The Enid Blyton Society
The Six Bad Boys
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Book Details...

First edition: 1951
Publisher: Lutterworth Press
Illustrator: Mary Gernat
Category: Family Stories
Genre: Family
Type: Novels/Novelettes

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Reprint Covers
Review by Anita Bensoussane
Further Illustrations


Wraparound dustwrapper from the 1st edition, illustrated by Mary Gernat

Frontis from the 1st edition, illustrated by Mary Gernat

1st German edition published by Erika Klopp Verlag in 1953,
illustrated by Walter Born with the title Meeting-point Cellar
My first encounter with The Six Bad Boys, at the age of seven or eight, was the passage which appears in The Big Enid Blyton Book (Hamlyn, 1976 edition). The extract consisted of Chapter 13 — "The Gang" — and described how Bob came to join a gang of boys who met in the cellar of a half-ruined house — a "home from home." The piece intrigued me and I read it over and over, longing to know more, but it wasn't until I was about ten that I finally got hold of a copy of the book. I remember vividly my first reading of The Six Bad Boys in its entirety. It was powerful and emotional stuff, quite different from most of the other Enid Blyton books I had read, and I was hooked. What stood out were the scenes of warmth — the happy family life of the Mackenzies and cosy evenings spent reading and feasting in the cellar — and, by contrast, the scenes of brutality — Bob smashing up the house in a rage, and the "Big Row" between Mr. and Mrs. Berkeley. It was a novel of tension and drama in which I became fully involved with the characters, especially Bob, and was anxious for things to turn out well against the odds.

The Six Bad Boys is what Barbara Stoney calls "an unusual attempt for Enid at social realism" (Enid Blyton — The Biography, 1974). It's the closest Blyton ever gets to kitchen sink drama. Indeed, on page 87 of the Lutterworth Press edition, Mary Gernat gives us a picture of Bob washing up the breakfast things at a deep, old-fashioned sink — a picture that is reproduced in The Big Enid Blyton Book. Refreshingly, the families in the story are not the middle-class families found in so many Enid Blyton books. There isn't a cook, a maid or a gardener in sight, and all the children attend the local day-school. The setting is no rural idyll, but a canal-side town (Lappington) with shops, a cinema, a fun-fair and streets of "half-tumbled-down" terraces. A whole host of words and images convey the flavour of the post-war period — oil-stoves, lino, the wireless, clockwork engines, ginger-beer, shillings and sixpences, going to the "pictures," bringing in the coal, fathers smoking pipes and mothers darning stockings.

The novel focuses on two boys, Bob Kent and Tom Berkeley, whose problems at home lead them to seek security and companionship elsewhere. At the start of the book the boys' families move into houses on either side of the Mackenzies (eleven-year-old twins Jeanie and Donald, seven-year-old Pat and their parents) — the Mackenzies being an example of a model family.

Bob has always been cheeky and something of a daredevil but, since the death of his father a year ago, his mother has found it increasingly difficult to keep him in check. Things go from bad to worse when she takes a job which involves working long hours, so that ten-year-old Bob is left very much to his own devices. Angry and resentful, he smashes up the house one afternoon, leading his mother to lock him out of the house every day after that, until she returns home at half-past six. Bob takes to wandering aimlessly around town after school, staring enviously into lighted living-rooms: "Families had a kind of obsession for him." He even peeps through a crack in the Mackenzies' curtains, just to get a glimpse of the family life for which he yearns: "Bob drank it all in as if his mind was thirsty for what he saw."

He quickly discovers that playing the fool and causing trouble are ways not only of forgetting his problems, but of getting the attention he craves. Only the Mackenzies appear to know how to handle Bob. When he visits them he is kept busy, for example helping Mr. Mackenzie build a model ship, or reading to Pat. Being involved in everyday family activities like that makes him feel fulfilled.

