When I was ten years old, I wanted to be Jack Trent. And I wanted my best friend to be Philip Mannering. Jack and Philip were creations of Enid Blyton. Jack had freckles and red hair. He was older than me, maybe about fourteen. Philip’s hair stuck up in front and I thought that was cool. He was about thirteen. They both had sisters. Philip’s sister was Dinah and she was dark and hot tempered and feisty. She was about twelve. Lucy-Ann was red-haired and freckly like her brother and unlike Dinah she was sweet natured and openly affectionate. She was about my age but I thought she sounded younger than me. She adored Jack. Their parents had been killed in a plane crash and they lived with a cross old uncle who did not love them.
Philip and Dinah’s father was dead, but they had a mother who ran an art agency and was young and clever and pretty. They went to boarding school and spent holidays with a recluse antiquarian uncle and a sour and exhausted aunt.
They all met one year at a summer cramming school, and got on famously. They had shared interests. Very out-doorsy. Jack was crazy about bird watching and had a talkative pet parrot who sat on his shoulder. Her name was Kiki. Philip had the quality of animal magnetism. No animal was afraid of him. Consequently his person was frequently crawling with all manner of Insecta, invertebrates, reptiles, to Dinah’s intense disgust. He would tease his sister by threatening her with some repulsive creepy-crawly and she would lose her temper and yell at him, and slap him while Lacy-Ann got upset and Jack tried to pour oil on troubled waters. Yet Dinah’s tempers never lasted long. That was the good thing about Dinah; she would never…
Mrs Miller snatched the book from my hands and peered at it.
“A book,” I said, stupidly. It was the bulky MacMilllan edition, handsomely bound in yellow hardback covers, with illustrations by Stuart Tresilion.
“Blyton.” She sniffed. “I’m surprised at you.” You would have thought I had been discovered concealing libidinous literature under my desk lid. The girl across the aisle gasped, as if she had encountered me in the midst of a lewd act.
Mrs Miller announced to the class, “James is reading Blyton.” So, it was to be a public humiliation. “I cannot recommend Blyton. It is, frankly, childish.”
But, I am a child.
“Her books do not stretch you. There are no figures of speech.”
That was the defining quality of literature, the presence of metaphor, simile, metonymy, oxymoron, synecdoche, zeugma… Suddenly I was panic-stricken that Mrs Miller was going to confiscate The Island of Adventure. I said desperately, “I’m writing a critique.” A giggle rippled through the class.
“Oh really.” Mrs Miller looked arch. “And what is the title of your analysis?”
“The Psychology of a Child Vigilante.” I blushed crimson. Mrs Miller blushed too. I could not have said why. She opened her mouth to say something, and then thought better of it.
She handed the book back.
Much later, I came across the arresting opening line to E.C .Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case. When I first came across it, I imagined that the eponymous hero was my old pal, Jack Trent, in adulthood. It seemed quite feasible. I had grown up and Jack had moved on too, had abandoned his childhood dream of becoming an ornithologist and, following in the footsteps of Bill Smugs, had become a gumshoe. What would he do about Kiki? Parrots can be very long lived. It was quite conceivable that Kiki could outlive Jack. The Chief Super would summon Jack to his office.
“Sit down, Trent. Smoke if you like. We need you to go under cover. Trouble is, the bird makes you very conspicuous.”
“Wipe your feet! Shut the door!”