Books: Visions Before Midnight — Noddy gets it on |
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Noddy gets it on

On several occasions last week the tube attempted to analyse the complex personality of the creative artist. It came closest to doing this satisfactorily with a Success Story (BBC1) about Enid Blyton. The approach was statistical. You needed pencil and paper to get the most out of it.

Miss Blyton, we were informed, wrote six hundred books in forty-four years. While the programme’s participants went on to discuss the Famous Five, the Secret Seven and the Auto-Erotic Eight, your reporter was busy with a long division sum which yielded, after a certain struggle, the answer 13.64. Call it 13½ books a year. Beat that, Balzac! The screen promptly presented my highly tuned mathematical mind with a further challenge: the six hundred books had sold 85 million copies in 128 languages. That made it 141,666.7 copies per title — a figure which would be only an average, since obviously some titles (‘Five Go To Pieces’) would do better than others (‘Seven Synthesize DNA’).

Also an average was the figure for copies sold per language: 664,062 precisely. This seemed low, but one could postulate with some confidence that sales in languages like English and Spanish would be massive. It must be the less populous tongues which were dragging the figure down. Try to name twenty-eight languages, and then imagine the tight little groups of people who speak the remaining hundred. Single families in isolated hutments. Cliff-dwelling solitaries reading ‘Noddy Pfx Mwrkl Fsg.’

From 1948 to 1952 the Blyton output filled four columns of Whitaker’s Cumulative Book List. That meant two hundred and sixty-one books: more than one a week four years running. Even for her, this figure looked high. Perhaps some previously written books had been included. Her average output over a lifetime was more like one a month: 13.64 when divided by 12 comes out at 1.13. Still astonishing but at least conceivable.

William Feaver, a Blyton-junkie helplessly addicted to the woman’s creations, gave a gripping stylistic analysis of a book called (I trust my notes are accurate) Randiest Girl in the School. He is so familiar with Miss Blyton’s style he can tell where she broke off for lunch. An average of about a book a month (rough figures here — we’ll give it to the computer later on) means somewhere around thirty lunch breaks per book, except for the big years 1948–52, when the figure must sink to approximately seven meals per title.

The picture conjured up was of a hunched crone maniacally covering paper while being fed through a hole in her cell door. But testimony was forthcoming to prove that it wasn’t like that. Some of the Blyton fans were engagingly keen, and even the detractors seemed to be thriving on their critical task. The women concerned — mothers and/or teachers — were all television naturals. Several of them had the right answer, which is that nobody can predict what will interest kids.

5 May, 1974

[ The original unedited version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]