26 July 2010

Don't say peculiar, that's just strange

People can be so stupid!

This is a link to the ABC's report of Hodder's latest brainwave.

They are going to re-edit Blyton.


This time, rather than get rid of the offensive racism (gone) or the offensive names (also gone) or even the outdated technology (gone in places), they're going for the REAL problem.

The vocabulary.

OK, I get why 'dirty tinker' needs to go, but 'swotter'? Altering 'mother and father' to 'mum and dad' seems pointless, and changing 'peculiar' to 'strange' is just stupid (in fact, I'd say that's counter-productive in the struggle to expand children's vocabulary). Hodder claim that it is being "sensitively and carefully" revised and that Blyton would approve as she wrote because there were no 'modern' books around when she was a girl. They say the aim is to make Enid's work 'timeless', so as to appeal to future generations.

Many people (as you will see in the discussion below the story) are annoyed, nay - outraged, at the stupidity of this action. They put forth the observation that it is only Enid who undergoes this constant revision; they argue that reading these old words will help children expand their knowledge and vocabulary; they claim that Blyton's vocab was indicative of the time and should stay as a testament to the period (and that generations continue to find our E appealing despite the old slang).

All of this I agree with. My problem with this action is, in addition the above, that despite the insidious nature of Blyton, she has a distinctive narrative voice, and her characters also speak in a particular way, that will be lost somewhat in the de-identification. Besides, the first thing that sprang to mind when I read this was Orwell's 'newspeak' in 1984.

And say what you will, saying George was 'jolly lonely' sounds a great deal more interesting than saying she was 'very lonely'. Those two phrases don't even mean the same thing! The latter adjective lends the phrase an element of self pity that the former does not; 'jolly' has quite a stiff upper lip feel to it. Lose the slang and you lose more than you bargained for ...

I hate to admit I was watching this (in my defense, it was after Masterchef and I couldn't be bothered getting up), but Jamie Oliver's US school show contained an element very similar to the idea behind this re-edit. When talking to the cooks about the lunch menu, he finds out that the children are never given a knife and fork to eat with because it is 'beyond their abilities', so between the ages of 4-11, they were not taught basic table manners and ate with a spoon and their fingers.

This re-edit is like that. This is a publisher deciding not to push children to grow and learn, but to drop back and make it easy for them. The loss of peculiar really irks me - I mean ... really? If a child doesn't know the word, they can LOOK IT UP! I remember writing word lists when I was young - I'd write down words I didn't know and find them in the dictionary. And I learned things that way.

GAH! You know what the result will be? Bland, dateless, over-edited books, devoid of narrative voice, lacking in decent dialogue, without the one major virtue of the distinct vocabulary. Seriously, if you want a modern children's book, there are so many writers out there you could keep your spawn reading until middle-age.

Just Leave Enid Alone!!

21 July 2010

Book 4 Again ... I know and I'm sorry, but this is the very last you'll hear about it!

Before I start, I just want to hand out a special commendation to Lol, who valiantly tried to remove the Blyton coloured glasses from an eight-year-old immersed in the Malory Towers chronicles. In the face of (what I understand to be) fanatic Blytonism, she laboured to suggest that Gwendoline wasn’t quite as bad as previously thought. The Blyton, unfortunately, was strong in that one … but I heartily endorse her de-programming efforts.

So, on to the book …

This is the last post on book 4. I promise. I didn’t mean to write so much on this book. It’s just that there is SO much packed into one little book that I just couldn’t let an issue pass.

And this is an issue that really pisses me off about our lady of Blyton. It really does. It’s lazy, unnecessary and manipulative and irks me no end.

It’s the introduction of the ‘next generation’.

That’s right. As well as the merry-go-round of new students in the dormy (ever wonder what happens to some of them? There is only space for ten or so in the one room. Scotch stereotype Jean and nervous wreck Ellen are too smart for the form, so have been moved up; American brainwash-ee Zerelda has gone back to the states to indoctrinate the continent of ignorant savages there into the ways of Our Enid; others from earlier books just disappear as they become superfluous. I actually think Enid drugs their tea at night and lobs them over the nearby cliffs, before returning to school and convincing the girls that “Violet doesn’t exist. There never was a Violet. Violet was just a dream …”. If she can get children to swallow some of the other crap she feeds them, why not this?), Enid also decided to go back basics and introduce two new first form characters.

There are two new ciphers in this book. Felicity, Darrell’s sister, and June, Alicia’s cousin, begin their school school career this term (with much copy-and-pasting from book one: train ride to school, wise words about school going quickly blah blah blah). Felicity is a cross between Darrell and Mary-Lou (all puppy dog eyes and strong sense of self-righteousness), while June is Alicia on steroids, exacerbated by a dash of Gwendoline stubbornness and all-round Blyton spitefulness. We watch their initial settling in issues, remember fondly reading about our own first term with Darrell (I’m not joking, there’s this indulgent and nostalgic ‘yes I’ve already done that’ sort of feel to the whole thing) and sagely agree that Felicity really shouldn’t be friends with June. It’s horridly smug and self indulgent – Felicity is such a dishrag there’s nothing to hate and June has not one redeeming feature in her make-up. I find it nauseating, which is interesting, as in previous reads I never really cared about the younger girls one way or the other. It’s just when you really look at these characters you see that they are so badly written as to be infuriating.

