Tinker, Tailor…

September 11, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Posted in Dick, Julian, Uncle Quentin | Leave a comment
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“That’s a thing I don’t understand [said Julian] – to be a traitor to one’s own country. It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth to think of it. Come on – let’s have a think about dinner, Anne. What are we going to have?” – Five Have a Wonderful Time

Spies are very much in vogue at the moment. I’m eagerly anticipating the new film adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and have just finished a weekend viewing marathon of the original 1979 television series with the great Alec Guinness as George Smiley, who’s brought out of retirement to track down a mole who has penetrated the highest levels of ‘the Circus’, the British Secret Intelligence Service. The plot of the recent BBC series, The Hour, also hinged on the unmasking of Soviet agents working within the Secret Service and (heaven forbid!) the British Broadcasting Corporation, so there is definitely something in the air.

Spies, stolen secrets, kidnappings and defections abound in Blyton’s books. The Famous Five personally take on quite a few of these cases, although their methods are a little different to George Smiley’s. And while betrayal and corruption leave their mark on the characters in le Carré’s novels, the Five are able to quickly deal and move on – often with the aid of a good meal, as Julian’s above comment suggests. Apparently there’s nothing like tinned peaches and home-made custard to get rid of the nasty taste left in the mouth by the deception, violence, and moral ambiguity of spying.

The Famous Five books are (as we know) very much of their time. After the disappearance of two of the ‘Cambridge’ spies, KGB double agents Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in 1951, there was extreme paranoia about Soviet penetration of the British Secret Service. Blyton’s treatment of spies and traitors offers a narrative of reassurance. The upright and oh-so-British Famous Five are always clear where their loyalties lie and everything always comes right in the end.

In Five Go to Billycock Hill (1957) the children are distraught about the disappearance of their friend Toby’s airman cousin, Jeff. He appears to have gone AWOL with a top RAF aeroplane, prompting Dick to make the rather extreme comment: “If he flew away in that plane, he was a traitor to his country. And traitors deserve to die” ( this has been cut from recent, updated, versions of the book). Happily, Jeff’s innocence is proved with the help of the Five and Toby’s little brother and his pet ‘pigling’.

Likewise, Terry-Kane, a scientist chum of Uncle Quentin’s, suspected of making off with some state scientific secrets, is exonerated in Five Have a Wonderful Time. Characters that the Five or their friends and families like are therefore proved to be OK – an escapist antidote to the disbelief that surrounded the notion that Cambridge educated men like Burgess, Maclean, and later Harold Philby, Anthony Blunt and (possibly) John Cairncross [the Infamous Five!], could be agents of a foreign power. Clearly spies and subterfuge are recurring elements of many of Blyton’s books but Five Have a Wonderful Time was published in 1952, the year after the Burgess and Maclean scandal, and Billycock Hill in 1957, the year after they resurfaced in Moscow. It’s therefore highly likely that these incidents were in Blyton’s mind when she was planning and writing these particular books – and promoting a very different set of ideological and moral values to those of Burgess, Blunt et al.

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