the Draco Malfoy prototype. Yes that’s right, Gwendoline Mary is the original Draco Malfoy (more of that later).

I have to admit, on re-reading this series, particularly after discovering the manipulation by Blyton of the reader, I have come to see Gwendoline in an entirely new light. I don’t love her, but I certainly identify with her a whole lot more than I thought I did (in fact, I see a bit of my teenage self in her, something I would never have admitted when I first read this series – I thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread). And I certainly have a lot of sympathy for a girl who is really given no chance to fit into the school, but who is constantly bullied and ostracised for no reason other than the fact that she is different.

Why you don’t like Gwendoline

Gwendoline is sulky, she’s lazy, she has a high opinion of herself, she’s catty, and she doesn’t play well with others. The others don’t like her, and by extension you the reader don’t like her (you little conformist). You even think that it’s fine to not like her. But there are two things you have to remember about darling Gwen when you are disliking her:

1) Gwen might have all of these bad qualities, but so do the other girls. EB just doesn’t dwell on them. Alicia is catty and has a high opinion of herself, Belinda is lazy, Darrell doesn’t play well with others. You see this, but it does not register through the EB glasses. The others fit EB’s idea of the perfect child, so the imperfections are seen as only further perfection. To EB, these girls sweat champagne and flush little nuggets of gold down the toilet every day.

Reality is not so simple. Teenage girls are complex creatures. Not quite children, not quite grown up, they are often very insecure. At the same time, there is this enormous amount of excitement that the future is coming for them and that they are going to be BIG. So you get this situation where all these children are starting to see themselves as superior beings, yet having a pressing need to shore up that opinion of themselves with the good opinion of others. That combination of mental workings can turn female adolescence into a nightmare of cats and claws. (I was going to say that all teenage girls are bitches, but I know a couple of my readers are teenage girls. Of course I’m not referring to you, dear reader. You are an amazing, wonderful person – but please, do come back and re-read this description in a decade or so …)

Malory Towers positively seethes with this tension – the girls have no reprieve from one another. They eat, sleep, study and relax within metres of each other. Do you honestly think that there are girls who are immune to the pull of raging hormones? So why is Gwendoline singled out?

2) You don’t like Gwendoline because you ARE Gwen. Don’t deny it. As a teenager reading the books you secretly identify most with Gwen’s antics and attitudes. You may like to think that you are Darrell, but you know that you are Gwen. This scares you, as you want to be friends with the popular girls. So you pretend that you are like them, become complicit in the bullying of little Gwen, and hope against hope that they don’t realise what you are really like.

Just like real life.

Essentially, this is high school idealised – a world in which you can become one of the popular crowd by being ostensibly individual, but essentially conformative. Giving up cozy little bitch-fests with Gwen is a small price to pay for popularity in your imagination …


This is just a side-note, but anyway …

I know there are a couple of you desperate to know what Gwendoline and Draco could possibly have in common, apart from being the designated baddies of their respective series. There has to be a ‘baddie’, but really, neither of them are in the true sense. They are really just people that the ‘goodie’ doesn’t’ like.

It’s actually that ‘baddie’ designation that is part of the similarity of the characters. From the very start, we know that they are the baddies because of who they are. They are the children of their parents, and as such, they are judged before given a real chance to show themselves. Of course, as children of their parents, they are influenced by the example shown them by said parents, and act in accordance with that example as young children. Malfoy’s parents were the magical equivalent of Nazis. Gwen has a dim, superficial mother and an absentee father from whom she learnt her values. Both children display those values early on, but later do try to reform a bit (with varying levels of success – we’ll talk about Gwen’s transformation later). Neither will ever be completely accepted by the mainstream, but you do tend to like them better as adults.

… And that’s enough Harry Potter for one day.


From the beginning, the regime doesn’t like Gwendoline, and sets out to break her. Unfortunately, the regime is a self-glorifying and stupid beast; in its wisdom, it decides that negative reinforcement is necessary to cure her 'bad' character.

Looking at the facts:

• she is an only child,
• she has been homeschooled (presumably in the country – you can’t be proper aristo without a country manor),
• she hasn’t really had that much interaction with children her own age, and
• her chief companions are her mother and governess.

