Robert Dessaix on Enid Blyton, at The Dowse

dessaixEnid Blyton holds a special place in most people’s heart. Whether it’s Noddy and Big Ears, her Enchanted Fairy Tales, The Faraway Tree, Wishing Chair, Secret Seven, Famous Five or Mallory Towers most of us have read at least a handful of her books; if not as children then to our children.

A sad few of us were caught in the banned years; when her language was deemed too limited; her gender role modelling found to be dangerously outdated and some of her characters may have had unsavoury overtones. Dick and Aunt Fanny became Rick and Aunt Franny; and George didn’t want to be a boy anymore, she just didn’t like to be defined by the male patriarchal system, ok?

dessaixSo when I heard that one of the authors at this year’s NZ Writers Week was going to be speaking about Enid Blyton, I was very excited. I never in a million years thought it would be Robert Dessaix, one of my favourite Australian writers and perhaps the least Blyton-esque writer you can think of. What was Dessaix’s relationship with Blyton like? Did he read her books? A knobbly kneed, skinny little boy in shorts, alone in the hot Sydney sun? This was not to be missed.

Enid Blyton was to me an old friend, one who grew up with me from ages tiny to 10, I learned to read with her and she rewarded me with a network of friends I could always rely on.

The concept of kith and kin has long been of great fascination to Robert Dessaix. Adopted as a baby, he’s spent much of his life pondering what it is to belong, to fit, to be part of a tribe or group. It’s not surprising that on close inspection the vast majority of Blytons works centre on the same theme. Of family being at the heart of everything with friendship close on it’s heels. Just two of the many quotable quotes from Dessaix:

“Winning over enemies; that’s the true meaning of adventure in The Faraway Tree.”

“You couldn’t go on an adventure unless you came home;
You couldn’t be an adventurer unless you had a home to come home to.”

With this sense of family, comes this sense of a tribe, or a gang. Solitary children, or loners are never portrayed positively in Blyton’s books. In fact in her real life, Blyton reportedly put her ‘friends’ (her term for her fans) over and above her daughters time and time again, locking her daughters inside whilst throwing lavish tea parties outside for her friends to enjoy. Dessaix, quoting from Imogen Blyton’s biography Childhood at Green Hedges. “My mother was arrogant, insecure and without a trace of maternal instinct”. Ouch.

But as picture perfect as she appeared to be, Enid Blyton had a few peculiarities that Dessaix astutely spotted and ruthlessly mined for mirth, while making some salient points. As popular as the name may have been, there are an extremely high number of characters called Dick in her books.Why was she so obsessed? Dessaix wonders with an arched brow.

enid blytonThen there’s George who wants to be the best boy she can be. Not surprising really, when you see how the boys treat poor old Anne, but interesting when you’re told that George is based on Enid Blyton herself who used to call herself Richard (Dick!) as a young woman and her best friend Ida was called Captain, and Richard would often play cabin boy to Captain… What exactly does that mean? Who knows. But Dessaix’s razor sharp delivery and coy smile certainly made the audience aware of some of the less than mainstream possibilities. Then there’s the countless naughty fairies and the childrens’ seeming orgiastic obsession with food. Is it an oral fixation?

And that’s one of the most wonderful things about this evening. He only spoke for an hour, but practically every sentence was a new fact I wanted to write down and remember but it also made me laugh, or pause and really think about what he’d just said. Every sentence. There were no breaks. No respite. A savvy mix of personal anecdote, scholarly knowledge and a genuine love for the books – Robert Dessaix is a true lover of Enid Blyton’s books. You can tell that her books helped shape him as a person foremost, less so as a writer.

After he finished speaking, I bought another copy of A Mother’s Disgrace, as well as a copy of his favourite Blyton book:  Five on Kirrin Island, Again for him to sign, which he graciously did, writing “To Sarah who came to hear me talk about Enid Blyton.” Anytime Mr Dessaix – you really are wizard!

Attended and reviewed by Sarah McMullan

A Mother’s Disgrace (1994)
by Robert Dessaix
ISBN: 978 0 20717 934 1
As I Was Saying: A Collection of Musings (2012)
by Robert Dessaix
ISBN: 978 1 74275 307 2

Childhood at Green Hedges (1989)
by Imogen Smallwood
ISBN: 978 0 41612 632 7

Five on Kirrin Island Again (1947)
by Enid Blyton
ISBN: 978 0 34079 620 7


Gala Opening: Fighting Talk, feat Mariko Tamaki, Etger Keret, Robert Dessaix, Sally Gardner

Paul Diamond opened Fighting Talk with a mihi, which spoke of the death of Ranginui Walker, then Chris Price set the scene with a brief introduction of the writers. The format was like a True stories told live’ format, but all of our writers had prepared speeches – in a couple of cases this meant the immediacy of the story-telling was lost, but all of the topics raised were fascinating.

tamakiThe stories began with one from Mariko Tamaki (right), a Canadian cartoonist who spoke about linguistics and the use of speech to refer to gender. Etger Keret, an Israeli short story writer, was up next, telling us a story about a terrifying taxi ride. Essayist Robert Dessaix had us just short of rolling in the aisles with his talk about how babies were made (and how gossip ruins family reputations). Children’s novelist Sally Gardner’s lexical ability had us all agape in awe, and Courtney Sina Meredith told a powerful story about race and identity to round it off.

