Children’s books repurposed

Five strategy cvr

These are listed in the order read:

Five Go on a Strategy Away Day, by Bruno Vincent
How it Works: The Husband, by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris
The Ladybird Book of the Zombie Apocalypse, by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris.
Five Go Gluten Free, by Bruno Vincent
The Ladybird Book of the Hipster, by Joel Morris and, Jason Hazeley
The Ladybird Book of the Meeting, by J.A. Hazeley and J.P. Morris


Five Go on a Strategy Away Day, by Bruno Vincent

Having done my share of constructing towers from Lego and bridges from drinking straws at company team-building events, I enjoyed this hybrid satire of vacuous corporate bonding and Enid Blyton-style adventure enormously. In it, Julian, George, Dick and Anne have grown up, though Timmy the dog is still alive.  They are all (apart from Timmy, obviously) working for the multinational Lupiter Fünckstein at its London headquarters where Julian has managed to wangle jobs for his relatives.  When they are sent on a team-building away day in the sticks they find their well-established relationships under pressure.  The Secret Seven turn up as bitter rivals on the same course, with the difference that the Five’s shambolic approach is contrasted with the Seven’s superb organisational skills, though their high irritation factor is signalled by a propensity to play Kumbaya on massed ukuleles.

In the morning the Five have to undertake an indoor task, guiding blindfolded Julian as he navigates round pieces of paper representing landmines (tasteless to be sure, but an authentic-sounding challenge).  Thank goodness it was only bits of paper.  In the afternoon they are sent outside on an orienteering exercise, during which naturally they become lost.  Here the focus switches to an adventure more in keeping with the original stories, though with extra bickering, as if author Bruno Vincent had run out of ideas for making fun of the team-building industry.

In addition to the group exercises each member has had to do a personality test.  Their characters as defined by a crude paper and pencil questionnaire are credibly linked to the way they behaved as children, playing off Blyton’s stereotypes.  So they are categorised as leader (Julian), follower-on (Dick), renegade (George) and team player (Anne).  Unfortunately the Five discover that digging beneath characteristics which had never been examined is an uncomfortable process; moreover, such pigeon-holing can lead to friction, damaging hitherto productive group dynamics.  They eventually win through, more by luck than judgement, and they do it as a team even though on the basis of their scores they are abject failures; so much for professional trainers with their abstract exercises and pop psychology.

The book will appeal to anyone who either enjoyed the Famous Five as children or has had to endure ghastly team events stuffed with bullshit-bingo cliché.  I was particularly amused at Corporate Relations getting the best meeting room and food, at the expense of departments which actually made the company money.  Having begun my career as a thrusting young executive in British Telecom’s Corporate Relations Department I found that plausible: BT’s CRD in the 1980s was certainly full of senior ‘managers’ whose sense of entitlement was inversely proportional to their often less than stellar performances.

Billed as ‘Enid Blyton for grown-ups’, Quercus are jumping on the updated Ladybirds bandwagon with their series.  There is a market for books which simultaneously allow older readers a shot of nostalgia mixed with cynicism about the modern world, and the infantilism of team building makes the topic a perfect match for a parody based on a Blytonian-style story.  Vincent shows that these allegedly bonding events companies insist on sending their hapless employees on are at best time-wasting, and are potentially corrosive of professional relationships.  Some things are better left unsaid in the work environment, especially if you despise your co-workers.  As George amply demonstrates, the strain of having to pretend to be positive while bored witless during team exercises is best countered with lashings of alcohol.

Five Go on a Strategy Away Day was a quick read, so I thought the £7.99 price a little steep, though because these books are so popular it is possible to pick them up cheaply (mine was 40p, which I thought reasonable).  Now, having learned about the career developments of the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, I’m curious to know what the Five Find-Outers and Dog have been up to recently.

(8 June 2017)


How it Works: The Husband, by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris

I thought I would read this to get some tips, but it was pretty much irrelevant to my life, apart perhaps the bit about a man running on sausages and beer, which I can relate to even if it isn’t completely accurate (no bacon butties?).  The wife read it too but says there isn’t anything in it she didn’t know already, whatever that means.

The humour obviously lies in the disjunction between the pictures lifted from the Ladybird children’s books, published with a straight educational purpose, and the knowing, sometimes slightly salacious, commentary written in the style of the original books that looks at the picture in a new way.  The result is an irreverent spin on a much-loved staple for those of a certain age, providing simultaneously a bit of nostalgia for its unrealistic middle class world and a mocking look at the disappointing way we turned out.  It may present itself as good-natured, but there’s a sharpness underneath.

Pictures were chosen in order to act as a vehicle for an amusing commentary, but lack a narrative thread linking them.  It’s all entertaining enough, but with such an enormous library to choose from I was expecting more coherence.  Despite that limitation, there are some telling points about family life and the self-delusions husbands are said by their wives to harbour.  There is no harm in seeing these deflated, but it’s a fair bet that every man reading it will think it applies to everyone but him.  One is left wondering what the pictures originally illustrated.  For example, why is that smiling man in a kilt coming through the door holding what looks like a large turd in his hand?

