David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the sun machine by Nicholas Royle

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Review by Annabel

I’ve very much enjoyed reading Nicholas Royle’s books, the novel An English Guide to Birdwatching (reviewed here, with a Q&A with Nicholas here), and then his memoir Mother. When approached to read his latest nonfiction book I naturally said yes, but with the magic words ‘David Bowie’ in the title, I was already hooked.

As soon becomes clear, this is Royle’s lockdown book, but his Preface, which begins with going to see Moonage Daydreams at the cinema and recalling Bowie’s death, gives the sections that follow some context, so here’s a selection of these points:

Putting Bowie and Blyton together was not my idea. The sense of a fundamental disjunction between them was, indeed, what started me off. But connections emerge.

… [It] is not a work of fiction: I ask the reader not to be fooled by the fact that Part I takes the form of a third-person narrative. It’s real life or what I call reality literature.

This is not an academic book – at least not, I hope, in any dry sense of that word. But it is about the question: What is education for? And especially perhaps, what is a university for?

So into the book proper, and Part I, ‘Living in the M Times’ is indeed memoir told in a narrative form, seen from a sort of child narrator’s point of view, who watches Mummy and Daddy work out a new way of living as lockdown begins: new and old careers are interrupted, home-schooling is required for their children. It’s in this section that Royle introduces his main themes via listening to Bowie in the evenings after the kids are in bed, discovering a set of Famous Five books which they start reading to the children, but also that of his University offering him ‘voluntary severance’. His reaction is to create a series of online lectures as a ‘extended valedictory speech’. It’s such an interesting way of starting a book!

We move on to the series of lectures, eight of them, beginning with an explanation of the ‘sun machine’ of the book’s title. Bowie’s ‘Memory of a Free Festival’ from his first album contains the lyric, ‘the sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party.’ Royle uses it in this opening lecture ‘as a way of approaching literature,’ and goes on to develop this idea through many rich intertextual references which pepper the text, from Dickens to Joyce, from Wordsworth to Jung, to Michael Gove! He also reminds us that ‘Bowie was very into reading.’

In the second lecture, Royle moves on to Blyton, who when asked where her ideas come from said her ‘undermind’. The Famous Five books start off sunny, but then go dark, underground, before the sun machine can come out again.

The undermind is not about the ‘I’ or ego. It’s more about voluntary severance of self, if I may re-work that nasty business-speak phrase with a certain derision.

The third and fourth lectures cover ‘Telepathy’ between writer and reader, and then the concept of novel as ‘Time Machine’, which contrasts Blyton with HG Wells amongst other things.

The fifth lecture particularly excited me, as I am Surrey/Croydon-bred, close by to Royle’s Cheam origins, and to Bowie and Blyton who both had early links to Beckenham – we’re all from that area of South London bordering the southern home counties with Croydon in its centre. He recounts many an hour spent in the oddly named Croydon Bookshop, which wasn’t in Croydon, but Carshalton (nearer Cheam). The now-named Bowie bandstand in Beckenham (where the lyrics of ‘Life on Mars’ came to him as he sat on its steps) is in a park called Croydon Rec. Croydon spreads out to invade other things, and it follows you around! Admittedly, this chapter is told in a slightly tongue in cheek manner and was very entertaining, as well as educative – I learned that DH Lawrence had at one time been a teacher in Croydon.

It’s halfway through the sixth lecture that Royle throws his curve ball at us, remembering his late mother, and something she just threw into conversation one day which, at the time, he never questioned.

One day my mother told me that Enid Blyton and my grandmother were lovers. I heard her say it: Your grandmother had an affair with Enid Blyton.

She was talking about his paternal grandmother, Kathleen Onslow, who was born just before the turn of the 20th century in Dublin. Kathleen would become an artist, signing herself as Lola Onslow. Blyton also had an Irish grandmother, Bowie, an Irish great-grandmother. Royle starts the final lecture with a delightful neologism:

I have more than once wondered, while assembling these lectures, what genre they might best be described as fitting into. I confess I don’t know. I suppose this is connected to Angela Carter as well. A tale, she says, ‘retains a singular moral function – that of provoking unease’. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of unease in a lecture either. And unease is integral to Bowie’s songs too. But the word that came to me has a soft, anodyne feel: memoirish. The oddity only hit me afterwards, when I saw the ‘Irish’ in it. Forget life writing. Forget autobiography. These lectures have been composed, without me realising, in Memoirish. To do with the grandmother.

Royle brings these lectures to a close with a Coda, and a bit more about how Lola and Enid may have met.

But we’re not finished quite yet. Another section of reality literature brings us the further experiences of Mummy and Daddy during lockdown, before finishing with a fictionalised biography of Lola Onslow. An afterword by Peter Boxall offers more thoughts about the sun machine concept. I realise I’ve neglected to mention that the lectures all come with a playlist, a mixture of Bowie songs with classical pieces including Bach, Beethoven and nightingale song.

I’ve talked far too much about the contents of this thought-provoking book, but it is so hard to describe simply. It’s complex, it’s fun, it’s contemplative and touching, and it’s absolutely full of literary references to explore further; Royle is such an entertaining author. Above all, it’s a tribute to grandmothers, mothers, families, love … and David Bowie. It’s led me to re-listen to the earliest Bowie albums that I’d forgotten, to see Enid Blyton, for all her faults, in a different light, and to realise that Croydon will never leave me.

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Read Annabel’s Q&A with Nicholas Royle about this book HERE.

Annabel is one of Shiny’s co-founders and editors.

Nicholas Royle, David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the sun machine, (Manchester University Press, 2023). 978-1526173638, 256pp., paperback.

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1 comment

  1. Simply must read!

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