By Paul Edmund Norman
?N?el Coward once talked about the potency of ?cheap music?. Well, I?m a great believer in the potency of ?cheap? literature!?? So says Mary Cadogan, world-renowned writer and broadcaster. Mary didn?t start writing until she was nearly fifty years old, and only then after a career that saw her working for the BBC from the age of seventeen, and during the War on programmes such as Workers? Playtime, where she met popular stars like Tommy Handley and Arthur Askey. After three years she trained in music and dance therapy for children and young adults suffering from polio, but returned to the BBC?s Schools Broadcasting Department in 1953. Five years later she decided on a radical change of direction and worked for Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher for almost twenty years. It was then she decided she had something to bring to the writing world, and a chance meeting with a fellow school-story enthusiast, Patricia Craig, led to her first book, YOU?RE A BRICK, ANGELA! In 1976. This volume is now something of a Bible to people studying the genre (you can read my ?appreciation? of this seminal work in the November issue of Gateway Monthly), with such luminaries as Sir Tim Rice and Giles Brandreth citing it as one of their ?favourites?. Mary followed this success with other notable studies of writers such as Richmal Crompton and Frank Richards, amongst others. Along with YOU?RE A BRICK, ANGELA, her other book about girls? school stories, CHIN UP, CHEST OUT, JEMIMA! has been republished by GIRLS GONE BY PUBLISHERS (you can read about this most remarkable publishing house in this issue of Gateway Monthly). Mary continues to write and broadcast she?s working on an autobiography right now, and is already booked for more than a dozen lectures in 2005! Meanwhile she edits and publishes the STORYPAPER COLLECTORS? DIGEST, details of which can also be found in this month?s issue. The following interview was conducted by post and by telephone. Mary is both informative and knowledgeable, and as active now as she has ever been! This ?assignment? was a real pleasure and Mary has already agreed to do something else for Gateway Monthly in the near future. I for one can?t wait! Now read on?.
GM: Hello, Mary. A warm welcome to Gateway Monthly and a big thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. My first question is one I know you?ll have an opinion on. Do you believe that the standard of fiction for young people, particularly in the UK, is better now than, say, forty or fifty years ago, when Enid Blyton was still prevalent? Or is it just different?
MC: In some ways it is just as good because we have the work of outstanding children?s authors such as Alan Garner, Philippa Pearce, Jan Needle, Anne Fine, Gene Kemp and many other contemporary writers. But, of course, not all children read their books. By the way, Enid Blyton is still widely read. She and authors like Anne Digby, Anthony Buckeridge, W E Johns, Robert Leeson and Geoffrey Trease (as well as J K Rowling) continue to provide reading stimulus and excitements for today?s children. Thank God for them! And we still have the great classics, Carroll, Alcott, Nesbit, Tolkien, C S Lewis and so on.
GM: People, especially critics, are always ready to knock something successful. In the case of J K Rowling and Harry Potter, other authors have come out fighting; just because something is enjoyable does not mean that it has less worth than something more academic. Would you agree with that? I myself have an opinion that people like Enid Blyton and Frank Richards are great writers, and the critics simply got it wrong.
MC: It seems to me positively brainless for anyone to suggest that popular writers like Enid Blyton, J K Rowling and Frank Richards are not superb story-spinners. Frank Richards, in particular, had tremendous influence on the thinking of several generations of boys and girls; his stories provided standards and values. He, Rowling, Blyton and Richmal Crompton have probably done more to encourage children to know the pure joy of reading than many of the academically more respected authors.
GM: It seems peculiar that institutions such as public libraries could withdraw Blyton from the shelves on the grounds of political correctness. I don?t believe for one second that Enid Blyton had any bad racial tendencies, and the use of Golliwogs as villains was coincidental rather than anything else; just a set of characters. One has to remember that in the early 1950s, when Enid was at her height, coloured people in Britain were a novelty. Do you have an opinion on Enid?s political correctness?