What you want from an official opening event is to be set up mentally for what is to come, and this certainly delivered that. None of these authors were well-known to me, and each engaged a different part of my brain, making them well worth seeing.

Mariko Tamaki has her solo session on Sunday, and I am really looking forward to it. Tonight she reflected on how annoyed she was when an older man approached her after a keynote speech and criticised how she delivered it – and what she should have said. She is curious about why people think that things they find annoying – such as ‘verbal fry’ and ‘uptalk’ – should be banned. She briefly alluded to Debbie Cameron, a linguist, as a fantastic person to read, on the topic of speaking.

I agree that telling somebody how to talk “is telling them what to say” – and certainly we saw tonight that each speaker had a palette of speaking styles at their disposal. If I am ever policed on my verbal presence I will definitely use her take-away line,”I didn’t ask, so don’t tell me how to talk.”

pp_etgar_keretEtgar Keret’s son asked him to Google something one night recently. “What is that son?” “I want you to Google a place that nobody kills each other.” “I’m not going to do that son, because it doesn’t exist.” “But grandma says it might be New Zealand.” He is concerned about fighting, as living in Israel, his son will be conscripted to the Israeli Army when he reaches his 18th Birthday. Keret read a piece out about a taxi ride, where the driver was erratic and angry, and yelled at Keret’s then 3-year-old son for “breaking” the taxi. The driver had been spoiling for a fight, but it took the wisdom of a 3-year-old to help ease tensions.

dessaixRobert Dessaix (right) was hilarious, telling a story about how as a 5-year-old, he told his 6-year-old female neighbour where children came from. She pressed him on it, saying it was ‘disgusting’, then asking him where all other living things came from, until she got to Jesus. Dessaix said, “He came from an egg; an Easter Egg, everyone knows that.” As news tends to do in small neighbourhoods, his neighbour told her friend, who told hers, who told her piano teacher, who happened to be a nun. The Dessaix family were ostracised for weeks, until the aunty of his neighbour brought them a pop-up toaster in apology.

Dessaix will be speaking tonight about the Famous Five, and between his engaging voice and conspiratorial air, and the fact he will be talking about my childhood favourite series, I cannot wait .

sally_gardnerSally Gardner (left) is dyslexic, and is a spokesperson for dyslexia in the UK. She told us about her trip around the South Island prior to coming to the festival, which led into a wonderful talk about the failure of the education system, particularly in the UK. She said, “The Educational system seems to want rows of conifer trees – when the world needs these different thinkers. There is no nation without imagination – many of our modern geniuses – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs – were dyslexic. The time has come to celebrate the diversity of our children. It doesn’t matter how we spell words, it matters what we say.”

Sally is doing her solo event tomorrow at the Embassy, which I have deemed unmissable. She writes for kids of all ages, from picture books up to junior fiction, and YA.

courtney sina meredithCourtney Sina Meredith jumped through several instances in her life where she has been made rudely aware of her race. She realised at school, as an 8-year-old, while giving a speech in front of the assembly, that she was one of five brown faces at the school. “I started to notice who gets to speak and who doesn’t,” she said. As a 12-year-old, she called out an intermediate school teacher for being racist regarding Australian Aboriginals. And as a 21-year old, in her third year of a law degree, her friends created a petition to keep “weirdos and minorities” out of law school. She left soon after, to complete a BA and work in the arts. She says, “I have no idea how to keep my soul inside of my skin.”

The gala opening presented many moments to remember, and plenty of moments to delve further into; you can see our review of Etgar Keret’s session here, and we will soon have a report about Mariko’s first panel session. While I am posting this at the halfway mark, I am by no means writered out. There is still so much to see and learn from to come.

A last remark, courtesy of Courtney Sina Meredith, who will appear tomorrow at Debating New Zealand:
“People will break themselves against you and it’s your life’s work to keep going, regardless.”

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster and Elizabeth Heritage

Gala Opening: Fighting Talk
with Mariko Tamaki, Etger Keret, Robert Dessaix, Sally Gardner and Courtney Sina Meredith
Thursday 10 March, NZ Festival Writer’s Week