Tom Berkeley, also ten (but for some reason described several times as "a bigger boy" with whom Bob feels proud to have forged a friendship), comes from a family which has "come down in the world" after his father lost his job and had to take a lower-paid position. Tom's snobbish, discontented mother finds it difficult to accept what has happened and is bitter. She and her husband, a weak man, bicker constantly so that there is "never any peace" in the house. They criticise one another in front of the children (Tom and his older sisters, Hilda and Eleanor) and Mrs. Berkeley forces the three children to take sides whenever there has been a quarrel, so that the family is divided. Mr. and Mrs. Berkeley remind me very much of David and Rose Longfield in the Six Cousins books, while Mr. and Mrs. Mackenzie, who pull together and support one another, resemble Peter and Linnie Longfield.

When Mr. Berkeley walks out, Tom too starts spending more and more time out of the house, disgusted with his parents and weary of the tension and misery in his family. Like Bob, he begins to cause trouble. Blyton writes:
"As for Tom, he was like Bob. When things went wrong he went wrong too, and was silly and rude and showed off. It was his way of trying to forget, his way of saying to the world, 'What! You're trying to get me down, are you? Well, I'll show you! I'll get you down instead! I'll fight you, see?' "
United in their misery, and with parents who are too wrapped up in themselves to bother about where their sons go each evening, Bob and Tom join forces and find themselves drawn to the Four Terrors Gang (Fred, Len, Patrick and Jack), which soon becomes the Six Terrors Gang. At first, the cosy cellar where they have their headquarters seems like a haven — a "home from home" for six boys who feel the need to escape as often as they can from various miseries at home — overcrowding, neglect, rows and violence. There is respect and comradeship between members of the Gang. However, they have no real aim and, as Blyton herself warns in Let's Have a Club of Our Own! (originally 1955; reprinted in The Big Enid Blyton Book 1961, but removed from the 1976 version), it is important that meetings are held for a purpose.

Gradually, a mixture of aimlessness, daredevilment and simply "kicking against the pricks" — hitting out at an apparently unjust world — lead the Gang to commit petty crime, culminating in an appearance at the Juvenile Court which is to change the lives of all six boys. My referring to Let's Have a Club of Our Own! implies that the Gang resembles a club and, indeed, the Six Terrors are rather like a subversive Secret Seven. They have a leader (fifteen-year-old Fred), secret signals and a meeting-place, but instead of combating crime they commit it!

The punishments meted out by the Court are unbelievably harsh and I'd be interested to know whether or not the story is "realistic" in that respect. Many of the boys are to be taken away from their homes for months or years, the general idea being that it was a poor home-life which caused them to go wrong in the first place, and that the homes need to improve as well as the boys' characters. Strangely, the Court is concerned most of all with the fact that the boys kept a wallet which Tom found lying in the street, and divided its contents between them. Far less attention is paid to an earlier crime, when the Gang shared out money which Patrick stole after he and Tom broke into a newsagent's. To me, that would seem to be a more serious matter. As this novel may not have been as widely read as the major series I'll avoid revealing what happens to Bob and Tom, but let's just say that Blyton gives us one of her wish-fulfilment endings — but only in part.

That Enid Blyton took The Six Bad Boys very seriously is revealed in her "Note for the Reader" at the beginning. Donning the mantle of Mr. Pink-Whistle, she writes:
"Are you a child? Or are you a grown-up? It doesn't much matter, with this book. It is written for the whole family, and for anyone who has to do with children. It is written, as all stories are written, to entertain the reader — but it is written too to explain some of the wrong things there are in the world, and to help to put them right."
Golly! Anna Sewell's Black Beauty was once more-or-less prescribed reading for those who worked with horses, with animal welfare groups handing out free copies to stable-hands and drivers, and it sounds as if Blyton envisaged her book being prescribed in a similar way to dysfunctional families!

