Books, Clips

Who Was Enid Blyton?

India Currents, October 9, 2017.

Raised in and out of India, I don’t remember reading too many Enid Blyton novels—barring those from the “Noddy” series. I knew, though, they were all the rage among girls—mostly girls. They’d spend hours reading them and like fish in a school, prattle over what they’d read over their lunchboxes.

So, I came to Barbara Stoney’s biography of this best-selling 20th century storyteller, “Enid Blyton”—originally published in 1974—not knowing what to expect. But in the back of my mind, I had an impression of her as a matronly figure in the mold of Agatha Christie’s female detective Jane Marple—single, serene, even stout.

The book’s vanilla cover only reinforced that notion. I didn’t think that I’d take to it, but contrary to my expectations, I fell into the narrative quite effortlessly and enjoyed the portrait enough to pick up one of her books today.

Diehard fans would remember how long they sat curled up in their beds or by an open window, devouring one slim volume after another. And when they reached the end, they looked forward to the next—and they kept coming serially, too.

Over her lifetime, Blyton penned about 750 books, at the astonishing rate of 23, a year. Incredulous detractors refused to believe that a single individual could have this phenomenal output, fueling rumors that she’d employed a stable of ghost writers.

Sure enough, achieving this feat of creative derring-do called for boundless literary stamina, one that was her own, though, developed during some of the saddest days of her childhood. Pen and paper, for her, were an escape from an unhappy home environment. A silent spectator to stormy exchanges between her parents, she took comfort in the sweet tales she herself came up with.

In Stoney’s rich narrative, there’s a turning point in Blyton’s life, without which the world would likely never have heard of her—Blyton, the writer, that is. Had she not spent a short holiday with her bestie’s family on a farm in Suffolk to take a break from the tedium of the enforced piano lessons her dad wanted her to take, she’d never have become who she became. While there, she’d join one of the older girls, a teacher, to Sunday school. Much to her delight, she discovered that her pupils were always eager to listen to her.

It was during that holiday that she found both her calling as well as her market. In September 1916, she began as a kindergarten teacher at the Ipswich High School. Soon afterwards, she took up a writing gig with “Teachers’ World”—an educational magazine—where she wrote a wildly popular column, “From My Window.” At 25, she published her maiden book, “Child Whispers”: a skinny, 24-page picture book of verses that came out in the summer of 1922.

She could turn, what would seem to most, a humdrum incident, into, well, an event and channel it into her writings, such as the comings and goings of the animal life into her garden and the blooming of the flowers. Her life was a fountain of material for her work.

In fact, the lead character of the winning, 21-volume adventure series, “The Famous Five,” Georgina—a tomboy who liked to be called George—was based on herself. An editor once told her that his four kids had just formed a secret society, with a password aimed to keep out intruders from there ramshackle headquarters, a shed at the bottom of the garden. Out of this was born the 15 “Secret Seven” books.

There’s little doubt that Blyton had a fecund mind, who wrote at the speed of a reckless Manhattan cabs, never seeming to have suffered from writer’s block. A veritable lexical factory, in a day, she tapped out about 10,000 words.

But gift combined with opportunity. She was fortunate to have been born in an age when domestic help liberated her from household chores. She’d tell her cook what meals to prepare for the family—for the simplest of cookery challenged her—and delegate housework to the maids and sit down to work at 8 o’clock, after breakfast, if she was home. She’d sit in the balcony, overlooking her lush garden in the summer or indoors, by the fire in the winter, but always with her typewriter on a board, perched on her knees; not on a table. Close at hand was her red silk shawl, a color that provided her intellectual stimulus.

Her skill for producing a brand of fiction that had widespread appeal to tots, teens and young adults, everywhere, stems chiefly, from her ability to gauge what they’d like. Example: At “Elfin Cottage,” her starter home, she put a Peter Pan door knocker and expected it to be rapped a certain way: kids, four times; grown-ups, twice; and “the Little Folk from the woods,” seven.

