Author interview with Nicholas Royle

Posted by Bethan Hirst - Saturday, 28 Oct 2023


We explore Nicholas Royle’s new literary masterpiece, David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the sun machine in our latest author interview. Royle, an acclaimed writer and accomplished academic is known for his thought-provoking narratives and profound insights into the human psyche, and has once again produced a book that promises to captivate and challenge readers in equal measure. Join us as we unveil the secrets hidden inside David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the sun machine.

Can you provide an overview of your book, David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the sun machine and explain what inspired you to explore this unique intersection of literature and counterculture?

That’s difficult. I’ve never felt good at summarising any of my books and this one is perhaps especially hard to sum up. I write about things I love – David Bowie’s music, Enid Blyton’s stories, literature and painting, family and friends, teaching and writing – and I stumble on realisations as I write. That’s one of the key elements for me: writing as a way of discovering.

Like Bowie, and like Hélène Cixous (whose work was the focus of my last book, Hélène Cixous: Dreamer, Realist, Analyst, Writing), I write in a kind of deranged and chaotic state. ‘This chaos is killing me’, as Bowie sings in ‘Hallo Spaceboy’. I write in the desire of giving some form to this chaos. I didn’t plan the book. It didn’t occur to me that there was some special intersection of literature and counterculture I could or should investigate. Writing is much more anarchic for me – closer to dreaming and the unconscious. But then I edit and revise quite intensively. I worked hard to produce a text that is, I hope, fluent and easy to read.

It’s a book about the pandemic and the state of the world, about memory, mourning and hope. I have young children and during lockdown my wife and I started reading Enid Blyton to them, especially the Famous Five books. It was crazy, the amount of Enid Blyton we were doing. And the time was crazy of course anyway. Then in the evening, when the rest of the family had gone to bed, I sat by myself in the kitchen (luckily a decently sound-proofed space) and listened to David Bowie. The book really emerged out of that – along with the crisis that was going on in the university, where colleagues in the humanities (particularly in English and History) were being strongly encouraged to consider taking what’s called Voluntary Severance. As the most senior academic in my department, it seemed that, if someone was going to go, I should probably be stepping up. And then this led me to wonder at the fact that, when an academic retires (perhaps after several decades of teaching and research), no one asks them to give a speech and say what they thought their work was all about, why it mattered to them or why they hope it might matter to others, and so on.

So I decided to write that speech – which turned into several lectures, called ‘A Sense of the Ending’. And in the course of writing I found myself drawn into the world of Bowie and Blyton. They are such different figures, complete chalk and cheese, and yet they share strange and surprising affinities, including a strong link to the same place, Beckenham, in Kent. This meant in turn that I got tugged back into my own childhood and youth, listening to music and stories, remembering records and second-hand bookshops, and then my mother once telling me that my grandmother, the children’s book illustrator Lola Onslow, had an affair with Enid Blyton… I think by this point that’s as much of an overview as any prospective reader could possibly want or need!          

Tell us, ‘what is a sun machine?’

It has to do with what Bowie sings in his 1969 song ‘Memory of a Free Festival’: ‘The sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party.’ I suppose I could enumerate various possibilities of what a sun machine is. It’s the future, in its promise, as it’s coming. It’s what we feel in the books and music and paintings we love. It’s a figure of illumination or enlightenment. It’s a way of thinking about the world in the grip of climate emergency, huge social and economic inequalities, ecological crisis and mass species extinction. It’s a new figure for why education matters. But this enumeration is at the same time misleading, because it’s part of the point of a sun machine that it is in process, it’s still coming or to come. In part it’s all about coming down to you, the reader. At the end of the book there is an afterword by the critic Peter Boxall, called ‘What is a sun machine?’ He answers the question far more eloquently and concisely than I ever could.

In your book, you consider the life and work of David Bowie and Enid Blyton. What attracted you to these two individuals?

It’s about the love of songs and stories. But it’s also about coincidence and chance. In part it’s simply to do with what happened to me and my family during the Covid pandemic: Blyton by day, Bowie by night. I was intrigued and attracted by the oddity, the space and time oddities of Bowie and Blyton as a couple. On one occasion Bowie speaks of Diamond Dogs as ‘a bridge between Enid Blyton’s Beckenham and the Velvet Underground’s New York’, and he was obviously aware that he’d set up the Beckenham Arts Lab in the same place that Blyton grew up, but really there’s such a disjunction, they were half a century apart, they couldn’t be more different. And yet as I worked on the book the whole thing got more interesting, more layered, if I can use that word.

I never visited Beckenham until earlier this year: my editor Matthew Frost and I met there in March and I took the photo of the beautiful, currently dilapidated Bowie Bandstand that appears at the very end of the book. But I grew up not so far away from Beckenham, on the other side of Croydon. Croydon turns out to be a key character in the book. And then as I was writing, all sorts of Blyton/Bowie correspondences and crossings emerge – bisexuality and queerness, desire and danger, imagination and alternative culture, the world of childhood, theatricality and mimicry, Englishness and class, comedy and storytelling, the demonic, music and the love of reading itself (Blyton and Bowie were both great readers).