At the age of twelve, her father summarily decides that this isolation is a bad idea and ships her off to boarding school, without integrating her into outside interaction with children her age first. Is it any wonder she is socially awkward?

Thrust out of her native surroundings, she begins to behave in a manner that has always been rewarded in the past, yet that only brings down scorn and mockery from her fellow students, tacitly encouraged by Miss Potts, who hears but ignores the malice of the ‘well brought up’ girls. So begins Gwendoline’s induction to Malory Towers. In my reading, I really cannot say that I have come across any instances in which anyone was nice to Gwendoline, yet she is treated as though her lack of friends is her own fault. Darrell is accepted quickly because she has learned the rules to the whole ‘school game’ long before she attended this centre of re-programming. There is no buddy system that would help Gwen acclimate to her surroundings, there is no praise for any good work done (carrot and stick doesn’t work without the carrot) – just because we don’t see her good moments doesn’t mean that Gwen is consistently bad (at one point Gwen starts working hard, but this is really not rewarded by the teacher, so she gives up).

The rest of the girls feel that they are teaching her by giving her harsh treatment, but all they are really doing is replacing one sort of behaviour with another. A pattern is established by which malice is exchanged on both sides, but with unequal power bases it was never going to be a fair fight. Gwendoline, hobbled by the animosity of the author as well as the general unfairness of the situation, retreats from the precepts of the school – she has not benefited from them, she has had no experience of them, therefore she sticks with what she knows – the lessons of her mother, reinforced every holidays. I don’t really blame her – it’s the only positive experience she has during her school years.

Case Study: Daphne

Take as an example the similarities between Gwen and Mary-Lou and their friendship with Daphne in book 2.

Gwen starts out as friends with Daphne, as Gwen sees her as pretty and of a similar social standing to her. With the precepts of her mother drummed into her, she makes friends with the one person who would earn her mother’s praise. Having made the friend, she is happy to be the lesser party in the friendship, listening to Daphne’s stories of her family and wealth, running errands, and generally being something of a slave.

Mary-Lou is captivated by Daphne’s prettiness and sets about becoming something of a dogsbody to her. She is happy to be treated as something like an also-ran to Gwen. She does Daphne’s homework, listens to her long stories, runs errands for her, and generally acts as a slave.

There is very little difference in the two separate friendships. Both are founded on rather superficial facets of Daphne’s make-up. Both are subservient, slavish type roles that leave no room for a friendship based on equality.

YET, Gwen is seen to be rather silly over Daphne, and Mary-Lou a true friend.

Later, when it is revealed that Daphne is not only not rich, but the class thief, Gwen is portrayed as being small minded for not wanting to forgive her straight away. It’s never pointed out that Gwen has been the main victim both of Daphne’s lies and her stealing (Daphne steals money off her and then borrows more from her, which she never pays back), nor is Gwen given any time to digest this information – she is just expected to suck it up and forgive Daphne because she is a hero. Let me be clear: GWEN IS THE WRONGED PARTY. If it were you, you would be quite rightly pissed off. I would want some sort of repercussion. But no – under duress from the rest of the form, particularly knuckle-dragging Darrell, Gwen is forced to capitulate.
(AND Gwen is honest about money – she won’t borrow money of anyone, even when she is short, and is shocked when Daphne wants to share borrowed money with her. I actually rather liked her at that point. It showed that she was taught ethics and follows them, even when she has the opportunity to ignore them.)
Mary-Lou is grateful to Daphne for the whole saving-her-life thing, but is that really enough on which to base a friendship? Daphne is still a rather obnoxious person – and we don’t know if she gets better, as she only turns up from time to time after book two.

I really feel that this skewed perception of Gwendoline is misleading, given her similarity to the rest of the girls.


Book two is not the only book in which people make friends with Gwen, only to dump her at the end. It happens in book three and book four. It is as though friendship with Gwen is an illness that one must be cured. Generally the people friends with Gwen are have a character flaw, usually an ego, and enjoy having Gwen run around after them. When their fault is cured, they automatically dump Gwendoline for some new BFF. Gwen generally hasn’t done anything to warrant such treatment, so I always get annoyed when I get to these parts and find that everyone is happy that another student has been ‘cured’ of Gwen.