MC: I think some librarians withdrew Enid Blyton?s books because they felt that the kids got hooked on her and would read no-one else. She said that she wrote for three-year-old children and remained with them for the rest of their childhoods. Often true but so what? Surely she encouraged them to read with relish, and they would eventually go on to other writers. I?ve met many enthusiasts (one might say addicts) of children?s books but so far I?ve never met anyone over the age of ten who?s obsessively hooked on Blyton to the total exclusion of other authors. I don?t think Enid would have consciously written anything to hurt or denigrate people. When I was a child (in the 1930s) golliwogs were, like teddy-bears, characters amongst our much loved soft toys. We never connected them with black people. And, as you say, up to the 1950s (and particularly before the Second World War) most children in Britain would never have seen ?coloured? people (in my case, before the 1940s, I?d never even met a ?foreigner? except for a solitary Chinese girl, brought over by missionaries, who attended one of our Sunday School outings!) The war began to change things for me because gradually my school in South East England began to include refugee pupils from Nazi-occupied Europe French, Dutch, Belgian and, of course, Jewish girls. If we look back to the 1910s, ?20s and ?30s, we have to say that several adult authors who are recognized as distinguished (i.e. John Buchan), did write disparagingly about foreigners referring to them contemptuously as ?dagoes?, and worse. With hindsight critics have sometimes condemned them for this, but it seems to me that they have shown the adult writers more tolerance than poor old much-maligned (but still perpetually resilient) Enid Blyton.
GM: I read somewhere that you found Richmal Crompton a difficult subject for a biography as no one could find anything bad to say about her. I?ve read your biography of Frank Richards and couldn?t really find anything bad said about him, either. Both Crompton and Richards became noted for their ?anti-heroes?, Just William and William George Bunter respectively. Bunter is a little like Flashman, in some respects. Biggles, on the other hand, and Capt. W E Johns? other subjects are very much heroes, and although there are Internet groups still discussing Biggles, he?s not as much in the public mind as William and Bunter. Is the fact that they are rebellious anti-heroes part of their appeal, do you think?
MC: Yes, I think children did, and still do, respond to anti-heroes. Most very young people (and this is more obvious in previous decades) recognize their own vulnerability in an adult-dominated world. They have often been confused by adult hypocrisy which, for example, urges children to tell the truth although they (the adults) frequently twist and torture truth; adults also stress the value of kindness while they can often be callous and manipulative. Not surprisingly, therefore, children have identified with Richmal Crompton?s ?Just William?, the arch-debunker of adults, and with Bunter who was the fat, almost retarded, underdog who nevertheless generally managed to come out on top of the heap.
GM: I know that you regularly give lectures and attend conferences, such as those about the Chalet School stories by Eleanor Brent-Dyer. But the vast majority of the people who attend your lectures and the Chalet School conferences are ?older?, and not children (I presume). We still read Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Dickens and Thackeray. I can see why today?s youngsters don?t read Bunter and William, (though I believe Enid Blyton is often still cited as the most popular children?s author); they have other, more modern writers catering for their needs. J K Rowling will always have a huge following and I foresee groups discussing Harry Potter in twenty or thirty years? time. But what other modern children?s writers can you imagine being held in the same regard as Blyton and Richards in the next fifty years?
MC: In 50 years time I am sure that children will still be reading with great enjoyment Harry Potter and Just William. Possibly too there will be a revival of the more traditional school tales because young readers often like to savour the adventures of children from previous eras. For example, even when I read Angela Brazil?s school stories in the 1930s, they were ?old-fashioned?, but I still loved them. I think they will still be reading Alan Garner, Terry Pratchett, Geoffrey Trease, William Mayne and Michael Morpurgo and Philip Pullman. And, of course, many Victorian classics, and Tolkien and Lewis will still be around.