One of the key themes in your book is considering alternative ways of thinking about education. Why is this so important to you?

I have spent much of my life as a teacher. This has always been based in a desire to help people get more out of reading and thinking, and a passion for imaginative freedom and the possibilities of creative work. Somewhere in the book I recall a brilliant yet troubling image from Walter de la Mare: ‘children are butterflies’, he says, but many of them ‘by a curious inversion of the processes of nature become half-comatose and purblind chrysalides’. I am driven by a concern with what Hélène Cixous calls the ‘forever-child’. I do not and have never been able to relate to what is called the ‘education system’. Blyton and Bowie are, to my mind, great education system escape artists. Perhaps I should have proposed it as an acronym, suitable for committee meetings and administrative purposes: the phenomenon of the ESEA.   

Your book provides a compelling case for the power of storytelling and music to shape our lives. Can you share some insights from the book that you found particularly fascinating or unexpected?

The phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty once remarked: ‘My own words take me by surprise and teach me what to think.’ Everything (if there is anything) that is worthwhile about the sun machine book comes from that kind of surprise. It has to do with letting go (as Bowie puts it: ‘let go or be dragged’) and finding yourself writing about things you had no expectation of writing about, and discovering connections, relations, affinities and shifts of perception, feeling and belief that you had no sense of at all before you started writing.

I knew the storytelling of Enid Blyton and the songs of David Bowie were important to me, but I never realised, until writing the book, how deeply I have inhabited them or they have inhabited me. And it never occurred to me that writing about them together would lead to what was, for me, a radically new understanding of my family (especially my father and my grandmother), as well as a new appreciation of a range of critical terms and ideas: telepathy, comedy, the undermind, the novel as time machine, the Blytonic demonic, the tethe implex, the fairy tale, the sun machine itself, and so on. 

What advice would you give to aspiring writers and scholars who want to explore the relationship between literature and counterculture in their own work?

First of all, I’d like to applaud the fact that such writers and scholars exist! It’s hard to overstate the sense of the hostile environment in which literary studies finds itself at the moment. The study of literature has been under attack for a good while. In terms of that ‘education system’ I mentioned, there has been a sustained attempt to make literature seem a pointless, tedious and above all non-remunerative, non-career-path subject of study. This is the ideological assault by the UK government over the past ten years or so, committed to a sort of disciplinary genocide of ‘English’, whether at GCSE or university levels. And then the publication of literature itself is in a peculiarly constrained situation: you can pay to publish your own novel but finding a publisher for what is categorised as ‘literary fiction’ has become increasingly difficult.

It is also the case that the very terms ‘English’ and ‘English literature’ are considered problematic: this has been the thrust of ‘decolonising the curriculum’. Of course they are problems: that’s been recognised for a long time! But as I suggest in the Sun Machine, ‘English’ and ‘literature’ also have a generative and dreamlike character, as well as a kind of ghostly quality, that won’t just lie down and die. And at the same time, because of the burgeoning of ‘creative writing’ (in schools, universities and elsewhere), including the still-emerging importance of ‘creative non-fiction’, the opportunities for writers and scholars interested in literature and counterculture today are potentially more promising and more varied than ever.

Another term that seems to me to have come under great pressure in recent years, even if it has not been much talked about in this way, is ‘culture’ itself. In a sense it has become just as etiolated as its alleged opposite, ‘nature’. Isn’t ‘culture’ just as problematic as ‘English’ and ‘literature’? It is from that perspective that we might wonder: What is not counterculture?

With regard to advice from agony uncle Nick, I’d just say read, read, read. Stay away from your phone and the internet. Walk. Think about what Keats called negative capability. And finally, don’t forget collaboration, the value and effect of working with another or others. Counterculture depends on counterinstitutions. This might take the form of a small collective, a magazine, a seminar or a reading group. Such a thing might be most effective if, as Bill Readings argues in The University in Ruins, it is deliberately brief and concentrated in its focus. Two years, three years, then stop and regroup. As the case of David Bowie suggests, keep moving, keep changing.    

Lastly, what do you hope readers will take away from David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the sun machine and what impact do you anticipate your book having on the ongoing discourse surrounding literature, cultural, education and societal change?

I suspect that partly what appeals to me about David Bowie and Enid Blyton – and this would be another thing they have in common – is that they seem absolutely irrepressible. They keep going, they both have an extraordinary kind of buoyancy. That’s a word Bowie uses. He was always very aware of death but, as he puts it, this ‘didn’t reduce my feeling of buoyancy, it pushed me into a kind of colossal, obsessive activity’. I suppose I share something of that buoyancy. I feel fairly pragmatic about the fact that the books I have published over the past thirty years or so have made very little impression on the ‘ongoing discourse’. Of course it would be nice if David Bowie, Enid Blyton and the Sun Machine sold a million copies, or even found a few hundred enthusiastic readers, but I am onto the next project now, I’m working on some sort of detective novel or crime memoir (I don’t know what to call it). I am just happy that the Sun Machine is out there – and it’s so beautifully produced, complete with French flaps and colour photographs! – floating in its own peculiar way.   

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

Paperback | 978-1-5261-7363-8 | £15.99
November 2023

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