In addition to Enid Blyton's note there is a foreword by Basil Henriques, then Chairman of the East London Juvenile Court, who sings the book's praises:
"The description of the workings of the minds of Bob and Tom is, in my opinion, absolutely brilliant. It shows why the broken home causes children to go wrong, and the gradual deterioration of both boys is told in a manner which I have never seen surpassed...Indeed, old and young alike will be deeply grateful to Enid Blyton for a most remarkable and enthrallingly interesting book."
An effusive eulogy! Still, it pretty much sums up how I felt on my first reading — and on subsequent readings. The Six Bad Boys is a startling book, beautifully-crafted, with convincing characters, and I must have read it at least five times, on each occasion being absorbed and moved by it.

That's why I was taken aback to read the comments by Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig in You're a Brick, Angela! (published in 1976 originally, but my copy is a 2003 reprint from Girls Gone By Publishers). You're a Brick, Angela! is an excellent book, which traces the history of girls' fiction (and some fiction which would appeal to both sexes) in a most entertaining way, but it takes an entirely negative view of The Six Bad Boys. The authors say:
"This is perhaps Enid Blyton's nastiest story; she has taken, unusually, a 'topical' theme and sentimentalized it, bringing to the problem of juvenile delinquency an attitude dispiritingly retrogressive."
Nasty? The Six Bad Boys? You could have knocked me down with a feather! Sentimental? In places, certainly, but not as much as it might be. Perhaps the most sentimental passage comes when Blyton allows Bob to dwell on the death of his father but, even then, that is done for a purpose, showing us how Bob is gradually hardening himself against life's knocks. His mother has gone off to spend Christmas with a friend (without even leaving a contact address for Bob!) She has given him the train fare to go to his Aunt Sue, whom he dislikes, but instead he stays at home, spending his days in the cellar and arranging for the Gang to gather there for a celebration on the evening of Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, he takes some things to the cellar:
He carried a good many things — the little tree with its decorations and parcels. Two or three packets of food. A bag of mince-pies which he intended to warm up over the top of the oil-stove. Six bottles of ginger-beer — and a book to read while he was all alone in the cellar on Christmas Day.

He lighted the candle and the oil-stove. At once the place seemed cheerful and homely. Bob looked with pleasure at the decorations on the walls. He and the others had put them there the night before...

...He suddenly remembered how every Christmas his father had told him the story of the Shepherds and the Angels, and of the little Jesus in the manger. To-morrow was the birthday of that baby. People would be going to church. He had gone too with his father and mother. All that seemed a hundred years ago!

"I'd like it back," said Bob, aloud, and he felt lonely for those old far-off days, when his father clapped him on the shoulder and told him he was a fine big boy, and his mother smiled and looked after them both.

He shook himself. He was being what Patrick called "a softy." Patrick jeered at softies and cowards and "soppy folk."

"You got to be tough these days," he was always saying to the others. "Like the guys on the pictures. One of these days I'm going to get me a gun! I'll be a tough guy all right then."
Sentimental, yes, but also poignant and very telling. Bob has bought the tree and presents as a surprise for the Gang, indicating that he has come to think of the boys as a substitute family. Then there's the reminder that he will be "all alone in the cellar on Christmas Day" — a damp, musty place which to him seems more "cheerful and homely" than his own house. This lonely Christmas is contrasted with previous Christmases when Bob had both his parents and felt loved by them, and when his father reminded him of the religious significance of the season. Now Bob has a new value system, represented by the echoes of Patrick's words which pass through his mind: "One of these days I'm going to get me a gun! I'll be a tough guy all right then." An image not of peace and goodwill, but of being at war with society.