Yes, Blyton connected with kids wonderfully—but only when that contact was filtered through the medium of words. When it came to her own two daughters, she was cold to them. A woman of mercurial temper, she’d fly into rage should there be the smallest of intrusions into her routine.

Nearly all of her stories are set in the charming landscape of her own life in the English country. But they didn’t always reflect the reality of her environment. She had the habit of editing out episodes that were unpleasant and ugly. In her “Country Letter” in “The Nature Lover” magazine, she wrote:

“My adult cats earn their keep well, for no rat is ever allowed to creep in under the thatched roof, as often happens in old cottages.” In reality, though, her home had been invaded by an army of menacing rats who were carrying off bushels of apples of a sack of vegetables overnight and the noise of their traffic kept the whole household awake.

In 1932, she embarked on something she’d always wanted to do: a full-length novel for adults. When her agent returned it, she was crushed.

No one in Edwardian England would’ve deemed Blyton a savvy salesperson, but as I see it, judged by the lens of 21st century capitalism, she appears to have possessed a sharp knack for tapping into her readers’ sentiments. Through her columns, she was able to establish a two-way communication with them: she, keeping them updated on what she was up to and they, telling her what they thought of it by sending her postbags full of letters (which, she, herself replied to.)

She was so in touch with her base that she even polled it about what she should name her residence. When she bought a red brick house in a pleasant, tree-lined road in Beaconsfield, a London suburb, she asked her young devotees for suggestions. They were thrilled with her request. Recommendations streamed in by the truckload. “Green Hedges” got the top vote.

During World War II paper was in short supply. In an effort to stay afloat, publishing houses were cutting back on the volume of their publications. Still, Blyton had no trouble obtaining commissions, for booksellers had long realized that a title by her was sure to fly off the shelves.

But the most inventive plan for engaging her talent and what little newsprint was available goes to Brockhampton Press and its managing editor, E.A. Roker, who came up with a clever format: strip book, six inches long; three, wide, made from cuts-off reclaimed from a discontinued magazine. Blyton was to be the writer. By late 1942, “Mary Mouse and the Dolls’ House,” printed in two colors, selling at a shilling a pop, rolled out. Its Lilliputian size endeared them at once to the little ones.

Even today, it’s hard to escape the cuteness of a small wood boy with a nodding head, but a boy with a house of his own and a sleek red and yellow car. So beloved was he that by the mid-1950s, Noddy merch was everywhere in department stores: Noddy toothbrushes, Noddy soap, Noddy pencils, Noddy, chocolate, Noddy clothing, Noddy furniture, Noddy cookie jars.

That being said, Blyton presents a strange contradiction: how could someone who could bring so much joy to so many sprogs have been a bad mom?

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Clips, Design

12 Objects That You Need To Start All Over Again, On Very Little Money

India Currents, April 4, 2017.

When I washed up in South Dakota—home to Mount Rushmore—I felt as though I’d washed up on Mars, alone. There, I had to build up a life from ground up, like a modern day Robinson Crusoe. I wasn’t sure if I’d be a permanent resident there or a serious sojourner. So, it made sense for me not to collect too many effects, for when it was time to move again, the more their number, the more the money that I’d spend in transporting them and the greater the risk of their breakage in transit.

I decided it was best not to be burdened by the weight of possessions. I lived minimally. The class of minimalism, encountered in science-fiction plots, set in gloriously tech-driven futures is, often, dreadfully expensive. But there are more ways than a red Knoll chair ($4,000) or a Herman Miller workstation ($1,500) or a litter of technological baubles to make an elegant, clean and Spartan pod of a home.

As a singleton, living in a one-bedroom apartment, where there’s a cap on floor area and cash, I bought a few essential objects, which would let me live elegantly, green, very economically—and remarkably, both without Wi-Fi and electricity. (I could always wardrive around campus for Wi-Fi, but chances of a steady connectivity 24/7 were as fat as Ally McBeal.) Understandably, most of the stuff I bought hark back to the age of the vinyl (and beyond.)

