By Wendy John
To have a real adventure one must jump over the ditch at the back of the house, run through the Enchanted Wood, up the Faraway Tree and into the clouds. These top instructions to a jam-packed crowd were issued by Australian author and travel aficionado Robert Dessaix at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
With the modulated tone of a grand storyteller, Mr Dessaix theatrically traversed the predominant themes of adventure and friendship found in all the childrens’ stories by British author Enid Blyton.
But rather than infantalise Blyton’s tales, Robert Dessaix elevates them. The naughty fairies, Dame Slap and treacle pies of Blyton’s works were spoken of with equal regard alongside references to Shakespeare, Emerson and the Bible. Mr Dessaix said, “The others, such as Shakespeare, were more a background radiance but none of them had as much impact on my imagination as Enid.”
Frequently referring to Blyton by her first name, Mr Dessaix made occasional soliloquies. “Enid. Enid. Enid. You of all people made me who I am,” he said. It’s a big call for a creative writer whose publisher Random House lists as one of “this countries finest writers”.
Mr Dessaix treated the audience to a witty, poetic monologue as he shared remembrances of Blyton’s tales. While telling the audience about enchanted lands that sometimes occurred at the top of The Magic Faraway Tree, he spoke of “the land of Dame Slap – now Dame Snap – who runs a school for naughty fairies” and then paused with a knowing nod to his sexual orientation. “To be honest, I’ve hardly moved on,” he said, evoking laughter from the audience.
“In the six or more decades since I first ventured into the Enchanted Wood, I’m still smitten by the themes of intimacy and friendship and travel, too,” he said. “They all appeared in my first real book, Mothers Disgrace, and here they are again, every last one of them, in my latest book Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev. Even, if you look closely, naughty fairies. Even adventures, in a straight forward and grownup sense.”
Robert Dessaix delved into Enid Blyton’s reoccurring notion of having adventures. Referring to his own extensive travels, he connected the dots between Enid Blyton’s narratives and his own sense of returning from travels “transformed or at least restored. Or failing that, ready to rethink my life”. These elements are evident in many of his writings, including Twilight of Love, part personal travelogue and part biography of one of the masters of Russian literature.
“There’s something primordial about an adventure, I know there is something primal that Enid Blyton was onto,” Mr Dessaix said. “I may not be adventurous in the traditional sense but I do hanker to explore.” He pondered on what influenced this hankering, noting that it was not his adventurous seafaring father. Nor was it his infatuation with early explorers of the Silk Road who unearthed ancient treasures.
The truest source, he thinks, might well have been three of Enid Blyton’s characters in the Faraway Tree series – siblings Joe, Bessie and Fanny who he describes as “the earliest explorers I ever encountered”. He said every book about Enid Blyton he read was about adventures and friendship.
Being adopted and an only child, Robert Dessaix said his childhood yearnings were for both kith and kin. But, being short on family, he realised that even as a child “friendship is not just crucial but life sustaining.” And, despite the realisation that “he’d better start making friends”, Mr Dessaix didn’t reveal if he was successful in doing so. Skirting personal exposure, he nonetheless highlighted the powerful influence Enid Blyton had on his understanding of friendship as he championed the loners in Blyton’s stories, who were usually cast in suspicious light. “I wonder if there’s an over-emphasis on sociability to the detriment of solidarity?”
He ruminated on the irony of Enid Blyton’s preoccupation with kith and kin in her works, such as The Famous Five, given her “complete failure in real life to maintain family ties of any kind – mother, daughter, husband, anyone really.” He added that Blyton’s daughter Imogen said that her mother was “a blight on lives. Insecure, pretentious and without a trace of maternal instinct.”
As the late morning sun filtered through the high windows of the Walsh Bay venue, Robert Dessaix wrapped up by saying, “Enid, I know they don’t love you as much as we did, anymore (but) thank you Enid, you are a wizard.”