(Side note: E’s daughter Imogen is apparently the model for Felicity, but she was more like June in reality – the story goes that she, feeling neglected for being shipped off to school at an early age, she was rather a rebel and was almost expelled from one school – more about that in the next book.)

I really dislike this because there are already too many new characters to keep track of in each book. The narrative is divided up between two separate stories (rather than between characters in the one story), and in these later books, Darrell seems to take a back seat as the drama and comic set pieces are given to the younger, less ‘trained’ characters (to show the young readers the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour – because we will all benefit from a revision of the rules of the regime).

June in particular is set up to be re-programmed quite heavily, being a cross between Alicia and Gwedoline. Brilliant but stubborn, she is Enid’s vehicle for increasing the drama in the story. Darrell hates her, given her demonstrable resistance to the regime, and that, along with study stress, is a catalyst for her simmering Harry Potter-esque anger running throughout the book

In this case, June gets all bitter about being bullied by the older forms. Having some crazy idea that hierarchy shouldn’t matter, but also possessed of a very high opinion of herself, June gets bitter at the thought that she is henpecked by older girls. So when she finds out about (and joins in) the fourth form’s illegal midnight feast, she decides to turn herself in to look good to the teacher and ‘get back’ at the fourth form. It is about this time that Darrell finds out, leading to the smackdown scene that covers Darrell in shame for the rest of term (mentioned in the first post for this book).

Felicity, on the other hand, is all shy new girl throughout the book. She’s BFF’s with June until June’s smackdown, at which point she realigns herself with a more regime friendly, Darrell approved BFF (who is never actually seen, just spoken of, giving you an indication of the interestingness of her character). She doesn’t actually do anything, just add the ‘ooh, aah’ filler of a newbie at the school – Oh, and learn a valuable lesson for us all to take in and apply in our own lives. Today’s lesson is charismatic ‘bad boy’ types do not make good friends – stick with the regime friendly alternatives instead.

(Side note: If Bella from Twilight had read Blyton, that book could have ended sooooooo differently … she’d probably end up with Mike or something like that (since apparently she HAS to end up with someone). To be honest, it probably would have made the story more interesting …)

I truly loathe this introduction of the next generation. Not only does it take away from Darrell’s character development (which is something Enid would not want as she can’t do ‘growing up feelings’), the two new characters are just amalgamations and rehashes of extant characters. It’s done to reinforce this whole idea of ‘growing up’, in that the older characters are supposed to act in a more dignified manner, as befitting their advanced age (I believe they are all of 15 in this book). Once indoctrinated into the system, acting contrary to it is frowned upon – so we’ll never have the older characters acting out so badly as the younger girls: they’re meant to ‘know better’.

Also, in Enid-land, all adults are stupid (except her because she’s a super-cool freak with a photographic memory). A story about adults (even young ones) would be boring because they are all lacking in intelligence and overflowing in nuanced emotions that were beyond the literary grasp of our great lady. She doesn’t like writing about them. In her opinion, all your growing up is done by 18 and the rest of your life is just … nostalgia for those halcyon school days. The end of school is the end of life in E’s opinion, so it’s important to learn all the lessons you can before that dreadful day … and if you think that that is fatuous tripe, just wait and see what our Enid has in store for you later …

Right, so I’m done with book four (or as done as I can be in 3000 odd words – I could go on forever about why I wish Felicity could be killed off). Seriously, I’m actually going to move on … shocking I know. Given that I started reviewing this book before I went on holidays, it’s rather terrible that I’ve drawn the story out for over 4 weeks. My apologies for that.

Obviously, the next book is book 5, but the next post will be an examination of the regime in MT. All students are equal, but some are more equal than others …

02 July 2010

Upper Fourth at Malory Towers Pt II

The bitches of Upper Fourth

I almost thought I would have to backtrack on my vigorous defence of Darling Gwendoline after her antics in this book. Gwen could almost pass as a bitch in this instalment. And this put me in a bit of an awkward position.

There are two things you should know about me to understand this angst: 1/ I’m extremely stubborn and 2/ my favourite four words in the world are ‘I TOLD YOU SO’. Having delivered myself of an impassioned diatribe for everyone’s favourite bullying victim, and basked in your admiration for my inspired analysis, this book was a bit of a slap in the face. It was entirely possible that I would have to retract my analysis and admit that Enid was right. The thought had me distinctly worried; I hate backing down on an opinion – ESPECIALLY if I realise that I was wrong.

Then I thought about it, and thought about it, wrote an entry … and took off my Enid coloured glasses and realised that I was being influenced again. I should have realised the moment that Gwen showed up at school inexplicably fat (she’d never been so before).