It is odd. After Book one, Gwen really doesn’t do anything cruel to the other girls. She’s generally sulky, but fairly innocuous. Even her tricks in book one don’t get any worse than smashing someone’s pen and sneaking a spider into someone’s desk. But there are only a number of second chances that are on offer at MT, and Gwen is always passed over. Bashing up a fellow student – free pass; stealing from your classmates – free pass and a pat on the back; poison pen (this comes later) – a stern talking to , but ultimately reprieve. But being unpopular? You have no chance.

Of course, this is news to no-one in the real world, but I really object to the Way Blyton dresses it all up. I really object to the idea that being unpopular is the fault of the unpopular, rather than intolerance on the part of the right thinking element.


There is hope for Gwen. There really is. I really feel that she actually comes out the best character in the end (I won’t spoil the story – I know you are all on the edge of your seat, but you have to calm down!). I like her because I get her. And so do you. She is that little ball of insecurities that haunted you during adolescence. She is all those fights you had with friends and former friends. She is how you look back at yourself (if you’re being really honest). Gwendoline is what you see when you take off the rose coloured glasses.

Gwendoline IS adolescence.

09 May 2010

Second Form at Malory Towers

Welcome back, boys and girls! Are you ready to dive back into the heady world of post-war boarding school? I am. After a short break of reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac and watching the old Olivier version of Pride and Prejudice (which is so bad it’s funny), I am all ready for my next Blyton adventure.

Actually, the second book in the series is more interesting than the first. Once all of the introduction rubbish is out of the way, we are clear to actually get into the story proper, and Enid obliges to the extreme – this book is almost epic in the scope of its action. I would give this book the alternate title of ‘Mary-Lou Finds an Owner!’ or ‘Extreme Sports at Malory Towers’

I do want to note something about the cover - it's meant to be Mary-Lou hanging off a cliff, but she looks like she's had a really bad bleach job done. On my cover her hair looks orange ... and she has one abnormally big hand. This artist is crap!

Claws Come Out

So, we start the story with a good ‘ole bitch-fest. That’s right. Wifeys Darrell and Sally spend the trip to Cornwall discussing and passing judgment on their classmates. Specifically, they discuss who would make a good Head of Form. I understand that this is a very prestigious position: middle management of the school. The teachers can’t really be arsed actually supervising the kiddies all the time, so they deputise loyal adherents to the regime to enforce obedience and general right-thinking. For the adherent, it’s a bit of a power trip – you get to tell the other kiddies when to go to bed, administer punishments (mostly with a hairbrush – I can’t help but think of Sebastian Flyte and Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited:
“What do you suppose Lord Sebastian wanted? A hairbrush for his teddy-bear; it had to have very stiff bristles, not, my Lord Sebastian said, to brush him with, but to threaten him with a spanking when he was sulky.”

Sally gets this coveted position, bringing about the underlying of tension of the book. Alicia, thinking that she should get the posish as she is just so damn cool, spends the majority of the book sniping at the wifeys for being such goody two shoeses. This situation isn’t helped by Darrell one-upping them in the practical joke department (a most amusing prank involving invisible chalk on teachers' seats). So Alicia spends most of the book being a snarky bitch, until her snarkiness sets off a chain of events that almost gets the class puppy killed. Of course, from this Alicia learns her lesson: snarking at the establishment is not cool – the establishment is there to protect us, we should love the establishment ...

It is interesting to note that Sally and Alicia never really seem to like one another at all until the very end of the series, when they have grown out of their teenage angst to an extent. Until then, it’s all on for young and old between the ‘establishment’, headed by sally, and the ‘rebels’, with Alicia in charge. Of course, in the environment in which the girls live it is impossible that the rebels will ever win, so of course Alicia ‘learns her lessons’ and is finally brought into line. It’s a shame really: the death of the individual at the hands of the ‘man’. Damn the man.

How much is that Doggy in the Window?

Anyway, on to Mary-Lou’s new owner. After trotting faithfully at Sally and Darrell’s heels for the past few terms, this term Mary-Lou is captivated by the new girl Daphne. Daphne is pretty (although her eyes are too close together, and we all know that that is a very clear indication of character), is friends with Gwendoline (red flag number 2) and claims to have heaps of money. After using Mary-Lou all term, copying her homework and having her run errands, Daphne finds herself in a spot of bother (having stolen possessions off most of her classmates, Daphne decides she has to get rid of the evidence for fear that the police will come looking for fingerprints) which leads to Mary-Lou being blown over a cliff (I wouldn't be surprised if she jumped). Daphne fortuitously finds the dangling damsel and manages to save Mary-Lou (in a highly dramatic scene, Daphne knots her two belts together and lowers it to Mary-Lou – Enid seems to have a great deal of faith in the strength of both the belts and Mary-Lou’s upper body, as they manage to hang in position for roughly half an hour ...)and earn everyone’s favourite puppy’s eternal gratitude.

