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What Enid Blyton did to me

‘Blyton’s popularity in my Nairobi childhood came from her ability to capture white childhood worlds and project them into different pockets of privilege across the world.’
There is a bell ringing in my head. It has been ringing ever since someone told me two years ago about a real bell that used to be on Hotwell Road (or at least where it is now) during Bristol’s slaving days in the 18th century. The story goes that the bell was supposedly next to where a popular bar, The Mardyke faces the Bristol Harbour at the foot of Bristol’s most affluent neighbourhood, Clifton. Slave ships rolled into the harbour and the bell was rang so that the rich merchants who also built and lived in Clifton came down to inspect their human wares.

Before the bell started ringing in my head, I’d lived in Bristol for about a year. This was off Hotwell Road, in an area that’s a poor relation to Clifton that pretentiously calls itself Clifton Wood. Every other day while still new to the city I walked past castles like the landmark Wills Memorial Building innocent of its historical connections to slavery. I admired the fancily painted houses on the hill of Clifton that from a distance looked like a colourful folk art painting. Without any knowledge of their historical contexts, these sights had me starting to playing around with the idea that I would write about this new place even if my imagination was still fixed in Kenya with the two novel manuscripts I was working on. The castles and narrow streets like Ambra Vale Terrace which I lived on in which Victorian era houses were stacked next to each other were after all images I had internalized as a child in Kenya subject to an education that at the time still relied heavily on a British system as a legacy of colonialism. For my generation in urban middle-class Nairobi the most popular children’s writer was Enid Blyton in the late 70s and early 80s. Her of the wishing chairs, faraway trees and children detectives. Treacle puddings, ginger beer and macaroons. No one was more ubiquitously present in my childhood than she was. The oral stories from my grandmother, Kenyan writers for children such as Barbara Kimenye didn’t stand a chance. This was in a Kenya slowly creeping towards neocolonial dysfunction under Daniel Arap Moi mirrored in my parent’s faces at his increasing presence in the newspapers and on TV in the late 80s. As the effects of Moi’s rule became evident in a new education system but also in a shrinking economy and a growing population Blyton slowly disappeared with the second-hand bookshops that had inadvertently received cartons of used books from well-wishers in England initially meant as donations to libraries. She would however remain strong in the wistful nostalgia of a certain middle class Kenyan generation that I belonged to well into the 90s.

When I came to Bristol I found myself retrieving her worlds as a signpost to the English world I now found myself in even though I was also aware of accusations of racism, sexism and xenophobia. I finally learned what a macaroon was. But it was only when I was told the story of the bell that I realized that Blyton’s popularity in my childhood was from her incredible and minimalistic ability to capture a series of small tight and ultimately translocatable white childhood universes and then project them into quaint and delicious fantasy to different pockets of privilege across the world especially those formally colonized by Britain. For me she also effectively hid the vast thrust of once Empire in Kenya but also for a long time helped me as a child escape into the privileged collusion and apologia for her worlds as a reflection of my own. Now with the bell ringing in my head I also saw how her xenophobia, racism and sexism were all part of the castles and houses on the hill around me. I also started to understand a strange encounter when a middle-aged white woman glared at me with such hatred and fear as I walked down from Clifton after grabbing a takeaway coffee that I was reeling for days. Around this time, I learned that the brother of an old schoolmate of mine lived in the Southmead area of Bristol. When we reconnected I went to his place for lunch. When we drove up he suddenly became preoccupied as if he had suddenly remembered something. There was another car in his front yard and he rushed over to inspect what I noticed was the side window which had been smashed and in its place a taped up plastic bag. Completely forgetting me he looked out onto the street and the houses opposite with a grimace on his face as if belatedly looking for the culprit. There was no one in sight and he slowly turned back to me and said, karibu. Welcome. The look on his face, fearful and hateful all at once was not unlike that woman who I had run into in Clifton. Once we went into the house we landed straight back in Nairobi. We had copious amounts of roast chicken for lunch. There were no macaroons. After the Kenyan meal, now sated, and after some small talk, he muttered – ‘vijana wa hapa.’ These boys in the neighbourhood. Every once or twice a year, his wife explained, there was an incident like this. Stones thrown on the roof. Drunken shouting at night. Now, this smashed car window. Southmead though had improved since they’d moved there five years ago. When they had arrived a newly arrived Arab couple had been assaulted on the street and it had even been reported in the paper. We moved on, talking and laughing into the late afternoon but after I left him and his wife’s stories the castles and narrow streets had even more implications for me. The ringing bell in my head was even more insistent and I understood that when I started writing about Bristol it would have to be within its historical contexts and my place in it. The bell had woken me up to what Blyton’s world, these castles and narrow streets once stood for and I had to answer it in my own way.

Billy Kahora

Billy Kahora has written a non-fiction novella titled The True Story Of David Munyakei (2010) and a short story collection, The Cape Cod Bicycle War (2019). His story Urban Zoning was shortlisted for the prize in 2012, The Gorilla’s Apprentice in 2014. He wrote the screenplay for Soul Boy and co-wrote Nairobi Half Life which won the Kalasha awards. His short fiction and creative non-fiction has appeared in Chimurenga, McSweeney’s, Granta Online, Internazionale and Vanity Fair and Kwani. He is working on a novel titled The Applications. He has been Managing Editor of Kwani Trust, a Nairobi-based literary network and has edited 7 issues of the Kwani journal and other Kwani publications including Nairobi 24 and Kenya Burning. He is currently a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Bristol and is also a founding partner of Saseni! a creative writing teaching platform.