Nostalgia - it's the future...but it's set in the past!
by Paul Norman
Fifty-one years ago, in the summer of 1957, I was at a loose end. My next-door-neighbour friends, twins Norman and Nigel Hughes, were four years older than me, and too old for a game of cowboys and Indians, or Robin Hood; none of us was particularly interested in football, and I don't remember ever playing football with them, as it happens, though I did often play football with my schoolmates. I was ten years old, and waiting to go up to Grammar School. Summer holidays were sometimes lonely at times, because I was the only boy from my school year to pass the 11+ exam, and in any case, the village was spread out over a wide area. With the twins unwilling to "play", I did the only other thing I could think of to amuse myself – I read. On a particular day in late August, I realised that I didn't have a copy of my own of my favourite book ~ Enid Blyton's The Rockingdown Mystery. One of the twins did, so I borrowed their copy and immersed myself in the world of Roger, Diana, Snubby, Looney and Barney.
The Rockingdown Mystery remains one of my favourite books, even though I'm now 62 years old. Last month's double announcement that Enid Blyton was the nations's favourite writer, and that she was about to undergo a major relaunch, with new Famous Five, Enchanted World (Faraway Tree) and Malory Towers titles came as no surprise to me. Whilst you'll only find passing references to Enid Blyton in the national press, and, of course no mention at all in magazines, as there simply aren't any about books, you will find hundreds if not thousands of references to Enid on the web. But why? Why are so many people still fascinated by someone whose writing could be described as quaint, and whose view of life has been described as simplistic? Is it because what she wrote is now regarded as classic literature in the same way as Dickens, the Brontes, Austen, and the like? Or is it simply a hankering after literature that describes a way of life fondly remembered? In publishing terms, nostalgia has never been bigger.
I believe it is safe to say that most people are nostalgic about the 1950s and the 1960s (rather than earlier decades). It's true that some people are fascinated by the 1970s and 1980s, witness the extraordinary success of LIFE ON MARS and ASHES TO ASHES. Witness The Saint, who first appeared in the late 1920s but went on to several novels, a few films and two TV series; a new TV series is planned for 2009 and Hodder are publishing two "Best Of the Saint" titles later this year. But what is it about the fifties and the sixties that holds our attention? It is the era, of course, of the baby boomers, the last generation with any real moral values and standards, (and I make no apologies for saying that), the children that resulted from the ending of the second world war. It was a time of rationing, when children were fed but didn't get fat; a period of expansion and rebuilding, a period of free health care for everyone, and a period when there was an unbelievable explosion of available literature in all genres and formats for all to enjoy. It was also a time when there was no television, no computers (and computer games), and leisure time was filled with reading, board games, or listening to the radio. Dozens of new children's comics were launched, some short-lived, others going on for two or more decades; hundreds of books were being written for children, including those by Enid Blyton, whose phenomenal output ensured her popularity well into the 1970s despite being banned for a time in public libraries. And this year, of course, sees an Enid Blyton well under way with the Enchanted World series (reviewed last month, see archives and this month's competitions) and new Malory Towers titles next year. Also this year, Arrow Books have made the excellent decision to republish dozens of P G Wodehouse titles, including many Jeeves - you can see the press release about the latest set to be published this month by clicking here.
On the down side, there was polio, rickets, tuberculosis, and a whole host of childhood diseases to contend with until mass vaccination and better healthcare eradicated them (for a long time – some of them are making an unwelcome comeback!). And there was poverty and mass unemployment, of course. Hospitals were generally cleaner and better run. Public transport was the envy of the world until Dr Beeching saw fit to destroy the railways, and thousands of bus companies provided a far better service than anything we can expect now. In general, children were better fed and happier; they played outdoors, they climbed trees, the played conkers, they jumped into streams, they simply played. There was no problem with walking the city streets at night, and no one worried about perverts in cars trying to snatch young children from their parents – paedophilia hadn't been invented back then. True, there were some pretty evil people around – just read Jessie Keane's bestseller DIRTY GAME to find out what gangland East End was like in the 1960s – horrific! But I honestly believe that as the new century becomes more and more depressing and difficult to live in, people were genuinely happier in the fifties and sixties.
We've made unbelievable advances in medicine and technology, of course, and I wouldn't want to return to that era, either. But I welcome the opportunity to read about it and read the books and comics we treasured in those days, along with millions of other people. That's why there's an Enid Blyton revival under way. That's why you can now buy facsimile editions of comics like BOYFRIEND, JUNE, SCHOOLFRIEND, VALENTINE, COMMANDO, BATTLE, DAN DARE, JEFF HAWKE, ROY OF THE ROVERS, BIGGLES and the EAGLE. That's why Penguin are publishing TARZAN OF THE APES and THE RETURN OF TARZAN in their "red" paperback series. Yes, I know that Tarzan was first written in 1914, but he was at the height of his popularity in the 1950s, and has rarely, if ever, been out of print. That's why Hodder will publish two "Best of the Saint" books at the end of November – and, incidentally, there's the promise of a new Saint TV series in 2009. Three publishers share the publishing rights for Enid Blyton: Hachette, Egmont, and Macmillan.
Two publishers specialise in nostalgia publishing, and four other publishers specialise in reprinting specialist books from the last century. This and the coming month sees a huge number of nostalgia titles, and while you might not get to know about them in the ordinary press, you will find extensive coverage of them in Books Monthly, and I think it's important you know about them, because someone in your family will want one or more titles for Christmas, and what fantastic Christmas presents they make! Let's start with CARLTON and PRION PUBLISHING. The gallery below shows the titles already available or available shortly (certainly in time for Christmas!):
The care and love with which these titles have been prepared is amazing; in some cases it's almost as though you're holding the original in your hands! The October titles are reviewed in this issue, of course.
TITAN PUBLISHING have cornered the market in reprinting comics from the 1950s and 1960s. Their "flagship" is the magnificent DAN DARE series, of which there are now ten volumes available, pictured below. Once a year for the past three years, Titan have published a CHARLEY'S WAR book, and there's a fourth volume out later this year. Latterly, they've taken on the ROY OF THE ROVERS comic strip that originated in the TIGER comic in the 1950s – TIGER was my favourite comic, by the way. Again, here's a gallery of all of TITAN's fantastic nostalgia books so far, including the titles coming out in the remainder of this year.
If your interest lies in school stories, there are publishers just for you – let's start with GIRLS GONE BY PUBLISHERS, with a back catalogue of Chalet School volumes, amongst others. Some of their recent titles are shown below, and they all get reviewed in Books Monthly as they become available (not that they need reviewing, of course - they're classics!).
Also publishing stories from the last century specifically for girls, is BETTANY PRESS.
FIDRA BOOKS also have a wonderful selection of 20th century literature, and have recently begun to reprint some of Anne Digby's wonderful TREBIZON titles.
Finally, though there may be others I don't know about in nostalgia, and certainly not least, there's the BOOK PALACE – originally a vast online seller of comics, annuals, art books etc., but now venturing into the publishing business with some stunning reproductions of Frank Bellamy comic strips such as ROBIN HOOD and KING ARTHUR, and a beautiful book of illustrations from the great TRIGAN EMPIRE.
Lots of people have written excellent articles for BOOKS MONTHLY on various aspects of the genres mentioned above. Briony Coote has a fascinating new article in this issue, and you can find links to her other articles on the same page.