A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The bookcase in my childhood bedroom contained a huge collection of horsey books, a clutch of Ladybirds, a few volumes of fairy stories, a set of children’s encyclopaedias and a nature book I nicked from downstairs containing a drawing of a cannibalistic fish that scared the bejeezus out of me. It also sported a selection of Enid Blytons, one of which – The Ring o’ Bells Mystery – lodged in my young brain as being one of the best books I had ever, EVER read. I loved it so much that I read it over and over again … even though I knew every twist and turn of the the story by heart.
Then, one day, my father decided that we had Too Many Books in the house and had a massive clear out, getting rid of anything he didn’t consider worth keeping including, to my anguish, The Ring o’ Bells Mystery.
I never really forgave him.
The years passed, I grew up and only occasionally paused to remember and mourn the loss of my beloved book – until the idea of a Mystery Week on Vulpes was mooted, and I suddenly thought: “The Ring o’ Bells Mystery – there’s got to be a copy of it out there somewhere …”
And of course, there are dozens of them of all shapes and sizes: old ones and new ones and so many in between it became fairly obvious that the book had never been out of print.
Having got my hands on a copy I started to read it with both curiosity and a sense of trepidation, fearing that I was going to find it impossibly dated or – even worse – just plain risible, shattering forever my cosy memories of it. It was after all first published in 1951 when the world was, or at least seemed, a far more straightforward place.
It’s pretty standard Enid Blyton fair: four adventurous youngsters – Barney, Roger, Diana and Snubby – unearthing dark secrets during an endlessly sunny holiday in the West Country. Although I’d devoured it – and indeed all but memorized it – as a child, nearly 50 years down the road my memories of it had become very hazy. All I could remember was that the storyline involved a cottage in the woods, a bell tower, a secret passage and a well – not necessarily in that order.
Enid Blyton’s world was, of course, very old-fashioned and black and white. There were good guys and bad guys and high-spirited children who basically always did what they were told … except when they sneaked out of the house in the middle of the night and indulged in a little light illegal entry, of course. It was also a world of gender stereotyping, untouched by any ideas of sexual equality, so we have Diana first being despatched by her older brother Roger to go and help make the sandwiches and then being instructed – INSTRUCTED mind you – by Barney to stay behind while the boys went off on the Big Adventure in the secret tunnel. She wouldn’t have got away with it today, but then had she been writing it today I don’t doubt that Diana would have been the first down the well, trailing the unwilling boys in her wake … because Enid Blyton knew what children liked to read and – more to the point – she was an extraordinarily good writer.
As a child, I’d enjoyed the story, and that was all I’d thought about. The characters were fun, recognizable and relatable and the (deeply improbable) plot trotted along at a pace designed to hold the attention of its target audience.
It’s only now, coming back to it as an adult that I realize how beautifully written it is.
Ring o’ Bells village is tucked away in a quiet corner of Somerset that time seems to have forgotten. It – and the story – are steeped in history. The past collides with the present. Elderly people confuse the living with the dead, half-forgotten memories surface like flotsam to point the way to the truth and through it all the children run – literally – in hot pursuit of the bad guys.
Enid Blyton’s writing style was funny, punchy and economical. She didn’t waste time faffing around with scene setting at the expense of moving the story forward, but nor did she hesitate to give it the works when needed. At one point, when the bells of of the old Hall are sounded to warn the village of the evil lurking in their midst, she writes:
The sound of the bells went far and wide over the countryside. The jangling leaped out of the old tower and penetrated into cottage windows, and into dog kennels, and into barns. This was no hurried, flurried spell of ringing such as the bells had given before – it was a summons, a warning, a signal of danger!
Dogs barked, cows lowed, dogs fled to corners. Men threw the bedclothes off and leaped out of bed. Women screamed.
Is it any wonder I thought it was the best book in the whole history of books?
Time has treated The Ring o’ Bells Mystery kindly. Because it’s set in an English never-never land of endless summer, horseriding and high teas, untouched by any of life’s ugly realities, it successfully holds its own against the modern world. I should have known of course. There’s a reason a book stays in print for over half a century. It’s escapism in its purest form which children will probably still be enjoying another 50 years from now.
And Roger STILL won’t be making his own sandwiches.
The Edition shown is the one I owned and is long out of print, but readily available via online second-hand booksellers. The edition I read was:
Award Publications Ltd. 2009. ISBN: 978-1-84135-730-0. 276pp.