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Uncle Quentin Revisited

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When I was 4 my parents took me to a junk shop in Richmond. They saw me examining a musty red hardback and asked if I’d like to buy it. It was Five on Kirrin Island Again (1947), the sixth in Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ series, a 1950s edition with illustrations by Eileen Soper, though without a dust jacket.

This was the first proper novel I’d ever read. It took me a while to get my head around the fact that the separate chapters were not self-contained stories but part of a whole. I immediately became hooked and devoured the whole series, following the adventures of Julian, Dick, Anne, Georgina (George) and Timmy the dog over the following years.

As a 4-year-old I was absolutely terrified by the book’s central character, Uncle Quentin. I remember hating him and all he stood for – an obsession with work, a hostility to children and a startling lack of fun genes. He found Julian, Dick, Anne and George really annoying and locked himself in his study. He shouted at them. He let his wife, Fanny, and the cook, Joanna, do all the domestic work. He was one of the most unsympathetic adults I’d so far encountered. However I recently reread Five on Kirrin Island Again and, in the intervening fifty years, I find that Uncle Quentin has turned into a completely different character, one with whom I identify and hugely admire. Now he appears to me as a free spirit, very brave, something of a genius and also liberal to the point of being a proto-hippie.

For one thing, I now get his irritation with children and the noise they make. For years, when writing books and when my children were small, I became Uncle Quentin: obsessed by my own importance and excessively grumpy if disturbed. It’s hard enough to motivate yourself to work with no boss and no external schedule. You can really do without the extra distraction of child

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When I was 4 my parents took me to a junk shop in Richmond. They saw me examining a musty red hardback and asked if I’d like to buy it. It was Five on Kirrin Island Again (1947), the sixth in Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ series, a 1950s edition with illustrations by Eileen Soper, though without a dust jacket.