GM: It is a major source of dismay to me that there are now no weekly story papers for children. Everything is focused on the world of pop music, fashion, ?celebrities? and make-up (in the case of girls. Boys have nothing whatsoever). This is partly due to the advent of computer games, but in a time when the government is alarmed by the fact that some young people leave junior school without being able to read properly, don?t you think a weekly story paper would be a good thing? There are plenty of pre-school comics and story papers. Why do you think the weeklies finally folded in the late 1990s?
MC: I absolutely agree with you in bemoaning the passing of the weekly story papers. I used to devour the MAGNET and the SCHOOLGIRL avidly in the 1930s, week by week, and year by year. By swapping, when one?s favourite story paper had been read, one could also read the GEM, MODERN BOY and GIRLS? CRYSTAL. What unadulterated joy! If anything gave me the feeling, in childhood, that the world was my oyster and a wonderfully interesting and exciting place it was the story papers. I read these at the same time as I was devouring the works of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bront? and Anna Sewell etc. It never struck me then, or now, that there was anything fundamentally in opposition about these two types of reading. I think the weeklies folded because they just couldn?t sell enough to remain economic. From the ?50s, with the growing popularity of TV, videos and later the computer and the Internet, they were fighting a losing battle against pictorial images which were easier to assimilate than written words. At the adult level there was a massive decline in the 1950s and ?60s of the short-story magazines. Before the war (and the advent of TV in every home) there were so many wonderful examples of these. Now, apart from specialist ones, there are virtually none. Very sad.
GM: Women With Wings, Billy Bunter, Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton? who?s next? You?ve covered popular school story fiction in ?You?re a Brick? and ?Chin Up?, and you?re the foremost expert on Frank Richards, Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton. Who else, from the last century, do you see as a ?giant? of juvenile literature other than people like Angela Brazil and Eleanor Brent-Dyer? Geoffrey Trease? Monica Dickens? Perhaps you?re working on someone?s biography right now?
MC: I have no plans at present to write another biography except my own; an autobiographical work is in the pipeline. There are, of course, several giants of twentieth-century juvenile literature. Edith Nesbit and Alan Garner particularly come to mind. Frank Richards and Richmal Crompton specially appealed to me because of their humour, and the perceptive, many-faceted approach of their stories. They understood not only many aspects of childhood but human beings and society generally. I think, by the way, that any good children?s book, except those for the very teeny-weenies, is also a book which can be enjoyed by adults.
GM: Going back to J K Rowling and Harry Potter for a moment, I?ve read in a few places that she writes as though the story is a screenplay, a series of visual scenes rather than a narrative such as you and I are used to in traditional literature. This is probably symptomatic of the age in which we live, which is dominated by film and television images. In that sense she will probably never join the ranks of the ?great writers? (though that?s not for me to say, of course!) but do you agree with that assessment of her writing?
MC: I think the ?screenplay? idea in connection with J K Rowling is somewhat valid. Since the mid-1950s, with the enormous impact of television on everyone?s lives, children have grown up with this visual, rather than printed-page, awareness. When I was a child, radio or wireless as we then called it enhanced for me, and hundreds of thousands of children, delight in books. But, with radio, we had to use our imaginations, just as we do in interpreting the printed word. TV demands less imagination, I suppose. Is J K R a ?great? writer? How can anyone deny this in practical terms? She?s so extraordinarily addictive. (My only reservation about the popularity of her books is that, although the appeal of Harry Potter is understandable, there are so many other excellent contemporary children?s stories around which have sadly made little impact on the public.)
GM: Of course, everyone is falling over themselves trying to find a new formula that will capture the imagination of children. It has been said that Harry Potter has brought children to the world of reading where conventional methods have failed. I won?t ask you if you know what the formula is, that would be like you giving me a cheque for several million pounds! But you and I both love school stories, and HP is, for the most part, a school story, though certain aspects of it are secondary. Also, Harry is an unlikely hero, quite unlike the ?heroes? in Bunter and Blyton. I?m thinking of Harry Wharton, Roger and Diana from the Barney series. Modern children might find these ?heroes? a bit ?wet?. Yet school is still compulsory for all children in the UK. Is it the case that modern children don?t like school as much and therefore don?t want to read about it, do you think?
