Almost two million of us have bought the Ladybird Books for Grown-ups since their release last Christmas. Like the Ladybird books from our childhood, these are slim volumes of charming, old-fashioned illustrations, with, no, not tales for children to delight in, but snappy lines for their parents to enjoy.
Modelled on the Peter and Jane books, the new titles include Midlife Crisis, Dating, The Hangover and the “How It Works” sub-series on The Dad, The Mum, The Husband, and The Wife. Many of us have them or have been them, providing scope for scathing satire or, at the very least, lots of laughs. But these volumes are rather too slight and stereotyped to be really funny.
In The Wife, for instance, we are told more than once that women in relationships have to resort to drink. It also assumes we women don’t wander far beyond the kitchen.
“This is a wife. She looks happy doesn’t she? This is because she’s on her second glass of wine.” Or, “The wife likes to plan ahead. She measures out her life in meals. Even at breakfast, she is only three mealtimes from her first glass of wine.”
The Husband, the book says, “works hard all week and only has a few hours at the weekend to spend with his family. He spends these hours watching sport.” Or, predictably back on the subject of booze (perhaps the books together could have been called How Dependent We All Are On Alcohol, Books 1 to 33), “he may look complicated but he is in fact very simple. He runs on sausages and beer.”
Of course, the original Ladybird Books with their classic pictures of happy, wholesome families going about their conventionally approved business were ripe for lampooning. In keeping the original sun-drenched, relentlessly cheerful illustrations and simple, almost instructional text, the creators of the new books laid the ground for potentially brilliant satire. Then failed to deliver. Mostly because they played safe; sticking to conventional, almost archaic greeting-card humour when they could have done much more.
But that didn’t stand in the way of their becoming bestsellers and so, now we have Quercus Books’s big idea. Enid Blyton for Grown-Ups. Who, after all, is more lampoonable than Dame Enid – given as she was to writing sun-swamped happy scenes, delightfully formulaic stories and “wholesome” characters in keeping with her own admittedly “Christian ethics”.
No surprise, either, that the publishers decided to start with the Famous Five books, her most popular, with two million copies sold annually around the world still. Popularity aside, no other series brought together as many elements of the Blyton biosphere as The Famous Five with its cousins, caravans, dogs, secrets, scones, and seaside escapades.
Glued together with, sadly, not jam but relatively easy-to-miss exhortations to Christian conquest and duty. And with unfortunately unmissable toppings of xenophobia and sexism, calling the Romany “Dirty Tinkers” for example, or the incessant belittling of women. We loved them, nevertheless, because they were undoubtedly magical; full of joy, adventure and plots that gripped.
Which is why I fancy the lack of substance and aversion to real satire in the Ladybird spoofs wouldn’t do at all for these. To show Enid the respect she deserves, we need to get a great deal more irreverent. So, while we wait for these books to be released in November, why don’t we have a proper Five-esque punt at spoofing them ourselves? Needless to add, our versions almost certainly bear no resemblance to the books, which have been written by Bruno Vincent.
Five Go On A Strategy Away Day
Here we join a grown-up but fresh-faced Five raring to get on with first jobs and new responsibilities. Julian, Prince William lookalike as he’s turned out be (stray flaxen strands pasted over a noble nose and goofy teeth), has been entrusted with organising a strategy away day for his team in the City. But like every Famous Five adventure where Julian got all the glory without doing much at all, he still wants to have his Victoria Sponge cake and eat it too.
George has remained in the countryside, herding sheep with Timmy in the sunshine and fresh air (with frequent stops for ginger beer). From the daisy-smothered hill atop which she has her lunch of ham sandwiches and scones, deeply-bronzed George can see Kirrin Island.
Back into their world of childhood adventures comes Julian who wants capable George’s help in organising a mystery weekend on Kirrin. When George agrees to assist Julian and his work chums, the latter ropes in Dick too. Dick works as an underpaid copywriter one floor down but hasn’t heard from Julian in a while.