And what about the "dispiritingly retrogressive" attitude that Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig claim the book contains? Well, it soon becomes clear that they are referring to Enid Blyton's suggestion that a mother's place is in the home. I have to agree that The Six Bad Boys is hard on working mothers. There is an "all or nothing" attitude — to work full-time or not to work at all — and no suggestion that any kind of compromise could be reached. In Mrs. Kent's case, there are indications that Bob should not be left so much alone. He is by nature a daredevil — a cheeky, reckless boy who needs firm guidance. Also, he is an affectionate and lively boy who likes company. Being left alone for several hours a day at the age of ten (and, after a few weeks, locked out of the house completely until half-past six at night) may not necessarily lead to delinquency, but such a total lack of family life seems likely to lead to emotional problems of some sort. Surely the issue is not that Mrs. Kent should be there for Bob twenty-four hours a day, but that there should be someone there for him after school and during the holidays. If Mrs. Kent cannot be there herself, it is her duty as a parent to arrange for someone else to care for Bob — the Mackenzies would probably be more than willing. Alternatively, she could look for a part-time job that would enable her to be with Bob after school (we are told that she is reasonably well-off and does not need to work out of financial necessity.) Not only are these options not considered, but Blyton appears to condemn all working mothers through Bob's words to Mrs. Mackenzie: "I know lots of other mothers go out to work and aren't home, like you are, to welcome their children and get them their tea — but I bet all those kids hate it as much as I did!" This is despite the fact that Enid Blyton worked long hours herself when her children were young — at home, yes, but shut away in her study!

Readers may well sympathise with Mrs. Kent's need for a job. Recently widowed and having moved to a new area, she understandably feels lonely and isolated in Lappington and, as well as seeking independence and fulfillment through work, is perhaps seeking to fill a void. However, we quickly lose any sympathy we may have for her when she fails to respond to Bob's demonstrations of affection and is dismissive of his needs, thinking only of herself. What is really at fault is her hard, unloving character — not her desire to work. She does not even appreciate how much Bob must miss his father, the only comment she ever makes about her late husband being a negative one: "If your father had been alive he would have whipped you many a time for your disobedience." It takes Mrs. Mackenzie to remark, when Bob has been particularly kind and helpful: "His father would have been proud of him."

Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig do not have much opinion of Bob, calling him "self-pitying, destructive, a thoroughly unsympathetic emotional blackmailer." Strong words about a ten-year-old boy who has recently lost his father, moved to a new town and has no-one to depend on but his hard-faced mother. And he is only ten, not twelve as claimed in You're a Brick, Angela! Blyton writes: "His mother looked at him standing there defying her. He was only ten — not even a big boy yet!"

Enid Blyton obviously intends the reader to sympathise to a point with both Bob and Tom, which is hardly surprising since, in writing the book, she was reliving unhappy times from her own childhood. Chapter 8 ("The Big Row") and Chapter 11 ("At Hawthorns and Summerhayes") are largely autobiographical. In Journal 7, Winter 1998, we learn that, when Barbara Stoney showed some passages from The Six Bad Boys to Enid's brother, Hanly, "he was obviously very moved. 'Yes,' he said, wiping a tear from his cheek, 'that's us, it is exactly what happened. I never knew she had written about it all.' "

Like Mr. and Mrs. Berkeley, Enid Blyton's parents quarrelled violently and, after her father left, Enid's mother begged her and her two brothers not to tell anyone of the separation, but to pretend that their father was away on a visit. The three Berkeley children are put through the same ordeal: "They had to cope with a tearful, complaining, angry mother, who had no idea where her husband was. They had to promise her not to tell anyone their father had gone away because of a row. They were to say he was on a visit."

When Bob and his mother first move to Lappington, the Mackenzie children see the removal men carrying a piano into the house. The piano is never mentioned again, and there is no indication that either Bob or Mrs. Kent play it. Did it belong to Bob's late father, I wonder? If so, then there are echoes of Enid Blyton's childhood in Bob's story too. Enid's father played the piano (Enid herself was of course a talented pianist) and she says, in her autobiography, The Story of My Life (1952): "One of the things I remember most clearly about my childhood is lying in bed at night, and hearing my father playing Beethoven's sonatas, Chopin's nocturnes and ballades, grand pieces from Liszt and Rachmaninoff and a great deal of Mozart. I knew them by heart through listening to them night after night." She must surely have missed that after her father's departure, though we read in her daughter Gillian's book — Telling Tales — Gillian Baverstock Remembers Enid Blyton (2000) that, as with so many things in Blyton's life, this nocturnal piano-playing was not all sweetness and light: "By the time Enid was 12, her parents were constantly arguing and Enid could measure her father's anger by the volume and fierceness of his piano playing later in the evening." There were times when Enid may have felt disturbed rather than soothed as she listened to the music. Does Bob, whose father has died, also have memories of his father playing the piano?