MC: J K Rowling has brilliantly harnessed the appeal of the boarding-school, as the world in microcosm. Also, of course, as do the Just William and several other good stories for juveniles, she empowers the child, thus appealing to the vulnerability of young readers. And, in an increasingly materialistic world, she has not been afraid to use magic! Another big thing going for JKR is that Harry Potter is a series character: as Richmal Crompton, Frank Richards, W E Johns, Elinor Brent-Dyer, Elsie Jeanette Oxenham, Dorita Fairlie Bruce and the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys stories proved so well, child readers love to follow their heroes and heroines (or anti-heroes and anti-heroines!) through a series of books. I have never understood why so many contemporary writers, having created excellent characters, have not then featured them in series stories. Answering the last part of your question, I suppose children often look for adventures outside of school, because late twentieth-century day-school settings do not provide authors with the scope that the old boarding-schools, in rugged and glamorous locations, did.
GM: When I was at Grammar school in Gloucester, I had all my friends earmarked for the characters in Bunter. I could never have been Harry Wharton, I was never any good at games until the sixth form, when I discovered rowing! But we had a Bunter, and a Cherry, and a Wharton, though no Ram Singh, not in the 1950s. I longed to go to a boarding school and have the sort of adventures they had. The Magnet folded a few years before I was born, but Bunter continued in Knockout, and I was there when the Tiger and the Lion started out, and treasured them. But my dream was of boarding school and the inevitable life of intrigue and mystery that Richards conjured up for nigh on thirty years. I think the secret of that lies in the fact that nothing much changed in Britain during the first fifty-five years of the century. After that, the pace picked up beyond all recognition; ordinary people started to buy cars, and travel abroad. The mystique of the boarding school folded almost overnight for boys (though it continued for at least another twenty years for girls!). Would you agree that a step-change in the way we lived occurred in the late 1950s?
MC: Yes, the 1950s changed so much in society. Probably that decade can be compared with the 1920s also a directly post-war period in breaking down many long accepted traditions.
GM: I?m a long-time admirer of Eric Fleming. I remember writing to him as editor of the Commander Annual in the 1950s and receiving a very polite and comprehensive reply. You?re an expert biographer. Where would you start researching someone like Eric Fleming? I managed to find someone on the web who had been a pupil at the school where Eric Fleming was headmaster. There isn?t much you can?t find out on the web I know you said you hadn?t got to grips with it, but if you?d exhausted all the other, conventional avenues, would you go there as a last resort?
MC: I really don?t know! but yes, I?d try the web, and letters to newspapers, and letters for publication in a variety of ?fanzines?. Also I?d approach literary societies like the Children?s Books History Society. Sorry not to be more helpful over this. Obtaining information about a deceased author is sometimes like piecing together a very jumbled and incomplete jigsaw puzzle. I?ve found serendipitous, as well as orderly research often plays a part. Publishers on the whole cannot provide much information about old authors, unfortunately.
GM: You are probably aware of the vast numbers of people using the web to discuss various authors in ?groups?. There?s a Billy Bunter group, there?s a Chalet School group, there?s an Enid Blyton group, and there are the GO-ers. Girls Own, run by some lovely people in Australia and with a worldwide membership, discusses everything that our generation holds dear, especially literature. They will be particularly interested in this interview, just as they were (and are) in my interview with Anne Digby. Such groups are the lifeblood of the Internet. Ask a question and someone will have an answer for you within minutes. Favourite authors, favourite characters, etc. Do you have an all-time favourite author? Someone you keep coming back to, to re-read, time and time again?