Julian is not sure about inviting Anne. Girls can be such a bother. Dick and George insist on Anne being invited, and on a bright but blustery summer’s day the Five come together one more time on Kirrin (along with J’s work chums but nobody need worry about them). As it turns out we do, because despite the jolly adventure George has organised, the City Boys are soon out of their depth.
When one of them is chased down a steep slope by George’s friendly sheep and cannot be persuaded to come back up, the away day is cancelled. Julian is cross with George. But then remembers she’s just a girl and cannot be expected to get it right. Girls are never given important positions or paid as much at work for that reason.
When the scuffed heather settles, and Timmy has licked everyone silly, The Five sit around a blazing camp fire, reminiscing about caravans, caverns and stowaways. Over lashings of ginger beer and clotted-cream filled buns. Hurrah.
Five Give Up The Booze
The next book could just as well have been called Five Go on the Bandwagon, a sequel to Five Go off in a Caravan. Anne has to, because she’s pregnant. She doesn’t know who the father is but with the support of family and friends, Anne is confident she can pull it off.
To show their support, The Five give up booze with her. What Julian doesn’t tell them is he’s giving it up for fear of losing what’s left of his hair. Julian does not want to go the way of Wayne Rooney. But unlike Anne who has embraced sobriety with the gusto with which she did their ebullient adventures, no one else is doing well. Which is a bit of a rum do.
George likes a warming tipple when herding sheep on winter evenings. Dick discovered a while ago that charming women was easier under the influence. Even Julian isn’t sure he prefers hair to booze. In the end, a few mysteries are solved before the Five are firmly on the wagon for the baby.
Dick digs up evidence to show Julian booze does not cause balding. And Anne discovers who the father of her child is. He turns out to be keen. Spiffing. The five are in danger of becoming seven.
Five Go Parenting
Naturally. After Anne’s baby, it’s Dick’s turn to spread glad tidings (as liberally as he’d been spreading his seed). But Dick has finally met the woman of his dreams. Dick and his new girl acquire a condo and throw out the condoms. They also plan to throw a big party to announce the impending arrival. But they confide in The Five first.
Julian advises caution. Jolly old fruit though their uncle and aunt are, they have never had a black family member (or Gollywog as they might regrettably call her) before. Just as Dick is about to make the big announcement, though, George walks in with her partner. A large and lovely, red-cheeked agricultural entrepreneur with a soft spot for Pop Biscuits and Google Buns – pet names she’s given the children she’s adopted with George.
Dick’s announcement is all but forgotten in the fuss. After copious amounts of booze (all five have fallen off the wagon), hard-boiled eggs and open-minded pie, everyone is reconciled to this brave new world. Julian confides in a nice young lady that he would like to go parenting too. “Yes, let’s!” she responds with glee.
Five Go Gluten-Free
Sadly, by now we know far too much already to be able to indulge in similar “speculative fiction”. We know the gang “are all feeling really rather rum, and it’s been going on for days. Nothing seems to work, and with their doctors mystified, they’re driven to trying out various expedients to cure themselves. Julian goes online to self-diagnose that he’s got pancreatic cancer, bird flu and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Anne decides that the old methods are the best and decides to have herself exorcised – which proves to be an awful lot of bother for everyone, and such a mess. Dick goes to a witch doctor who calls himself a homoeopath (‘sounds only one short of sociopath, Dick!’) but it’s George who discovers they need to go on an exclusion diet, so they enter a world of hard-to-find, maddeningly expensive specialist foods…”
But oh what secrets they might harbour and mysteries delve into as a result! They are clearly not young any more, nor are they on their own (and I don’t mean their double-chins and middle-aged spread). With every year their tribe has increased.
The Five are now Twenty-Five. Spread around the world like scrumptious strawberry jam. Summer hols are now in St Tropez, and picnics on yachts in the Seychelles.
But when the original five call, the clan get together to reassure Julian he is not dying. They collar Dick’s homoeopath and despatch him to darkest Didcot. Anne is taken to a séance so silly she is disabused of the notion she needs exorcism. Forever.
But George. Capable George. Ever the sensible one. George had not been wrong to put the original five on excruciatingly healthy exclusion diets. The Five are thus guaranteed to carry on for scores of years after. For as many revivals as the reading public could want.