Of course, the responsibility of having a pet opens Daphne’s eyes to the fact that she would have to give up her wicked ways or spend her days in prison – and who would look after the puppy? All the girls forgive her for stealing their stuff because she was so damn brave about saving Mary-Lou, and she magically becomes a better person immediately, despite being aspiteful cow the entire book (in addition to the stealing). Can anyone tell me what a deus ex machina is?

The ‘Right Sort’

While on the subject of Mary-Lou, this throwaway comment really got to me:

Mary-Lou had become exceedingly good at French, for her mother had had a French girl in to look after her in the holidays for the past year.

Where to start?

Mary-lou’s mother. Hires. a maid. To look after her during the holidays.

I just wanted to make sure we all understood that (I was tempted to ask why she didn’t just send ML to a kennel, but that would just be too easy). I’m going to repeat this again: Mary Lou’s parents, who send her away for months at a time, hire someone to look after her for the few weeks a year that she is home, because they don’t want to interrupt their life for the annoyance of a child coming home to visit.
I’m sorry to harp on about this, but I’m somewhat taken aback. Living in the post-war austerity era, these people feel it is still necessary, nay, desirable, to hire a maid to care for their 13-year-old daughter?
Of course this is all perfectly normal. Blyton herself sent her children away to school at a young age so that she could concentrate on her writing. Children can be such a bother, can’t they, young E?

I just find it absurd that this sort of arrangement is considered not in the least unusual. Look at the wording – ‘Mary-Lou’s mother had had a French girl in’ – we are all expected to know what it’s like to have ‘a girl’ in. This subversive snobbery is extremely seductive. When you add up the other little hints that are dropped throughout the series, this series really isn’t about your average group of girls, as it purports to be. Gwendoline’s governess continues to live with Gwen’s family even though little G had gone off to school (I always feel that the governess has something going on with Gwen’s dad ... or perhaps her mum ... I can’t see why she remains with the family throughout Gwen’s entire schooling career). The school must have a pretty big community of servants – maids, kitchen staff, etc – as the girls never do any cleaning, but we never see any of them. They basically do not exist – I mean, they are only servants, after all. Even Darrell has to go around and say goodbye to all of the household servants before.

There seems to be a bit of a theme of the rich/poor divide throughout this book, as shown in the two characters to whom we are introduced. We have Daphne, apparently a spoilt rich girl, and Ellen, a scholarship student. Despite the obvious red flags regarding Daphne, particularly her eyes being too close together (I kid you not – EB is HUGELY into judging books by their cover: Sally is sturdy [sensible], Miss Potts has a firm chin [disciplinarian], tomboys have freckles, sporty girls are tanned, non sporty girls are spotty, the list goes on and on!) when push comes to shove, she is seen as one of the girls while Ellen is not. There is an outbreak of stealing in the form, and the finger is firmly pointed at the scholarship girl (because all poor people steal – it’s just in their nature) rather than her more well off compatriots. It eventually turns out that it was Daphne, whih is incomprehensible until she explains that she wasn’t rich after all, so the world makes sense again! Of course, the effects of this class bias causes Ellen to have a breakdown, but that’s of no real consequence ... she's just a scholarship girl.


Do we have any moments of Darrell’s spectacular murderous rages? But of course!
In this latest instalment, our intrepid and enraged heroine stalks down the stressed-out Ellen, who is going to steal exam papers. In the middle of the night, she tracks down Ellen in a class room and proceeds to beat all kinds of crap out of her. But it’s Ellen’s fault, naturally, because Darrell ‘can’t bear cheats’ (as good a reason as any to give someone a smackdown, I suppose).

Then Darrell lost her temper! She flew at Ellen, shook her fiercely and slapped her hard on the cheek! Ellen fell over the legs of a desk and dragged Darrell down with her. She struggled and Darrell pummelled her well.
‘You wicked girl!’ shouted Darrell.