Beans cooking in a skillet over a grill.
Beans cooking in a skillet over a grill.

Lodge’s Iron Skillet. Making dinner, to some, is a dark art, best left to a microwave oven or a domestic helpmate. And failing either of these, they order takeout. But some people, like me, enjoy cooking. When one is living solo, one needn’t have a constellation of cookware. Owning Lodge’s iron skillet does the trick wonderfully. It’s a versatile receptacle that one can both cook in—sauté, sear, bake, or roast—and eat out of. Sear a slab of steak in it, pop it into the oven, and serve it directly on the table. After the meal, wash it with hot water and a soft cloth, coat it with a layer of oil, and replace it on the rack. Cost: $20

Really Useful Boxes

Really Useful Boxes. The “Really Useful Boxes” are truly “useful” in keeping one’s abode organized and free of dust. I got six big red and blue boxes, stacked one on top of the other, alternating a red with a blue, and set it up in one corner of the living room, creating the effect of a geometric cairn. I stowed away my quilts, comforters, luggage in those. For squirrelling away all manner of odds and ends, I got a dozen tiny ones, no bigger than a gift card holder, in candy colors: red, blue, pink, lime, aqua, green, and purple. They took good care of everything from paper clips, measuring tape, loose change, IDs. Cost: Depending on the volume, they can set one back anywhere between $2 and $15.

The Compass Hanger from Casamania.
The Compass Hanger from Casamania.

Valet Stand. When you don’t have a treadmill, you have a problem. You can’t prop your clothes anywhere. That’s where the valet stand comes in. It’s a piece of furniture for men, popular in the Victorian yesteryear, when sartorial choices were far more formal than today. Placed in the dressing room or the hallway, it was where gentlemen would hang their apparel and accoutrement: tailcoat, trouser, pocket watch, pince-nez, bowler, etc. But I, a 21st century women, felt the need to own one. I found it to be the perfect companion for arranging clothes to be worn the next day or for placing those garments that have been worn, but aren’t soiled enough to be laundered. Cost: $35

Cheval Mirror

Cheval Mirror. A kind of looking glass that can be tilted, a cheval mirror isn’t a space saver as is a quotidian mirror that can be affixed to the closet door. But it spares one sweat. As I didn’t have the resource to hire a handyman, I got a portable silver oval that I could just set down anywhere, without hassle (though the boudoir is the perfect stage for it.) Cost: $50

Étagère. A piece of furniture with cascading shelves, placed, typically, in the parlor, for displaying porcelain figurines, marble busts, and objet d’art, all of which, of course, one wants, but doesn’t need. But books? Yes. So, I filled mine up with as many volumes as would fit. After all, “what is a bookshelf other than a treasure chest for the curious mind?” Besides, when you have to spend your leisure hours without even a radio, what could be the most profitable way to keep yourself entertained than by immersing into a book? Cost: $25

Escritoire. For those of the intellectual bent, a writing desk is another precious possession, for you may want to sit down, and pen thought or a billet-doux on a Moleskin notebook.  It also helps to recall that without the Internet, there’s no opportunity to e-mail either, nor is there WhatsApp, Facebook, or Twitter. The only way to stay in touch then is through letters, handwritten or typewritten. Cost: $40

Futon. Hardy as one is, it’s still immensely difficult to sleep on a pallet of newspapers. A sleeping bag is a notch better, but it still won’t keep one off the hard floor. For lumbar care, you’d need something studier and softer. A bed is comfortable, sure, but it’s cumbersome to lug around. With a luxurious futon, on the other hand, the draw is that with the purchase of one, one also gets a bed—free. A sofa by day, a bed by night, it offers a terrific return on investment. Cost: $150.

Clock.

Clock. Of course, one would need one of these to keep track of the passing of time. Cost: $ 10 or less.

