Carey Blyton, The Beckenham Years
Carey Blyton was born in 62 The Drive in March 1932, the son of Enid Blyton’s brother, Hanly, and Bermondsey born mother, Floss. At Carey’s birth, Floss became very ill with puerperal fever a condition which was followed by the onset of rheumatoid arthritis a few years later.
Carey was educated at Bromley Road Infants, The Grange Prep school in Wickham Road (shortly after Bob Monkhouse) and at the Beckenham County Grammar School for Boys (BCGS).
He came close to death twice as a boy. The first occasion was in 1944 when a V1 flying bomb (doodlebug) landed diagonally opposite his house in The Drive and again three years later when he was struck down by polio during the notorious summer of 1947.
As well as the devastation in The Drive, Hitler’s flying bombs destroyed the heart of Beckenham and Beckenham Road. The resulting ruins were described by Carey in a memoir Summer in the Country “like living through an Hieronymous Bosch nightmare.”
The Blyton’s house in The Drive was uninhabitable and Hanly arranged an evacuation for Carey and his mother to the West Country where he confronted the English class system, deepened his affinity with the natural world, and learned the elements of capitalism bartering cheap jewellery with American GI’s for their cigarettes.
During the war, his father was battling on four fronts (moving his clothing business every time it was bombed out in The City; acting as an Air Raid Warden at night; caring for Floss with her worsening arthritis; and looking after his mother Theresa, abandoned by Enid since 1920 and living in straightened circumstances in Clevedon Road, Penge, opposite the County School).
Thus, Carey was allowed free rein to create his own real life adventures while other children read the fictional adventures created by his famous aunt. Many of Carey’s activities took place in the private woodlands behind The Drive which Hanly and other residents had the foresight to buy back in 1927. His main chum was Tony Bristow and together they engaged in “Just William” like activities, well-meaning but so often destined to cause trouble.
In 1947, his GCE O-level results were delivered by BCGS head “Jumbo” White to Farnborough Hospital where he told Carey that they were “the best in school” that year. After months in hospital, the tedium of his long convalescence at home was changed by a neighbour who suggested Carey learn the piano. This “therapy” became converted into a passion for music and when Carey returned to BCGS in 1948 he joined the Music Society, a joint venture with the Girls County School.
In 1949, the Girls County School sixth formers invited the boys to a dance in the hall in the school in Lennard Road. The boys were told to “come as you are”. With his legs in irons, Carey could not dance so he suggested the boys provide some entertainment, an idea endorsed with enthusiasm by his colleagues and several like Brian Sanders, Mike Hopkins, Francis Weiss, John Miles and Peter Mitchell vividly remember how Carey, dressed in a black cloak as the anarchist, Count Bombski, led the BCGS sixth form on a “band storming” march to Lennard Road via Penge High Street and the astonished constabulary of the police station.
In the Girls School hall, Carey provided decorations in the provocative form of sets of three balloons and later he startled everybody by throwing his “bomb” – a black painted ball cock – on to the dance floor. This behaviour horrified Miss Henshaw and it was not surprising that no girls were present at the next Music Society meeting.
With this exuberance behind them, Carey and a small group of friends took part in concerts, one being at Elm Road Baptist Church Hall (with John Mann – Snowey White in the Dick Barton radio serials) and another (with Hugh Bean) in the Arts & Music series held in the BCGS hall and organised by Tom Williams who had been a senior English master at the school and who also found time to set the questions for the BBC radio programme, “Top of the Form”. In 1952, Carey and a local actress, Benita Powell, appeared in the film “The Blue Beads” shot in Kelsey Park and Beckenham High Street.
From these beginnings emerged the Beckenham Salon 1952-54, described by Carey as “a collection of arts-interested young people in ‘downtown Beckenham’ who wrote music, poetry, plays, took ‘artistic’ photographs, etc”. Their members included Carey, David Munro, Mike Hopkins, David Roberts, Arthur Dodd. Jack Frost, Hugh Bean, Benita Powell, John Vosser, and Mollie and Geoffry Russell-Smith. They performed five public concerts and others in the drawing rooms of the fine houses in Beckenham. The Salon’s President, Sir Arthur Bliss attended several events.