I have to note that Darrell has a knack for picking out the weak and really going for them. She never dares to attack Alicia, for instance, even though Alicia spends the whole book picking a fight. All of her outbursts are against those weaker than herself: Gendoline, Sally (with appendicitis) and Ellen (who is having some sort of stress episode). The latter two of these attacks exacerbates the victim’s condition to such an extent that they end up in the ‘san’ (today they would be sent to hospital, but the ‘san’ sounds so much less serious). And yet we admire the little shit. She rubs her nose and grimaces, saying ‘Oh dear, I have such a temper. It’s a real fault of mine’ and everything is fine again – hooray!
Maybe … ooooh, I just had an idea … maybe Darrell is a special needs student. I never thought of that possibility. Think about it: even after confessing that she was
a) out after curfew;
b) in a fight with another, sick student; and
c) possibly complicit in an attempt to cheat at an exam ( if you think about it logically, she is either complicit or a vigilante)
The headmistress STILL fails to do anything. There is no punishment. There is no conference with the Form teacher, or the House Mistress. Nothing. Just a bit of tutting and ‘what is the world coming to’ sort of thing.


The only explanation is that Darrell is a special case. There has to be some sort of under-the-table arrangement between Darrell’s parents and Miss Grayling. In lieu of mood suppressants or electro-shock therapy, these stiff upper-lip stalwarts are opting for the more conventional method to deal with Darrell’s mental illness: send the girl to boot camp and keep her in line just until she can be foisted off on some other poor sod. Then when the shit hits the fan, you can blame the poor husband; ‘she was such a good little girl’.

Miss Grayling is nothing if not a savvy business woman. She knows the value of a well bred vigilante, especially one whose parents are prepared to pay her to look the other way every so often …


Midnight wrestling, abseiling ... this school's actually starting to sound fun! But with all of the drama in this book, can the next book pip such gripping chapters as 'Daphne is Annoyed' or 'OY'? Who can say?

04 May 2010

Call For Book Suggestions

I’ve come to the realisation that a diet consisting solely of EB goodness might be a little damaging to my psyche. Ra Ra Ra and all that. I might decide that Pauline Hanson, although very common, has her heart in the right place about … ‘foreigners’. I might start smacking down people who do things I don’t like, wielding my hairbrush with a mighty and vengeful hand. I might start thinking nostalgically of my high school, remembering it fondly rather than as the truly horrific place that it was. No one actually likes being a teenager, especially when they are one, so why is it perfectly acceptable to look back fondly at those years of misery?

Anyway, I propose that I intersperse my reviews of EB books with other childhood ‘favourites’ and just random crap that I happen to come across. I’ll try and keep it old school, but as a child of the 90s, there are a few gems from that era bound to sneak in …

First up on my hit list (at the moment – this is a working list, some books might not really suit my style of deconstruction …):

Hating Alison Ashley (at my primary school, everyone studied that in year six)
Are you there God, it’s me, Margaret – Judy Blume (Just ‘cos it’s so awesome)
Baby-Sitters Club (do you know that Anne M. Martin is writing a prequel?)
Tomorrow When the War Began (Film tie-in – am I showing my age when I say I remember waiting for these books to come out?)
Sweet Valley (??? Really not sure about that, I thought they were kinda lame, even for my low standards)
Grug (he’s awesome)
Random books I happen to find (‘cos that’s always fun)

I was also thinking of dipping into other old favourites such as Goosebumps, Biggles, Trixie Belden, Hardy Boys … the older the book/s, the better.

I sat down to write a comprehensive list and I drew something of a blank – I read so many books growing up that they mixed together and petrified in that chaotic mess. Look into the crystallised lump of words and you might find a gymnast, much like one of these (Oh, how I loved these books in primary school! I borrowed them from my school library about 50 times each! And I think I now love this blog – totally on my wavelength …) I must find old copies of them.

So I want to know what you would like to see reviewed, and why. Feel free to stick the knife in if you think the book truly worthy of such treatment.

Oh and Malory Towers book two is coming … I just have to go back and re-read Darrell’s latest smack-down one more time!

P.S. I now have the theme tune to the old Baby-Sitters Club TV show … GAH!!!