This was the first proper novel I’d ever read. It took me a while to get my head around the fact that the separate chapters were not self-contained stories but part of a whole. I immediately became hooked and devoured the whole series, following the adventures of Julian, Dick, Anne, Georgina (George) and Timmy the dog over the following years. As a 4-year-old I was absolutely terrified by the book’s central character, Uncle Quentin. I remember hating him and all he stood for – an obsession with work, a hostility to children and a startling lack of fun genes. He found Julian, Dick, Anne and George really annoying and locked himself in his study. He shouted at them. He let his wife, Fanny, and the cook, Joanna, do all the domestic work. He was one of the most unsympathetic adults I’d so far encountered. However I recently reread Five on Kirrin Island Again and, in the intervening fifty years, I find that Uncle Quentin has turned into a completely different character, one with whom I identify and hugely admire. Now he appears to me as a free spirit, very brave, something of a genius and also liberal to the point of being a proto-hippie. For one thing, I now get his irritation with children and the noise they make. For years, when writing books and when my children were small, I became Uncle Quentin: obsessed by my own importance and excessively grumpy if disturbed. It’s hard enough to motivate yourself to work with no boss and no external schedule. You can really do without the extra distraction of childish voices raised in play. And Quentin had good reason to be grumpy: a detail that com­pletely escaped me first time round was that he and Aunt Fanny had money worries. In fact, in the first book of the twenty-one-book series, Five on a Treasure Island (1942), Enid Blyton explains that a desperate need for cash is the reason they take in his brother’s chil­dren – Julian, Dick and Anne – for the holidays. It’s not a favour. These problems attend the freelance life. I had to do something similar when we were skint a while ago: we let out our eldest son’s bedroom to Airbnb guests at weekends. So Quentin, I feel your pain. I’d guess that the mere presence of the three children – at least earlier in the series – acts as a constant reminder of your impecunious state. No wonder you find them annoying. It’s also striking how young and good-looking Quentin is, at least as represented by Eileen Soper. He has a square jaw and a mass of black hair. The only weird thing is that Soper puts everyone in out­size boxy jackets, so that Quentin faintly resembles the singer David Byrne in the 1980s film Stop Making Sense. Now let’s look at Quentin’s work. This is clearly a fascinating area. With those brains – that’s his USP, isn’t it? As everyone says, ‘He’s remarkably clever’ – he could have joined the Foreign Office or made a fortune in the City. Instead he has chosen to become a freelance inventor. He is an outlaw, he has morals, he has shunned the rat race, he has refused to submit to the indignities of conventional employ­ment, and he must suffer the financial insecurity that results. In other words, he is a hero. In Five on Kirrin Island Again, Blyton holds Uncle Quentin and his life choices up as a model to the children. I was surprised to find that Julian – who I’d always seen as the squarest of the five, the sort of chap who when grown up would get a job in marine insurance and watch the rugby at weekends – is in fact inspired to follow an unconventional path by Quentin’s example: ‘I wouldn’t mind being a scientist myself,’ he says to the others. ‘I want to be something really worthwhile when I grow up – I’m not just going into some­body’s office. I’m going to be on my own.’ Well said, Jools! The story opens when the four children arrive at Kirrin Cottage for the holidays to find that Quentin has taken over nearby Kirrin Island for his experiments, even though it technically belongs to his daughter George; she finds this takeover incredibly annoying and Aunt Fanny has to explain that it’s for the best. She doesn’t in fact know the details of what Quentin is up to but, she says, ‘I do know it’s terribly important – and I know, of course, that the last part of the experiment has to be made in a place where there is deep water all around. Don’t ask me why – I don’t know.’ Quentin’s absence from Kirrin Cottage comes as something of a relief to the nervous Anne, who confides to her brother: ‘You know, Dick, I’m really quite pleased that Uncle Quentin has gone to Kirrin Island, even if it means we won’t be able to go there much! I feel much freer in the house when he’s away. He’s a very clever man and he can be awfully nice – but I always feel a bit afraid of him.’ Too right, sister. Now what is really remarkable in Five on Kirrin Island Again is the visionary brilliance of Quentin’s project, which is only revealed towards the end of the book. The children decide to visit the island one day, in the company of Aunt Fanny, to try to find out what he’s up to. Blyton tells us that he’s constructed a glowing edifice: ‘Rising from the centre of the castle, probably from the castle yard, was a tall, thin tower, rather like a lighthouse.’ Well, well. What on earth could that be? The children poke about in the tower and then, eventually, run into Quentin, whereupon he flies into one of his terrifying rages. ‘You’ve no business to come over here, and interfere with my work . . . How did you get into that tower? I locked it.’ Anne is curious to find out what Quentin’s up to: ‘Uncle, you’re not inventing a new atom bomb or anything, are you?’ she asks courageously.
Her uncle looked at her scornfully. ‘I wouldn’t waste my time in-venting things that will be used to kill and maim people! No – I’m inventing something that will be of the greatest use to humanity. You wait and see!’
Thus we learn that to add to his other virtues, Quentin is morally principled. A few days later, under cover of night, George rows over to the island and discovers a new secret passage. It leads to underground bunkers filled with mysterious wires that hum like thousands of bees in a hive. She finds Quentin in a cave, and he reveals the revolution­ary nature of his work.
‘I’ll tell you what my experiments are for, George – they are to find a way of replacing all coal, coke and oil – an idea to give the world all the heat and power it wants, and to do away with mines and miners.’ ‘Good gracious!’ said George. ‘It would be one of the most wonderful things the world has ever known.’
It would indeed. Quentin’s carbon-neutral system of generating power from the waves, a hydro-electric plant, would save lives and save the planet. Very Greta Thunberg for 1947, I’d say. And unlike Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, he appears to have no desire to monetize his invention. As well as being fervently Green, he is also anti-capitalist:
‘And I should give it to the whole world – it shall not be in the power of any one country, or collection of men. It shall be a gift to the whole of mankind – but, George, there are men who want my secret for themselves, so that they may make colossal fortunes out of it.’
These men are called Johnson and Peters and they’re greedy capitalists who presumably work for some multinational. They have parachuted on to the island and have already caught and tied up poor Timmy! The action unfolds. George manages to outwit the two bad men. Timmy rescues Quentin’s plans and delivers them back to the mainland via an underground passage. And George’s bravery earns her a commendation from her dad:
‘Honestly, George, you do behave as bravely as any boy. I’m proud of you.’ George thought that was the nicest thing her father had ever said to her.
My feminist mother interpreted this exchange and others like it as evidence of a sexist culture where boys were seen as superior to girls and owned virtues like bravery. Anne is always bursting into tears and it’s assumed she is less intelligent than the boys: for example, when the Five find out that their neighbour is a journalist, Dick feels the need to explain the term to his sister: ‘That’s a man who writes for the newspapers, Anne.’ However, with a pair of twenty-first-century spectacles on, we can see that Quentin is in fact deeply forward-thinking and liberal: he respects George’s wish to identify as a boy. And no one around her, I’d add, shows any signs of transphobia. Even the villains of the piece – to George’s delight – get her assumed gender right. ‘Good heavens! A boy!’ says one of them when apprehended by George in the subter­ranean passage. (We can imagine George’s Twitter handle: George Kirrin. Student. Dog lover. Pronouns: he/him.) Towards the end of the book there is a great showdown between the villains and Quentin which achieves a Bond-like intensity. The bad guys, Johnson and Peters, attempt to do a deal with Quentin.
‘If you will tell us what we want to know, and give us all your notes, we will set you free, give you whatever sum of money you ask us for, and disappear ourselves.’ ‘And if I still say I won’t?’ said George’s father. ‘Then I am afraid we shall blow up the whole of your machines and the tower – and possibly you will never be found again because you will be buried down here,’ said the man, in a voice that was suddenly very hard.
Quentin refuses. In other words, he turns down unimaginable riches – even though he’s skint – in order to save the planet. And the plan by the evil capitalist scumbags to make billions out of Quentin’s invention – or destroy it – is foiled, thanks to the intervention of the Famous Five. The finale finds Quentin smashing up his own tower in order to prevent the evil men from carrying out their plan to blow up the island. The police arrive to take Johnson and Peters away and Quentin allows himself an ‘in your face’ moment: ‘Your little plan went wrong. My secret is still safe – and next year it will be given to the whole world!’ ‘Woof,’ said Timmy.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 76 © Tom Hodgkinson 2022


About the contributor

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of the Idler magazine and author of several books including How to be Idle and Business for Bohemians. You can also hear him in Episode 39 of our podcast, discussing literary loafers through the ages.

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