Children’s books repurposed

Five strategy cvr

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

 

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 awayday 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 pointless, definitely time-wasting, and 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.  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 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 a miserable one, and those celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow who promote them as part of a more generally eccentric lifestyle.  The type of regime satirised is more than going gluten free, and will probably annoy those who genuinely have food allergies, as opposed to those neurotics who feel they have, or pretend to because it makes them seem more interesting than they are.  Bruno makes the valid point that these diets are a faff, as 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 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)

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