The cover price (£6.99) is incredibly expensive for what you get – bearing in mind half of it is recycled from decades ago and reading it takes all of ten minutes – but people are buying them in droves so Ladybird have been canny in working out what the market will bear.  There are squillions of these titles in circulation so they will turn up more cheaply eventually.  I paid 20p for mine, about what this market will bear.

(4 August 2017)

The Ladybird Book of the Zombie Apocalypse, by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris

These Ladybirds remade for adults are intended to have a wryly ironic feel that is designed to amuse an adult readership for a passing moment, but I want to make one thing clear at the outset: there is nothing remotely amusing about the zombie apocalypse; it is a deadly serious business.  If anyone fails to take the prospect seriously as a result of reading this book, more fool them because they will surely suffer the consequences when the plague erupts.

The probable age of Hazeley and Morris can be gauged by the assertion that the collapse of civilization will look much like the 1970s, which is fairly near the mark for anyone who remembers that dreary decade.  Even the zombie apocalypse would have been preferable to the ghastly sight of Ted Heath being smarmy on television.  Likening zombies to customers shuffling round shopping centres is straight out of George Romero, and the book’s opening line, ‘When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth’ is a direct quote from his Dawn of the Dead (1978).

The authors are correct in the assertion that people in zombie films have not watched enough zombie films, as can be judged by the number of times I have yelled at the screen: ‘shoot them in the head for God sake, don’t you know anything?!’  I never treat zombie films as entertainment, but always as training documentaries, even though the ridiculous premise of much zombie fiction is neatly satirised: ‘It could even be a fungal infection like athlete’s foot, but one that explodes mushrooms through your face and makes you eat everybody.’  Yeah, well, who cares?  It’s the munching that counts.

The concept behind these Ladybirds for grown-ups is amusing but it would be nice to find some kind of narrative, instead of a random selection with text that is enjoyable because of the disjunction in our memories of the cosy middle-class world the originals depicted and the cynicism of the new descriptions.  The main impression here is how gruesome some of the original pictures were – a hanged man in Elizabethan costume; men caught in a mine explosion; a clear act of brutality by United States soldiers against unarmed Native Americans in the snow, dead bodies scattered among burned-out tepees; and to redress the balance a sinister bunch of injuns busy massacring settlers defending a log cabin.  That last may raise some eyebrows at the association of Native Americans and zombies.  Ladybirds were never quite as anodyne as we remember them.

Cover price: £6.99.  Price paid: part of a five books for £1 deal at a car boot sale.

(6 December 2017)

Five Go Gluten Free, by Bruno Vincent

Anne demonstrates she possesses a surprising amount of fibre when she persuades the rest of the Five (yes, Timmy included) to adopt a healthy diet, alas a switch which proves to be a trial for her relatives.  We follow the group as they try to adhere to the new eating regime Anne imposes on them; she substitutes the scrummy tuck to which they are accustomed with smoothies, quinoa and chia seeds; of course it all proves to be as horrible as it sounds.  The chums are prohibited from consuming junk food or alcohol, but even treats are off the menu so they might as well be wearing hair shirts.

These are people who as kids seemed to spend the entirety of their holidays having picnics with no thought of their cholesterol levels in between catching criminals, so it proves an enormous ordeal to eat the stuff Anne gives them.  Fortunately for her they love her so they can’t tell her to shove her ghastly muck, even when they must be suffering from mild malnutrition.  For some motivation they visit a ‘health specialist’, only to find it being run by cousin Rupert who overcharges them for a short and vacuous consultation.  If something screams ‘scam’, it is the presence of Rupert on the scene.

In town they struggle to keep to the straight and narrow so they decide to go to Dorset to try to escape the cues that encourage them to backslide, but on arrival they find Kirrin Island has been declared a sanctuary for an endangered species of vole and they cannot go there, then they find kindly Aunt Fanny is determined to feed them the unhealthy stuff they are trying to escape.  How long will the good intentions last in the face of constant hunger and such inviting temptations?

It sounds a thin premise but one that proves to have a surprising amount of meat, which allows Bruno Vincent to tilt at food faddists who forget that living a longer life doesn’t mean much if it is miserable, and at those celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow who promote weird diets as part of a generally eccentric lifestyle.  The type of regime satirised is more than going gluten free, and will annoy those who genuinely have food allergies, as opposed to neurotics who believe they have, or those who pretend to because it allows them to seem interesting.  Bruno makes the valid point that these diets are a faff, something one might expect as they are the polar opposite of ‘convenience food’, being the epitome of inconvenience.  It may look chucked together, but as Anne discovers, it takes a lot of work to make something taste this terrible.

You also get a sense of how much it costs to buy the components for these outlandish meals full of ingredients no normal person has ever heard of (or as Julian would put it, forever correcting Anne’s habit of ending sentences with a preposition, ‘of which no normal person has ever heard’).  The effect on the gut of all this work is graphically demonstrated when poor old Timmy gets a stupendous bout of diarrhoea and flatulence.  Eventually even Anne concedes her campaign is more trouble than it is worth and ditches the spiralizer.  Normal life can resume!

