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The enduring appeal of Enid Blyton's Famous Five
SAY THE words ‘Kirrin’ and ‘island’ to most British adults – and quite a few children – and they’ll immediately be transported to a place of unimaginable adventure, freedom and lashings of ginger beer.
Yes, it really is 70 years since Julian, Dick and Anne, George and Timmy the dog first rowed across the bay to their treasure island and in so doing became an international institution.
Since 1942 more than 100million of us have joined them – that’s how many of the books have sold since the complicated, Dorset-loving author Enid Blyton first unleashed her Famous Five on the world.
As in all her books the sun is always shining, the sea is warm enough for a bathe, the food supply is limitless and the bad people are conveniently caught and punished at the end.
Is that why we still love them? Or is there more to them than that?
Blyton aficionado Viv Endecott, who runs Corfe Castle’s Ginger Pop Shop and Eileen Soper’s Illustrated Worlds on Poole Quay, both dedicated to all things Blyton, believes the five are enduring because they represent the ideal of how children think their childhood should be.
“People say they are timeless but really the word is enduring because they are very much set in their own time,” she says.
“They’ve always represented a slight fantasy but I should think for most children today going beyond your garden gate without some adult looking over your shoulder is fantasy enough.”
During the books the five manage to overcome kidnapping, hostage-situations, imprisonment in dungeons, choppy seas, getting lost on a fog-bound moor and smugglers. They join a dodgy circus, befriend a rubber man, cycle around like lunatics, investigate strange lights at sea, and manage to vanquish annoying working class people like cook’s son Edgar Stick.
The fact that the books were written during a time of war and horrific uncertainly may also explain their comforting qualities; food was plentiful, people were free and those who did wrong were caught and soundly punished.
Viv Endecott believes another strand of their appeal is the fact that many of the five’s adventures, more than any other of her series, are rooted in the Dorset countryside with recognisable locations, if you know where to look.
With this in mind she has launched a Famous Five Adventure Trail for visitors to the county, which will run throughout the summer.
“There are six clues which you can download from the website ffivetrail.co.uk and it’s designed to take place over a couple of days, or even a week, not be knocked off in one afternoon,” she explains.
“It will give you a Purbeck day and a Poole day and the point is that it should be something to linger over and savour.”
And don’t worry if you haven’t read the books, although the trail is based on the novel Five on Kirrin Island Again.
“You won’t need to know anything about the books to solve it,” she says. “But for those who do know the books it will resonate all over the place.”
As she points out, there are plenty of Famous Five locations in the area, from Manor Farm at Stourton Caundle, which used to be owned by Blyton, to Corfe Castle itself, which was the inspiration behind illustrator Eileen Soper’s vision for Kirrin Castle on Kirrin Island.
Recent research has suggested that Kirrin Island, thought by some to be Brownsea Island, was actually inspired by an island off Jersey, which Blyton visited in 1924.
“My take on it is that she took a castle that she knew – Corfe – and an island that she knew and put one on top of the other!” says Endecott.
She also has a theory about why the so-called Whispering Island, which features in Five Have A Mystery to Solve, is based on Brownsea.
“There are details in that book that you could only know if you’d spent time speaking to people who’d spent a lot of time on Brownsea,” she says. “My theory is that there were 200 highly disgruntled former Brownsea islanders who had been kicked off the place by Mrs Bonham- Christie in the 1920s, working in the hotels of Bournemouth and Swanage.
“They must have been keen to tell anybody how happy life had been there before this horrid old lady had evicted them. I’m sure Blyton must have met one and had a chat.”
Whatever the truth of that, what cannot be disputed is that the Famous Five have become emblematic characters in English literature.
Because who doesn’t want to have an adventure on a treasure island?