The Island of Adventure… I’m often asked if a teacher or mentor encouraged or inspired me to write, but it was books that were my inspiration. That first whisper of the muse came to me at age nine, while reading the eight novels in Enid Blyton’s Adventure series, written between 1944 and 1955. The four children and their talkative parrot Kiki dealt with forgers, gun-runners, Nazis, traitors, and mad scientists, solving mysteries with very little adult assistance. They had extraordinary adventures not only in England, Scotland and Wales, but also in Austria, Greece, the Middle East, and the fictional but exotic Tauri-Hessia. As well as instilling a love for adventure, those eight books also planted the first longing to travel to places far from my Canadian home. Jack, Philip, Dinah, Lucy-Ann and Kiki were my constant imaginary companions, and in the safety of my secretly scribbled stories, I could be brave and confident as I didn’t feel in real life.
On a grey, wintry November afternoon, my grade five teacher, Mrs. Bean, brought in a little radio, and we listened to a broadcast about story writing, and were instructed to write our own. Mine was, predictably, “An African Adventure”. It involved three children – and a dog – stealing a plane and flying it on a search mission. They crashed into the deep darkness of Africa, and how they survived their ordeal was the big adventure. Unbeknownst to me, Mrs. Bean sent it in to the CBC, and on another snowy Winnipeg day the radio was again brought in and Mrs. Bean announced that my story would be read. Painfully shy, I was so uncomfortable with the attention of everyone watching me as a man’s rather sonorous voice read my African adventure that I couldn’t look up from my desktop. After she switched off the radio, Mrs. Bean set a little booklet containing the stories selected to be read on-air on my desk, and that was that. Nothing more was said about it at school, or at home.
But it was astounding to me: I had written the words I heard in my head, and a stranger somewhere had found those words exciting enough to choose to read on the radio and print in a book for other strangers to hear and read. Although the unfamiliar attention had made me uneasy, it also made me feel special in a way I had never known. And I wanted to do it again. I decided I would be a writer.
Poking around in an antique bookstore last week, I found a first edition of The Island of Adventure, the initial novel in Blyton’s adventure series. Standing in front of the crammed, delightful shelves of Marchpanes, holding that beautiful little book, I remembered running home from St. John’s Library on Salter Street in the North End, the book protected against my chest. I remember being so anxious to begin it that I couldn’t wait to get home, but leaned against the window of Rosenblatt’s grocery store and started reading.
Although that gorgeous first edition at Marchpane’s was not to be mine, I did find a 2014 Annual of Blyton’s – a compilation of some of her famous stories – in a shop on Charing Cross Road. I bought it as a nod to my first inspiration for both writing and travelling, then thought it would be interesting to visit Enid Blyton’s grave; she died in 1968 after writing over 600 books for children. I read that she had been cremated, and phoned the crematorium outside Hampstead where her ashes were reported to be.
“Enid?” the woman who answered the phone said – Enid Blyton being so well known in England that many feel the right to be on a first-name basis. “Oh no, Enid’s ashes aren’t here. We’re not certain, but we think they were scattered from a plane somewhere.” As I hung up I thought of my own childish, long-ago story with its plane over Africa, and I’m not sure why, but I felt strangely pleased.