As a child, after a fumbling start in P1, I took to reading and have had my nose stuck in a book ever since. Travelling in the back of the car, I saw looking out the car window as a lost opportunity to read another few pages of whatever fiction I was holding.
Like most in my generation, I went through a fairly extensive Enid Blyton phase, with The Secret Seven, The Famous Five, The Magic Faraway Tree and various other tomes weighing down a bedroom bookshelf.
I can still remember lying on the floor reading Five on Finniston Farm (it had a blue cover) as an emotional distraction the morning that my cousin was flying back to America after visiting NI for a few weeks.
But it was one of the less-renowned Secret series that to this day is easily the book that I’ve read cover to cover most. As a youngster, I must have read it 30 or more times. In my early teens, I flogged my childhood books to a long-defunct Lisburn second-hand bookshop to raise a paltry sum to help buy peripherals for a ZX Spectrum! (Learnt my lesson about throwing out books that time.) So when I found it on Amazon one day, I couldn’t help but order a copy to rediscover my childhood favourite.
The Secret Island describes three siblings who had moved in with their Aunt and Uncle while their adventurous parents flew to the southern hemisphere. But two years later, they were still billeted and very unhappy with their treatment. Led on my Jack who lived and worked on his grandfather’s neighbouring farm, they plan to collect together enough provisions (now there’s a very Enid Blyton word) and row across the lake to an uninhabited island.
And so they do. Nora, Peggy, Mike and Jack become a regular Swiss Family Robinson (another childhood book – bought it together with Robinson Crusoe in a sale in Anderson and McAuley), constructing a house from willow trees in the wood and planting vegetables. Running low on supplies, they make various forays back to the mainland, eventually bringing back a sackful of hens and towing a cow behind the row boat as a supply of fresh milk.
Jack’s the leader, full of practical know how and ideas. Mike’s thorough and a good second-in-command, but doesn’t come up with many original ideas on his own. The girls make tea, sew, cry and get things wrong. Peggy’s the more reliable of the two, acting out the mother role on the island. While little Nora’s the youngest and most fragile. But the pair of them act as doormats for the boys, obeying their command and lapping up the occasional praise for doing a job well.
They all live happily ever after, with the three children reunited with their parents, Jack casually adopted, and the Aunt and Uncle scolded for their lack of care. Not a social worker in sight!
Re-reading the book makes me realise how much society has changed. As a child, I remember that some parents refused to allow their kids to read Enid Blyton, citing poor quality writing. These days, it would be the content that would face the criticism. To portray boys and girls in such stereotyped ways would cause an outcry.
Makes me wonder what I’d find if I reread The Hardy Boys (which turn out not to have been written by Franklin W. Dixon) or The Three Investigators with their hidden junkyard office now! (P5 favourites, coinciding with the Falklands War.)