Knowing some of the details of Enid Blyton's life — which I didn't know as a child — adds something to a reading of The Six Bad Boys. As an adult reader, I'm struck by one or two other things as well. For instance, we are not informed whether the "friend" with whom Mrs. Kent goes to spend Christmas is female or male. When I was younger I assumed that it was a female friend, but now...well, I'm not so sure. There are references to Mrs. Kent "prettifying herself." Is that because she works at a Beauty Shop, and is required to look her best, or because she has more self-esteem now she is working, or because she wants to impress a boyfriend? As Enid Blyton said: "Are you a child? Or are you a grown-up? It doesn't much matter with this book." There are clearly things in it which may be read at different levels.

Throughout The Six Bad Boys, Blyton comments negatively on the influence of comics and the cinema on children. Comics are criticised for failing to demand a high standard of literacy, while many films are considered unsuitable because the storylines are unimaginative, violent and immoral. Blyton has Patrick say: "Comics are best — all pictures! If you don't want to read what's underneath, you needn't. You can tell by the pictures. I like comics best — and the cinema too. You don't have to think with either of them." The Gang talk of how they long to see a film with "plenty of shooting" called He Killed Six!, the irony of the title being lost on them and maybe on many child readers too — this may once again be a nod in the direction of the adult reader. There is a similar sort of irony in that the first game Bob plays at break-time at school, with Jeanie, Donald and Pat, is "burglars and policemen," with Bob taking the part of the burglar!

In Enid Blyton — The Biography (1974), Barbara Stoney quotes from an article which Enid Blyton wrote for the Church of England Newspaper in the autumn of 1950: "It cannot be said too often that the cinema is one of the most formidable powers for good or evil in this world, and most especially for children. Its great danger lies in the fact that it can make evil so attractive, so tempting and irresistible...As the twig is bent, so the tree will grow, and the false world portrayed in many adult films must have warped great numbers of developing young minds..."

The concerns that people had in the early 1950s about the cinema are the same as those we have today about television (not to mention videos and DVDs) but the concerns are even greater now for, with television in the vast majority of homes, and sometimes even in children's bedrooms, a lot of children now watch a great variety of programmes daily, often unsupervised and sometimes for hours at a stretch. As for comics, most of the weekly magazines aimed at today's older children and teenagers — especially girls' magazines — focus on pop music, fashion and sexual relationships. There is very little actual "reading" in them and they make the comics of the 1950s, which were packed with fiction, seem like highbrow, literary stuff!

In terms of style, The Six Bad Boys strikes me as being a tightly-structured novel, with every scene moving the story on towards the dramatic climax. Blyton deals with three quite different families — the Mackenzies, the Berkeleys and the Kents — and compares and contrasts their ways of life, as demonstrated in Chapter 3, "Inside Three Houses," in which we see a typical evening at the houses of each of the families. First we observe the cheerful, sensible Mackenzie clan, then we move on to the bickering Berkeleys, and finally we see Mrs. Kent's irritation with her lively and demanding son.

During the course of the book, Blyton frequently contrasts light with dark; warmth with cold. The Mackenzie children have a "warm, bright home," while Bob returns to a "horrible cold dark house." Of course, it is the warmth of love and companionship which really make a house into a home — elements which are lacking in Bob's life: "[Bob] wanted something he hadn't been able to get. He wanted a warm response from his mother...she wasn't warm, like Mrs. Mackenzie was when anyone hugged her."