A Toas-Tite over fire.
A Toas-Tite over fire.

Toas-Tite. Before we knew about panini press, there was the Toas-Tite. This throwback is an efficient device for making grilled sandwiches. Of the days that I either too fatigued to cook or not in the mood for it, I’d fix myself a sandwich. Lightly grease the clamshell-like aluminum forms, place a slice of bread in each, add a filling, close the device, and place it on a burner or over a campfire for a short while. Turn it over, and you have a round, hot, and melty sandwich. Cost: $30

Moka Pot

Moka Pot. This is a clever contraption—invented in Italy 1933—for brewing coffee on the stovetop. The smallest pot of the series produces one demitasse of rich, velvety espresso. Cost: $14

Rubbermaid: Rubbermaid is today’s Tupperware (developed in 1946.) These airtight, waterproof plastic canisters and tubs are fabulous for keeping food. Cost: A 40-piece set will come to less than $10.

Candles. For a cozy fug, burn a cluster of scented candles. Cost: $10 or less.

Books, Clips, Environment

The Two Schools Of Climate-Fiction

The Millions, March 6, 2017.

As I wrote this, from the corner of my eye, I could see CNN providing coverage of a gargantuan hurricane, racing resolutely towards the eastern coastal arc of the U.S., extending from Florida all the way up to the Carolinas. The footage shows fierce winds roiling the waters of the Atlantic; wave after wave, crashing against the shore, slopping out over the edge of the sea wall. It could have been an event such as this that prompted J.G. Ballard to write “The Drowned World”—a forerunner of a genre, dubbed in the 21st century as “climate-fiction”—in which he paints a nightmare landscape, where the seas have swelled and swallowed up the land.

Marine biologist Robert Kerans is a member of a United Nations military team, mapping the drowned harbors for future reoccupation. As they make their way in a catamaran, they enter a “wide circle of dark green water” through whose layers they can see the “outlines of buildings looming like giant ghosts.” A straight gray promenade stretched away between the buildings, the remains of some former thoroughfare; the rusting humped shells of cars still standing by the curb.” That’s a lagoon. Beneath it is a “spectral” metropolis: London. The British capital had sunk sometime in the “closing years of the second millennium.”

All over the world, mean temperatures rose till the polar ice caps melted and the glaciers turned into torrential rivers and the contours of the continents were altered. At around 350 degrees Fahrenheit, the equator had become a veritable oven. “Europe became a system of giant lagoons.” The American Midwest had become an “enormous gulf opening into the Hudson Bay.” Only the polar regions offered a feeble refuge from the encroaching searing heat.

As the mercury soared and the air boiled, the fauna and flora rapidly reverted to what they were during the Triassic, a geological period that ended 200 million years ago. The wheat fields of the temperate climes had been overrun by dense groves of towering calamites, ferns, horsetails, clubmosses, transforming them into Amazon-like rainforests on steroids. Darwinism dictated that creatures better adapted to a life in jungles, swamps and lakes flourished; those not, perished. Iguanas “perched in the windows of the office blocks and department stores.”

Today, there’s a growing worry that rising oceans will inundate low-lying areas around the world. It’s now known—at least, to some—that the agent of the recent climate-change is the result of industrial and post-industrial humankind. Over time, the relentless release of greenhouse gases (those that trap heat) has taken its toll on the planet.

Three years ago, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had reached an average daily level of above 400 parts per million, a number last known to have existed during an epoch called the Pliocene. The New York Times reported that experts feared that more emissions could trigger a return to primitive climate conditions.

Writing in 1962, in envisioning that the global climate would be thrown off-kilter, of course, Ballard is prescient, but his foresight likely came out of his rumination on the fate of the planet, not environmental study. In this particular novel, he attributes the alarming shift in Earth’s ecosystem to “a series of violent and prolonged solar storms,” triggered by a “sudden instability of the Sun.” Humans have no role in the apocalypse in Ballard’s story.