MC: Yes, the interest in popular books shown through the internet is astoundingly strong. Do I have an all-time favourite author? Yes. I would have to say Jane Austen. I?ve loved her six main novels since I was a schoolgirl, and I frequently re-read them, and re-hear them on audio tapes, and re-view them on videos. I always seem to find something new in them. However, I also have an almost lifelong fascination with Baroness Orczy?s THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (mainly the first book and not the sequels). Similarly, I re-read this and re-savour it on audio tape and in video recordings of film versions. I know it isn?t ?great? literature but it certainly has been life-enriching for me. What an amazing woman Baroness Orczy was! Couldn?t speak a word of English until she was 15, and went on fairly soon afterwards to create a very English hero and role-model who has already survived for a hundred years. For children?s writers, my all-time favourites, whom I constantly re-read, are Frank Richards, Richmal Crompton and Dorita Fairlie Bruce.
GM: You?ll have seen from my website that I have literature from all eras and most genres in it. I like to think of Gateway Monthly as a virtual library, one that?s open 24 hours a day, 365 days a week. ?We never close? is my motto. I try to find stories and feature articles for everyone, but the subject I get most e-mails about is school stories. Why do you think school stories became the mainstay of popular children?s fiction through most of the twentieth century? As you say in ?You?re a Brick, Angela?, compulsory schooling for children only became properly established and enforced in the 1900s. Adventure fiction appeared regularly in weekly publications like The Strand, yet within a few years of the start of the century, the Magnet and the Gem were drawing audiences of hundreds of thousands, with children, both boys and girls, desperate to read the adventures of the boys of Greyfriars. Why? What was the appeal?
MC: I think we?ve already discussed this. The boarding-school is the world in microcosm, with Mums and Dads out of the way, and the girls and/or boys very much responsible for their own destinies. A tremendous setting for developing rivalries and, more particularly, friendships. A world close enough to their own for most children to identify with yet imaginatively, and sometimes fantastically, different from, and more highly charged than, what they know at first hand.
GM: Did you ever meet any of the people whose biographies you?ve written? Blyton, Richards, Crompton? If not, which one of them would you like to meet, if you could choose one, and why?
MC: Of course I?ve met many contemporary authors about whom I?ve written features. Icons from my childhood reading whom I?ve met include Noel Streatfeild, P L Travers and Richmal Crompton. I met Noel Streatfeild at her home in London after we?d had correspondence about children?s fiction, and particularly the work of Edith Nesbit whom we both admired. Noel was fairly elderly then, and, I seem to recall, didn?t live for long afterwards. She was robustly forthright, completely unsentimental about children, and very helpful and encouraging towards me. I knew P L Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, over a period of several years. Our first contact was through a shared interest in mysticism and in the use of magic, and the numinous, in children?s stories. She was an intriguing mixture of Irish/Australian fey, whimsy and earthiness. I rate her books extremely highly.
I met Richmal Crompton in the late 1940s when she must have been in her late fifties. I was then working with a London-based organization concerned with the rehabilitation of people disabled by poliomyelitis, or infantile paralysis, as it was then often called. Richmal, who had herself been disabled by this as a young woman, was generously helpful to our organization. I met her on two or three occasions when she visited our shabby offices in Tavistock Place. She was fairly quiet and unassuming but usually, soon after her arrival, she would make us all laugh at her description of some incidence of bureaucracy or pomposity which she?d recently come across. She was extremely genial, and her humour was unmalicious. Sadly, because I was then very young and shy (and hadn?t fully developed my interest in children?s literature) I never asked her any questions about the William books and the process of creating them.
I nearly met another of my favourite children?s authors, Dorita Fairlie Bruce. During the 1960s we had corresponded for a year or two, and she invited me to come and see her. However, when my husband and I planned a visit to Scotland, where she had been living, I telephoned only to be told that regrettably Miss Bruce had passed away a few months earlier. I was still so determined to meet her that I found myself asking ?If I send a letter will you forward it?? Alas our meeting was not to be.
