- Enid Blyton
“Can you write a biography of somebody without ever knowing the true facts? Why, you barely know anything about me.”
She’s bored and not trying to hide it. I suspect that she never hides the way that she feels. I saw the little flash of irritation when they took a little too long to bring her tea and I watch her now as she bites down on her cake to discover jam inside of it.
“Jam,” she says, with tight fury, “Jam should never be unexpectedly found in things. It should always be obvious. It should be announced and spread lavishly on bread thick with butter, and it should be on scones,” – she draws out the o, rounding it with feeling – “but never, never, unexpectedly on a cake.”
“I know you don’t like jam,” I say, trying to make a joke.
It goes as well as you can imagine. This literary Boudicca from the home counties, this woman wrapped in clothes thick and dense as armour, simply looks at me.
She smiles. “Yes,” she says, “Alright then. Tell me more about your” – a brief, hideous pause – “biography.”
“It’s not actually a biography at all,” I say. “I mean, of course you’re going to play a huge part. The hugest, in fact.” I watch the way a smile slides onto her face, easy as sunrise. There she is, I think, I have her. “You’re epochal. But I’m also interested in the genre-”
“Disgusting,” she says.
She nods. “Of course it is.”
“I hoped you might see it differently-”
She shakes her head. “I’m not sure I will my dear. People use me and then leave me, it’s what they do.”
I wonder for a brief moment whether she’s talking about her books or her personal life.
And, because she is who she is, she realises this and doesn’t let me have a moment longer.
“My god,” she says, “The books you fool. People criticise them and tear them to pieces left right and centre. The establishment. The-” her eyes lock on me, “genre people won’t have anything to do with me. And so I don’t have anything to do with them.”
“Talk to me some more about that idea of appropriation.”
“It’s not appropriation,” she says, “It’s theft. People like you steal my books and they always have and they always will.”
“I’ve never stolen a book in my life.”
“It’s a metaphor.” She raises her eyebrows. “I’m not sure this is going to be productive. And this cake, really, isn’t improving with age.”
She’s putting me on the defensive. “Cakes don’t improve with age,” I say. “Wine does and cheese maybe, but not cake.”
“Well, if that’s everything?” She shifts on her seat. “Where is that waiter?”
“It’s his break time, I think.”
“It’s abhorrent, that’s what I think.”
I can’t stop myself. “Why are you being so defensive?”
“Because people do this to me all the time,” she says, whipping back to me, all eyes and elbows and angles. She’s terrifying. “People like you come in and ask me to cooperate with your project, your story, and then you rip me to shreds. You write about my books, about how awful they are, about how inappropriate they are, and never once ask the children themselves what they think. Because, do you know what? I don’t write for you, or them, or anybody really other than the child that I imagine will read my book once it’s done.”
“And are they your own children?”
She’s cool. “Try harder than that.”
I shift tack. “I admire you,” I say, “I mean, how can I not? You are, after all, one of the most popular children’s authors. Even now. But to make these interviews a series, I need to talk to others-”
“So I’m not enough?”
“You’re everything,” I say, unable to stop myself, and at last a little smile starts to creep over her face.
“Go on,” she says.
And for a moment I don’t know where to begin. Do I tell her that her name has become a form of cultural shorthand? Do I tell her that she’s one of the most translated authors even now? Do I tell her that, even though I don’t have the empirical data to hand, I’m fairly sure she’s responsible for the continued success of ginger beer?
Or do I tell her about the fact that I love her but also don’t deny the problems of her books? That they are furiously, madly readable (and oh how I delight in that fury) but they are full of problematic social, gender and behavioural mores and sexism and racism and –
“You’re dreaming,” she says, “I can tell it. You get a rather vague expression on your face. It looks as though you’re passing wind.”
“Enid,” I say.
“Are we done?”
I shake my head. “I want to know how you feel about your books,” I say, “And I don’t think I’m getting much of that. I know how you feel about jam and about me and about theft, but I don’t think I know how you feel about your work. These books came to define you. The Secret Seven. The Famous Five. The Nature books, all of them, all of them are in a way you. Maybe that’s my answer, you know, back when you said that I didn’t know enough about you. I do know about you. I know everything about you – or rather, I know everything about the person you give to us in your work. The person who believes in adventures and independence and food.”
It takes me a moment to orientate myself. “Wouldn’t I what?”
“Believe in food?” She gestures around us. “After all, you wanted to meet me here. In a cafe. Where the food lives.”
“Where the food lives,” I say, like an idiot.
She laughs, delighted that she’s got me. I’ve met so many sides of her now that this face, the light and amused and sparky face, doesn’t surprise me. “Think though of what you remember when you were young. You don’t remember want, not normally, not comfortably. You may remember that now that you’re old and you know the parts of the world that you didn’t have, the way that your parents might not have been home to kiss you goodnight or how you lusted over the toys that you didn’t have, you remember what you had. Not what you should have had, not what you wanted, but what you had. And the common thing that everyone has, had, even during the war, was food. We all eat, all of us, whether it’s too much or not enough, and sweets mean the same thing the whole world over. Food is love, and love makes you whole.”
It’s the most verbose I’ve ever seen her, and all I can say is, “Thank you,” because I think, maybe, that’s her truth right there. Her books are thick with love. It is an often uncomfortable, awkward, poorly expressed and often difficult love, but it is, underneath it all, there. Slender, brittle, pained but feverishly longing to be recognised, to be held. Maybe that’s what they are, her books, these things that fight to be read, that punch their way out into the world, maybe that’s their truth.
Maybe they just want to be loved and just don’t know how to say that.
She looks startled. “For what?”
“For everything,” I say. “Shall I get the bill?”