Anyone who has ever wondered at the point of spiralized vegetables, or been baffled at the idea of one vegetable masquerading as another (such as cauliflower rice) will find this entertaining.  The humour plays on extrapolations of the characters Blyton created, and while some of it is forced (Anne calling Julian ‘Ju’, creating mayhem at a multi-faith school), there are some very funny moments, such as Anne asking the landlord of a rural Dorset pub if he has protein balls.  The illustrations taken from the original stories are redundant as the new captions do not fit them.

Cover price: £7.99.  Price paid: part of a five books for £1 deal at a car boot sale.

(12 December 2017)

The Ladybird Book of the Hipster, by Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley

Satirising the hipster is certainly pushing an open door as they do the job so beautifully themselves, but this will keep the reader chuckling for the 6.5 minutes it takes to finish.  It sends up the hipster’s pretentiousness and self-delusions of profundity, fondness for neologisms, preposterous facial hair, lack of dress sense and generally ridiculous lifestyle.  The text subtly implies they are trustifarians who can’t get girlfriends, which sounds entirely plausible.  I detect a through-line from Viz’s Student Grant to today’s hipster.

Morris and Hazeley poke fun at an elitist lifestyle that thinks it is highly individualistic but is actually drearily conformist.  Sadly I can’t imagine the typical hipster possessing much of a sense of humour so one reading this (on a device naturally) would probably consider it a useful handbook for the next crowd-funded start-up.  On the contrary, I laughed like a drain (hipsterical, if you will), so I failed the hipster priggishness test.

If the hipster had no effect in the ‘real’ world I wouldn’t care, but their fondness for exotic coffee, when previously we were happy with Nescaf, or that chicory crap if you were odd, normalised forking over three quid for a cup of froth to some corporation which doesn’t pay tax but clogs up the environment, and the ludicrous sight of people walking to work with a waxed paper cup the stuff in their hand when it would cost less to buy a kettle.  The sorts of people who think it is cool (though that probably isn’t a hipsterish word) to sit all day in a coffee shop with a laptop so nobody else can get a decent seat.  And you are served by ’barristas’, as if it’s a vocation rather than a minimum-wage job.

Then you see all this exotic stuff in supermarkets nobody knows how to cook or even pronounce.  Morris and Hazeley refer to ‘gin infused with sausage and toothpaste’, which I bet really exists in some dingy-but-hip corner of east London.  And what about restaurants serving your meal on a slate, or a bit of wood, instead of a nice hygienic plate?  Hipsters have a lot to answer for.

Price paid: part of 3-for-a-£1 charity shop deal.  These books are so overpriced they must be pitched at hipster types who have no conception of the link between price and value.

(14 May 2018)

The Ladybird Book of the Meeting, by J.A. Hazeley and J.P. Morris

As someone who has spent countless hours in meetings, and as a result loathes them, I found that Hazeley and Morris skewer them accurately.  Here is a list of everything wrong about the wretched things (not all of these are in the book but it’s an opportunity for me to get the deep-rooted resentment off my chest, having been forced to have my soul sucked out of me so many times).  In no particular order:

The boredom listening to irrelevancies; the use of meetings to make middle managers feel important; meetings as a substitute for work, or a frustrating obstruction to it; meetings when there is nothing worth talking about but it’s scheduled so it must proceed; crappy biscuits; early morning meetings as a form of conspicuous toadyism; pointless corporate ‘training’,* run by grotesquely overpaid consultants, that nobody ever uses in real life; papers being ‘tabled’ because the compiler was too lazy or inept to circulate them in a timely manner, so you have to try to read and listen at the same time; meetings as an excuse to try out the latest jargon (hence the invention of bullshit bingo); unstructured meetings filled with waffle; undisciplined participants who like the sound of their own voices and drone on; weak chairs who have no idea about pace and let the discussion ramble until it peters out; conference calls, confusing because you can’t regulate proceedings with body language; away days which are excuses for self-indulgence (though good food can compensate); maniacs who conduct meetings while driving; meetings that seem to dilate time hellishly so it feels one has been trapped far longer than the clock suggests.  The meeting, what a ghastly invention it is.  I found I was weeping as I closed the pages of this book, contemplating all those wasted hours.

* Having read a lot of Mao at college during which I came across the saying ‘a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’, I was so bored when forced to do a TQM – Total Quality Management – course at British Telecom some time in the mid-1980s that I decided to throw this in as if referencing some self-improvement text, not appreciating at the time that Lao-Tzu rather than Mao had come up with the banality.  To my surprise I kept coming across it later in a business, as opposed to a revolutionary, context.  I wonder if I was responsible for starting the fad, or if others had had the same urge to take the piss.

Price paid: part of a 4-for-£1 deal at a library fundraising sale.

(18 June 2018)


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