I did have the great pleasure of meeting two of the male authors who had, under the pen-name of ?Hilda Richards?, written the stories of Cliff House School which I?d so much loved in the between-the-wars girls? papers. They wrote as well for the boys? papers. They were John Wheway and L E Ransome, who also wrote tales of adventure, suspense and detection. They were both in their seventies when I met them. Each provided me with a fund of fascinating information about the challenges for men in writing about girls for female audiences. L E Ransome also helped to stimulate the creation of YOU?RE A BRICK, ANGELA!, simply by suggesting that I should write a book about the girls? papers of the 1920s and 1930s. This idea was expanded into the book which I wrote in co-operation with Patricia Craig. This eventually covered the period from 1837 to 1976. And Girls? stories of all kinds, from those in story papers to the hardback ones. I would very much like to have met Frank Richards. It?s interesting that all my favourite authors for children and adults are women, with the exception of Frank Richards.
GM: I?d like to ask a question about Girls Gone By Publishers, if I may. ?You?re a Brick, Angela? was originally published by Victor Gollancz, forever associated with the yellow SF and crime series for which they were justifiably famous throughout the fifties and sixties. Girls Gone By is a small independent publishing house specialising in reprints of school stories and books about school stories. I?m especially pleased to have been able to get copies of both your books from them, ?You?re a Brick? and ?Chin Up?. I was surprised to hear from Anne Digby the other day that it is proving difficult getting the Trebizon series re-published. How important to the publishing world are outfits like Girls Gone By, do you think? There is clearly a market for these books, yet mainstream publishers won?t entertain them any more. Your own Enid Blyton School Stories appears to have been remaindered after only a couple of years, yet it?s a beautiful volume, full of wonderful illustrations and exemplary writing in the genre.
MC: I think there is a good market for these reprints, and not only the nostalgic one. Apparently girls and young women are amongst the regular customers of GIRLS GONE BY PUBLISHERS. I think many commercial publishers are too wary of taking risks. They don?t want to appear ?old-fashioned? or, of course, ?politically incorrect? in any way. And in their view, anything before 1950 or 1960 ranks as ?historical fiction?, and not applicable to today?s children.
GM: Where, in the field of school story fiction, would you place Enid Blyton? I read in your book that Angela Brazil started the whole thing off, and I can?t argue with that. But your expert knowledge both of Blyton and the genre in general puts you in an almost unique position to answer this question.
MC: It?s interesting that you should ask my assessment of Enid Blyton in the same breath as mentioning Angela Brazil. I feel that in some ways Enid Blyton, from the 1950s onwards, is a kind of latterday Angela Brazil as far as the school story goes. Both are more lightweight with characterization and plots than, say, Brent-Dyer, Oxenham, Bruce or Ethel Talbot. But both are extremely readable and, within the genre?s parameters, ?pacey?. Probably their school stories have appealed to slightly younger readers than those by the other writers mentioned.
GM: For almost a decade, people have been forecasting the death of the printed word. Gateway Monthly was the only way I could get my own stories published, and I like to think it serves a valuable purpose. I also publish other people?s stories, of course. If it ever led to anything in the way of success for them, or for me, for that matter, I?d be overjoyed. But there is nothing quite like holding in your hands a beautiful book, don?t you agree? Even Stephen King tried the e-book experiment and went back to hard copy. I can?t see bookshops ever closing down in favour of people sitting in front of screens, can you? Gateway Monthly is designed specifically for people to scan quickly, select the story they want and print it off to read later, in comfort. E-publishing is huge, but it will never replace the printed book, which has to be the greatest possession.
MC: I absolutely agree with you that nothing can replace the satisfaction of holding a beautiful book in one?s hands (or even an old and now shabby story-paper). Just the smell of the paper and printer?s ink is a promise of pleasure. Reading from a screen, or even downloading, is a different and lesser experience. But, in saying all this, I recognize that I am truly a bookaholic!