Let’s look at what Gwendoline does. She makes a friend, one who mummy would approve of very much. The honourable Clarissa Carter, who turns up at school, undersized, burdened with braces and glasses and a heart condition, and no idea of how to go on at school (having never attended). Yes the friendship is self serving, but were I Clarissa, I would have been grateful for it. Speaking from experience (I started new schools 3 times in high school), the first thing you want is a companion of sorts. Sometimes the friendship doesn’t pan out, but that’s OK.

In this instance, Gwendoline’s lack of social nous stymies the friendship. She starts out by bitching about all the girls in the year (and let’s be honest, at that age – who doesn’t?) and taking advantage of the meek nature of Clarissa. Being the dominant member of the friendship for once, Gwen takes advantage of that position. But what can you expect? Looking at the example shown by Gwen’s mother and governess – or even by Gwen’s past friendships (in which she was the submissive character), that is how she sees friendships operate.

Eventually, Clarissa sneaks over to become friends with Bill, as it turns out that they are both horse mad (“hello world, this is me-eeee, life could be-eee-eee … fun for everyone” – and if you know that theme tune, have fun getting it out of your head). After which time, she joins the general dislike for my friend Gwen, having been effectively cured of her Gwendolinitis (aided by the miraculous improvement of her looks when her braces and glasses are dispensed with). So Gwen is left alone again, bitter and bullied.

Of course, Clarissa’s dislike may be due to the trick Gwen pulls on those around her, which was the cause of my discomfort. What made me change my mind is realising that this trick was so stupid that in the real world it would never have succeeded for an instant, so Blyton is just being wantonly vicious to poor Gwen.

Here it is: having noticed that Clarissa gets out of games because of her heart, Gwen decides to fake one too. Once in motion, Gwen decides to use this ploy to get out of the School Certificate. Picking the usual butt of jokes, Mme Dupont, as her target, she convinces her that she is ill, then arranges a meeting between the teacher and her mother at half-term, which results in her being taken home right before the exams. Of course, this all unravels when she is taken to a specialist who basically says ‘meh – she’s fine’, then absentee father turns up and decides to be all self-righteous and send her back to school to fail the exams (seriously, he raised her [or failed to do so] – then gets all sooky because she doesn’t turn out the way he wants).

My question is how could this trick have been so successful? Where was the principal in this? The sports mistress, the house mistress … anyone? Gwen got a sick note based on a couple of observations of one teacher, known for her gullibility? The whole series of events is so unlikely that I can’t really blame Gwen for getting away with it. Everyone tries to chuck a sickie at one stage of their school careers. Gwen is a known malingerer, she’s never had heart trouble before, and only one person can attest to having seen it. If that had been me, my mother would have had no trouble in dismissing my ‘illness’ as being what it truly was – a bunch of crap. Yet Gwen is portrayed as sly and sneaky and all types of nasty names and creditied with being a mastermind. Oh well, I suppose that in the land of rotting grapes, a raisin can be queen …

This episode, if it happened today, would be regarded as a cry for help. If someone these days was so desperate to get out of ‘one of the finest schools in the country’, people would be asking her what was going on to make her so averse to the idea of staying at school. Counselling sessions would be ordered – probably mediation with her peers as well. Here, Gwen is considered a failure and allowed to sit (and fail) her exams – to ‘teach her a lesson’. What that lesson is I don’t know, but Gwen has had enough experience of failure over her career at school not to really let it worry her … so Sucks to you, Malory Towers!

In other news, new students Ruth and Connie have different problems. Fraternal twins, Ruth is dominated by her larger twin Connie, who does everything for her. Ruth is smarter than Connie, and Connie, afraid of failing the School certificate, asks her to deliberately fail the test. It’s then when Ruth’s creepy side comes out. Connie’s things mysteriously start being destroyed by an unknown vandal. Through her usual methods of clever sleuthing (making a large assumption and then accusing someone), Darrell finds out that Ruth is behind the vandalism. So she goes to see her teacher (a first – I bet it’s because she’s brown-nosing, I mean, she does get back her form-bitch status from this) and dobs. Miss Williams, seeing the potential for Ruth to become a crazy axe-murderer or something (my money is on the idea of killing and eating her sister) and tells Darrell that it will all work out next term, so run along and let the grown ups deal with the problem. The end, all is well with the world again. Seriously.

One issue I have with this is the resolution. Ruth knows what happened, Darrell finds out, and a teacher is told. But Connie is left out of this circle of knowledge. Why not? Well, it boils down to the fact that Connie isn’t smart enough to understand. Ruth talks to Darrell about Connie’s dominance, but they decide to keep the vandalising to themselves. They also decide to just let things roll out naturally (Ruth moving up, Connie staying down) instead of sitting the twins down and having a talk about their issues. So Connie, has no clue of what is happening, nor why her sister is about to start cold-shouldering her, because she is deemed not smart enough to understand. It’s a prime example of Blyton’s ability to write people off who are not good enough for her. Snob

Another issue is that despite everyone else being given a second chance in the school, as soon the items start being destroyed, fingers start pointing at Gwendoline. This is based on one incident dating back to her first term – and she has made it to FOURTH FORM without a repeat. Do we ever hear of people missing items and blaming Daphne? Or bruises being blamed on Darrel (even though they probably were her work)?