Blyton describes dramatic events deftly, with a great economy of style, such as the day when Mr. Berkeley walks out on his family:
"The front door slammed. The front gate clicked shut. Quick footsteps went down the lane, and then faded away."
The terse sentences, and the fact that we only hear the sounds of his leaving, rather than watching him go, add to the tension.

A few paragraphs later, we have:
"But Mr. Berkeley didn't come back. No one put a key in the front door that night and crept upstairs. No one slept in the bed in the little dressing-room. Mr. Berkeley didn't come back!"
Here, it's the repetition of "Mr. Berkeley didn't come back" that sounds so ominous, and it's typical of Blyton to add the italics and the exclamation mark the second time, thereby underlining the finality of it all.

Enid Blyton deserves credit for having written a book about juvenile delinquency, deprivation and marital strife without resorting to bad language or describing things in an unsavoury or vulgar manner. In 1947 she had written to her publishers about a proposed book, Six Cousins at Mistletoe Farm (published in 1948): "I will do it for ages 11-15, though I expect you realise that children of any age from six upwards will buy it! That's the snag about my books — no age limit really applies." (Quoted by Barbara Stoney in Enid Blyton — the Biography, 1974). Blyton must have had to bear the same thing in mind when writing The Six Bad Boys too — that children a lot younger than the target age would be bound to read it — and she has succeeded in tackling some tough topics while still ensuring that the book is wholly suitable for children.

The Six Bad Boys has sparked controversy because of the apparent condemnation of working mothers but, primarily, the book is about the need for a home and family. Homes are important in so many Blyton books. Characters often set about creating a "home from home" in times of difficulty or danger. Jack and the others build a house of willow in The Secret Island, the Trents and Mannerings make their home in a fern-cave in The Valley of Adventure and Peter and Susan live in a hollow tree in Hollow Tree House. These "homes" are places of security, companionship and comparative comfort. There, children arrange their belongings, develop a routine and take on roles which make them feel that they "belong" to the group and are contributing to it. What they have created is a functional "family," however unconventional that family may be.

I would argue that, far from being "retrogressive," The Six Bad Boys is ahead of its time in some ways. It examines social issues which are still very relevant today, such as family breakdown, children being left alone, the need for childcare, antisocial behaviour, alienation, the effects of violent films on developing minds, etc. And it acknowledges, as Basil Henriques points out in his foreword, that "bad" children are often "unhappy" children, and that there are many types of "broken home" — not only homes in which parents have separated or divorced, but homes in which parents quarrel, or children are neglected or abused.

Such concerns continue to hit the headlines. In March 2005 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, issued an open letter to political leaders in the run-up to the General Election, calling on them to do more to support families and the institution of marriage. He said that, in modern Britain, "The crime problem has a lot to do with a growing number of young people who are severely emotionally under-nourished and culturally alienated." One of the causes, according to Dr. Rowan Williams, was "chronic family instability." Exactly the point that Enid Blyton makes in The Six Bad Boys.

It has to be said that the crimes committed by the Six Terrors Gang seem pretty tame and, if the book were written nowadays, their exploits would probably include drinking, drug abuse, vandalism, joyriding and mugging at the very least. And it's laughable to the modern reader that fifteen-year-old Fred is so proud of owning a toy telephone, when so many teenagers these days carry mobile phones.

The Six Bad Boys does suffer in part from a too simplistic portrayal of cause and effect, yet Blyton is convincing in her depiction of Bob and Tom sliding gradually into crime. I find myself drawn again and again to this dark and unusual tale, in which things are not neatly resolved for all six boys at the end of the book. Compelling and skilfully-woven (and certainly not "nasty"!), The Six Bad Boys will always have a place among my Top Ten Blytons. These illustrations are hidden by default to ensure faster browsing. Loading the illustrations is recommended for high-speed internet users only.