GM: I?ve always said that if I were stranded on a desert island, I?d have to cheat and take with me the collected works of Stephen King, all the Mahler symphonies, the entire Ring Cycle, all the Beethoven symphonies, all the Brahms, Shostakovich, Beatles, Electric Light Orchestra, Django Reinhardt, etc., etc. I couldn?t survive with just eight pieces of music and one book. If I have a favourite piece of music, it?s because I love that composer, and almost everything else they do. It?s the same with books. My favourite Enid Blytons are the Barney mysteries. I was in love with Diana almost from page one of the Rockingdown Mystery, and still have these books in my collection. What books and music, for that matter could you not do without on your desert island?
MC: This is always an agonizing question. If I confine the book choice to fiction I can make an attempt to answer it (but how could one live without the work of Shakespeare, and some more recent playwrights, or without poetry?) Of course I?d take all Jane Austen?s novels, and THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. Also the three Ruritanian novels of Anthony Hope, one retelling of the Arthurian legends (I can?t yet decide which), a few of the early and 1940s Just William books, and a broad sampling of Frank Richards? school stories from vintage MAGNETS, GEMS and BOYS? FRIENDS. I?d also take several SCHOOLGIRLs and SCHOOLGIRLS? OWNs (for stories of Cliff House and Morcove Schools) and as many Dorita Fairlie Bruce school stories, from her Dimsie, Nancy and Springdale School series, as possible. Charlotte Bront??s JANE EYRE and Daphne du Maurier?s REBECCA would be essential. For wonderful comfort reading I would take some of the lovely TIGER TIM ANNUALs from the 1920s and early ?30s, when Foxwell was the main illustrator. And I would have to have some of the classic fairy stories. I?d also take some of Dorothy Sayers? Lord Peter Wimsey books for the sheer joy of her quality prose and characterization, even though the sleuthing puzzles now, after so many re-readings, hold no further mysteries for me to unravel. As for music, I would take a lot of the popular songs of the Second World War period, because I think they reached their zenith then, and I can listen to them over and over again. I would also wish to have Handel?s MESSIAH, and a lot of Chopin and Elgar.
GM: We spoke briefly about films on the phone. Do you have a top ten favourites list you?re prepared to share with us?
MC: Again, how desperately difficult to make a choice. It?s personal and has little to do with quality, only with appeal, and memories of how we were when we first saw them, don?t you think? I?d choose THE SEVENTH VEIL, GONE WITH THE WIND, THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (The Leslie Howard version) TOP HAT, SWING TIME and SHALL WE DANCE; THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (both the Ronald Colman and Stewart Granger versions) but I could go on and on.
GM: What did you think of the BBC?s Big Read? I love Lord of the Rings, though I have to say I prefer the film version to the book, which in places I find dry and slow-paced. I firmly believe LOTR came in at number one because the films were being made at the same time. I don?t know that I would have chosen any of the top ten as my favourites, because I prefer ?popular? fiction. I could never understand, when I was doing English A Level, why my favourites were not in the syllabus. The Saint, for example. Brilliantly funny, well-crafted, fabulous stories. Dennis Wheatley?s The Devil Rides Out is a classic, no doubt about that. Tarzan of the Apes the original superhero, the original cult figure, the classic romance, nowhere to be found. I did The First Men in the Moon, by H G Wells, for O level. Not The Time Machine, which is a real classic, of course, but a title of which few people had heard at the time I was at school. Why is popular fiction frowned upon by the powers-that-be?
MC: I?m not often really stirred by adventure fiction. I can see how attractive it must be to many people, however. You ask why popular fiction is frowned upon by ?the powers that be?. Presumably this means academics, librarians, critics. I imagine that sometimes personal frustrations in literary ambitions might play a part also a desire to control the reading (and hence the opinions and attitudes) of others, especially children.