His thoughts, in this regard, have shades of H.G. Wells. In “Time Machine” (1895), as the temporal tourist travels forward in time, he remarks how much hotter it was in the future than it is in his own age. He can’t understand why that should be so, but he reasons: “It may be that the Sun was hotter or the Earth nearer the Sun.”

“Planets must ultimately fall back one by one into the parent body. As these catastrophes occur, the Sun will blaze with renewed energy; and it may be that some inner planet had suffered this fate. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the Sun was very much hotter than we know it.” As he journeys, he watches the Sun grow bigger and bigger till it filled the sky. It “halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome, glowing with a dull heat.” Sometime, in the very distant future, it comes to obscure a good slice of the heavens.

The narrative of “The Drowned World,” likewise, is laden with the fiery power of the Sun and its engorgement. It’s no longer a “sphere,” but a “wide, expanding ellipse that fanned out across the eastern horizon like a colossal fireball.” It “filled the sky, turning it into an enormous blowtorch.” It even takes the form of an organic entity, pulsing, its “volcanic pounding” beckoning men to sail south as if it were a beautiful siren.

It’s not clear what president Donald Trump knows or thinks about climate-change, but he has called global warming a “hoax,” insisting that he’s not a believer in man-made climate change. There, he and the Republicans would be in agreement with both Ballard and Wells.

In most works with the science-fiction postmark, typically, victims flee from a cataclysm. Not in this. One fine day, when a swashbuckling buccaneer and his crew pull off a feat of derring-do by resurrecting the lost metropolis and London emerges “like an immense intact Atlantis,” the reaction of the last human survivors to it is not one of joy and relief, but total repugnance. They regard it as a hellish, “drained and festering sewer” and do nothing to reclaim it. Instead, they choose to stay in their surreal, silent, waterlogged reality. Their willful surrender to it stems from their staunch belief that it’s an act of god, in the face of which resistance is futile, even unwarranted.

Odds Against Tomorrow

Nathaniel Rich’s “Odds Against Tomorrow” is a tale in the same tradition. Published more than 50 years later, it proves what a difference half a century can make. A much-touted eco-fiction, it, like “The Drowned World,” is about a meteorological anomaly, but one that’s far more plausible. It takes place, where else, but New York?

A powerful hurricane makes landfall in the New York Bight. In its wake, all five boroughs of New York are battered, Manhattan being the hardest hit. The East River and the Hudson, which flank the slender island surge and converge in its middle, flooding it entirely. The United Nations Secretariat, a building built on bedrock called the Manhattan schist dips below sea level, turning into a “sunken ship in the East River.” The two-tiered concourse of the Grand Central turns into a “lake—or a sea, since it was impossible to perceive its boundaries.”

Rich marries calamity with capital. Mitchell Zukor, a young math whiz, is an economic Cassandra, of sorts. His job at a futurist concern, housed in the Empire State Building, is to forecast a myriad hazards—everything from asteroid strike to biological warfare to solar storm to pestilence to cyberwarfare—so that businesses can inoculate themselves against them, should they come to pass. When the storm strikes, though, no one is prepared. But Zukor is better equipped to navigate it only because of a luxe purchase: a canoe.

As in the “The Drowned World,” in this book too, the land becomes very, very hot before the deluge. The “whole Northeast was blanched; wilting.” There had been no rainfall, leading to a prolonged drought reminiscent of the Dust Bowl. The air was heavy with thick, black dust, forcing people to wear masks, now sold by bodegas.

Unlike both Ballard and Wells, Rich holds man squarely responsible for this ecological mishap, blaming it on his insensate greed to build on grounds reserved for fauna and flora. In its aftermath, the state government decides to let the soggy, peripheral wastelands in Brooklyn to return to swampland as it once was before the colonizers arrived.

Ballard gives a fatalistic shrug at a bleak future, asking man to become one with nature. Rich, on the other hand, calls for a distinct separation of spheres, urging us to co-exist with it as equal partners.