Writing to a fellow composer, Mike Cornick, in 1997, Carey said, “As I think more and more of my beginnings as a composer, and thus of ‘early days’, the more I realise how very crucial were the years 1949 to 1953 – the Beckenham salon was clearly seminal.” Most of the 100 solo and choral songs were written early in his career, several being premiered in the Salon Concerts.
In 1953, he started his four year music degree at Trinity College of Music (London) where obtained all three College Diplomas and was awarded a ten month scholarship to the Danish Conservatoire in Copenhagen. He returned in 1958 to be music editor for Mills Music and became Professor of Harmony, Counterpoint and Orchestration at Trinity until 1973. For the next ten years he was Visiting Professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where he pioneered the tutoring in composition for Films, TV and Radio.
During this period Carey’s own output was also for films, TV (including three Dr Who series) and radio plus a lot of highly remunerative advertising and commercial music. He worked with and wrote music for schools and gave private tuition as well as acting as a music editor, most notably for Britain’s leading composer of the 20th Century, Benjamin Britten, whose centenary takes place this year. Carey also wrote a number of short stories, including two very evocative accounts of his ‘Summer in the Country’ in 1944 when he was evacuated to the West Country. Friends and colleagues recall his charisma which reflected his love of the natural world and a whacky but infectious humour – involving puns, pseudonyms, limericks, and nonsense verse.
One piece of nonsense versus was concocted on a long car journey as a soporific for his first son, Matthew. This was Bananas in Pyjamas (BIP) which his wife, Mary, urged him to write down the words and music which in a collection of his nonsense songs and poems were published in 1972 by Faber. Ten years later, BIP videos were produced by Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Since then, ABC have issued licences world-wide for over 1000 items of BIP merchandise: books, toys, toothpaste, toothbrushes, clothing etc.
Carey was very much his own man and rarely spoke of his famous aunt. However, in 1965, Boosey & Hawkes Ltd issued “Mixed Bag – Six Action/Unison Songs for Schools”, with words by Enid Blyton and music by Carey Blyton which remained in print for ten years. The work was the fulfillment of correspondence between, and two meetings of, the two famous Blytons during six years from 1959. Towards the end of this collaboration, Enid was suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s (she died in 1968) but the letters showed that Carey was kind and understanding throughout.
In 2002, Carey was delighted to learn that the infant pupils of his first school – Bromley Road – had created a mural depicting their favourite song, Bananas in Pyjamas. A copy was presented to his youngest son, Daniel at a civic reception held in Beckenham Library to mark Carey’s 70th Birthday. A video was made of the occasion and presented to Carey who was too ill with post-polio syndrome to travel from his home in Woodbridge. Carey died in July 2002.
The Hobbit – Blyton got there first
In time for Christmas 2012 the latest Tolkien based blockbuster movie – The Hobbit – was released in the UK.
Almost fifty years before the film the Beckenham composer Carey Blyton wrote to Tolkien in 1963 seeking his permission to put his literature to music. Tolkien had completed his novel in 1937 and in his reply to Carey he said that that ‘As an author I am honoured to hear that I have inspired a composer. I have long hoped to do so, and hoped also that I might perhaps find the result intelligible to me, or feel that it was akin to my own inspiration.’
With Tolkien’s blessing, Carey – who at the time was adapting some of his aunt Enid’s poems to music – completed his musical rendition in the form of a concert overture, The Hobbit.
Typical of his masterly miniaturist style, Carey’s composition lasted just four minutes and told the full story of how Bilbo Baggins, the Hobbit, with the help of the Magic Ring, Gandalf the Wizard and thirteen dwarves reclaimed treasure from the dragon Smaug.
Tolkien was very pleased with the Hobbit’s first appearance in music. In 1968, he invited Carey to a reception which launched Bilbo’s Last Song, a song cycle by Donald Swann with a performance by the composer and the bass-baritone William Elvin. The event was filmed by the BBC in front of 100 members of the press and the book trade. Among other guests invited by Tolkien were Michael Flanders and Sir Thomas Armstrong, the Principal of the Royal Academy of Music.
A concert organised by Cliff Watkins in St George’s Church, Beckenham in March 2011 included both Bilbo’s Last Song about the last moments in the life of Tolkien’s creation and Carey Blyton’s The Hobbit – the first ever musical interpretation of a Tolkien work.