GM: There is a huge market for Bunter and Blyton books now that the Internet has opened up on-line auctions, with people paying the most ridiculous prices for collections of The Magnet and so on. Does this surprise you at all? Do you find it gratifying that people are still interested in the exploits of the Fat Owl of the Remove?
MC: No, I?m not at all surprised that Frank Richards? stories are sought in online auctions. I started reading the MAGNET when I was seven and a half. It opened up a new and exciting world for me then, and I can always revisit Greyfriars School and feel at home there. Frank Richards is a truly addictive writer and a great story-teller. There is a richness in his perspective approach to boyhood and in his humour which is almost unmatched by other twentieth-century writers.
GM: There?s also a huge market for copies of School Friend, Girls Crystal, Bunty and Judy annuals, all of which have excellent school stories, mostly written in the 1950s and 1960s. How important are these to the overall school story genre, do you think? I?m thinking, in particular, of series such as The Four Marys, in Bunty, which ran almost from the start of Bunty right up to the very last issue in the late 1990s.
MC: I can understand that there?s a good market too for the girls? story-papers, especially those featuring school stories. My heroines from the SCHOOLGIRL Barbara Redfern and Clara Trevlyn of Cliff House School were role-models for me, and countless others of my generation. As an adult, I can still savour their exploits and see why these characters influenced me. They were teenage girls, so well described by their authors that the reader could see the woman that the girl would grow up to be. And they embodied fine values and qualities. The Four Marys came a little later. I enjoyed their exploits (partly identifying with the name, of course). Like all good school stories, these particularly stressed the value of friendship.
GM: My Christmas annuals from the 1950s, the Commander Books, had twelve or more stories in at least ten separate genres; frontier, spy, nature, historical etc., but there were always two or more school stories. I always used to pinch my sister?s books to read them as well. But I recently found out that a large proportion of the ?women? who wrote in those 1950s annuals were actually men. With Angela Brazil and Eleanor Brent-Dyer bringing school stories into mainstream fiction in the early part of the century, why do you think it fell to the men to keep the genre going during the second half?
MC: The policy of Lord Northcliffe?s Amalgamated Press (and particularly of R T Eves, the overall Editor of the girls? papers between the wars) was that women could not produce girls? stories which were as adventurous and lively as those which men could create. This was because they felt that all women authors were potentially mothers who would feel protective (or over-protective) towards their girl readers. They wouldn?t want them to do anything that might be socially unacceptable. Therefore all the great Amalgamated Press story-papers, SCHOOLFRIEND, SCHOOLGIRL, SCHOOLGIRLS? OWN, SCHOOLGIRLS? WEEKLY, GIRLS? CRYSTAL etc., were written, edited and illustrated almost entirely by men, using women?s names. They made their young heroines extremely active in their own interests never passive, and never dominated by adults or assertive boys. Their stories were really in the vanguard of the feminist movement!
There is a distinct difference in the flavour of their stories and those of the women writers in hardback; Angela Brazil, Eli nor Brent-Dyer, Elsie Jeanette Oxenham, Dorita Fairlie Bruce, etc. These are softer (in the positive sense of the word): but both branches of the schoolgirl genre are compelling and addictive.
LASTLY on the theme of men writing for girls, one should remember that the most famous small girl in fiction, Alice, was created by a man (Lewis Carroll, of course). And isn?t it interesting that some of the most addictive and longest-running boy heroes of the twentieth century have been created by women: Just William by Richmal Crompton, Rupert Bear by Mary Tourtel, Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend, and, now, of course, Harry Potter by Joanna Rowling.
Is this creation of characters of the opposite sex a process of anima/animus projecting, or is it that their authors are actually describing the childhoods they would like to have had, but from which their gender precluded them?
GM: Thanks again for agreeing to be interviewed for Gateway Monthly, Mary I?d like to wish you every success for the future.