Note: This essay contains several occurrence of a very strong racial slur.
Once upon a time, the three bold Gollywogs, Golly, Woggie, and Nigger decided to go for a walk on Bumblebee common. Golly wasn’t quite ready, so Woggie and Nigger said they would start off without him, and Golly would catch up with them as soon as he could. So off went Woggie and Nigger arm in arm, singing merrily their favourite song, which as you may have guessed was Ten Little Nigger Boys.”
There are people in this world who are so holy, so sanctified, so iconic that they are effectively beyond criticism.
To think a word against them is to abuse all their followers; their fan base; their compatriots.
Jesus Christ; the Prophet Mohammed; the Queen; Edward Colston.
And Enid Blyton.
The author of Noddy and the Magic Faraway Tree has been cancelled. And by cancelled, I mean “A small memorial has been erected near her place of birth.”
"Enid Blyton, Children’s Writer, Lived Here", it says.
Pretty shocking stuff.
I don’t know if America has an equivalent to the English system of Blue Plaques. They are small signs, attached to old buildings, that tell you that so-and-so, the inventor of such-and-such, lived here from such a date to such a date. Anyone can put a name plate on a property, and lots of people do, but the official Blue Plaques are surprisingly prestigious because English Heritage only puts up a limited number each year.
I have very mixed feelings about Blyton. I never read her stuff myself. I do have a vivid memory of being traumatised at nursery school when someone read us the one in which black people steal Noddy’s clothes and he has to crawl home in the nude. (Please tell me I didn’t dream that?) But I work in a library and I have noticed that a small number of her books—the Fives and the Sevens and the Jolly Hockey Sticks ones—are the kinds of books that children positively want to read. That counts for something.
Sometimes a reader—often an older lady—will take out a great pile of books, often crime stories and romances, and say “Oh, I know its all rubbish really”. I always reply “It is certainly not rubbish if you like reading it.” I am happy to say the same thing about lemonade and treasure maps. If kids like it, it must be the sort of thing that kids like, and being able to come up with the kind of things that kids like, and that kids carry on liking forty years after you died, is worth something. A great deal. You certainly deserve a plaque on the side of your house.
Unfortunately, English Heritage also has one of those newfangled websites, and on the website it gives a little more biographical information about the seven hundred celebrities whose houses have got little blue signs on them. Of Mrs Blyton it says:
“Blyton’s work has been criticised during her lifetime and after for its racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit.”
And this is enough to make white people who liked the Secret Seven when they were nippers go into overdrive.
Lack of literary merit?
As well say that Jesus was gay or that one of the Prophet’s wives was a prostitute. If the Blytonians could declare a fatwa we can be sure they would.
The BBC recently launched a streaming service called Britbox.
It has all of Doctor Who; all of Blake’s Seven; very nearly all of Gerry Anderson; all of Sapphire and Steel, a decent chunk of the Avengers—and that’s without scratching the surface of dear, dear Sir Larry doing Shylock and dear, dear Sir Alec doing Malvolio and Our Friends In The North Revisited. There is no particular reason for me ever to leave the house again.
But this sort of thing comes with a cost. Do I, in fact, want to re-watch Grange Hill? Do I want to find out that the Tomorrow People consisted primarily of wooden acting (as in “they wouldn’t act”), cardboard sets, exposition to camera, plots which would make the worst Doctor Who writer cringe (along with a very trippy set of opening credits and a stonking theme tune, admittedly.)
I have always been the sort of person who would rather have the text than the memory of the text: I think that I am richer, not poorer, because my memories of Daddy reading Winnie-the-Pooh have largely been overwritten by dozens and dozens of re-readings of A.A Milne’s actual stories. But on the other paw, the reason I watch Star-Wars-Episode-Four-A-New-Hope a hundred times, and the Bad Batch at all, is because I want to drill through the text and get back to the thing I experienced on or about my twelfth birthday. I want to watch the film over and over but I want it to feel like it did when I had only seen it once.
This is, of course, impossible.
This is, I think, what people mean when they say that someone has “spoiled” Richard II by introducing tanks and army uniforms and black people. They say that they don’t like theatres “mucking about” with Shakespeare; they say they want his pure virgin words unsullied by some producer’s ideas. But what they really want is their memory of that one evening when they were young and in love and saw dear, dear, Sir Donald doing “this royal throne of kings” at Stratford. This is also true of people who think that Jodie Whittaker has spoiled Doctor Who and the European Union has spoiled bananas. I have spent 20 years making fun of the Star Wars fan who said that George Lucas had raped his childhood, but I completely understand what he meant.
I totally get that Enid Blyton is a totemic writer. I am not impressed with the people who take an instrumental view of fiction. I don’t think that Blyton is good because reading is virtuous and Blyton’s writing was an entry-level drug that got some kids hooked on classics. But I am very impressed with people who go as misty and gooey when they think of Kirrin Island and the Land of Magical Medicines as I do when I think of the Tatooine Cantina and the Hundred Acre Wood. That’s what stories are for.
Once you have thrown up a Colgate ring of confidence around your first reading, then any encounter with the actual text feels like a violation. People who believe that the Bible is the exact word of God have rarely read it. Sci-fi geeks are particularly prone to seeing critiques of venerable movies and comic books as vicious attacks on the core of their being. Normal people do it as well. People have been literally murdered for thinking that United (or Rovers) isn’t a particularly good football team. Maybe watching high budget fan-fic in which it turns out that Threepio was kit-built by Darth Vader really does feel like being sexually assaulted? Or maybe the fan in question only meant that Lucas had robbed and pillaged his childhood.
And so we cast our eyes to the heavens and cry out “I deny this reality!”
The Tomorrow People never did have bad acting and bad special effects. It had very good acting and very good special effects. It is just that your palette is not sufficiently attuned to appreciate them. Only initiates can see the value of the sacred text; if you are not an initiate, you shouldn’t be allowed to read it.
You may also, if you chose, go full Jeffcote on their arse.
“You can’t appreciate the very good special effects and the acting because THEY won’t let you. THEY have BRAINWASHED you into thinking that if it isn’t a late night Channel Four movie sub-titled in Latin then it isn’t proper literature. Even though no-one really likes that stuff. THEY are just jealous of our jet-packs. Or in this case, jaunting belts."
When the Hundred Acre Wood is under siege on moral or political grounds, the impetus to retreat from reality is even greater. If the Famous Five is racist, then it is not a good book. If the Famous Five is not a good book, then my memories of the Famous Five are inauthentic. But my memories are authentic; so it must be a good book; so it cannot be racist. Stop looting and pillaging my childhood.
You can do this in different ways. You can deny the tao. Racism and racist language are bad now but they were not bad in 1944 when the books were written.
*They were written in another time and were not inappropriate in any way, and should not be judged by today’s “standards”.
*Her work is a reflection of the life and times she grew up in. Her work should be left alone.
*You are judging these by today’s standards, they were written in a different era, we had vastly different standards back then.
You can appeal to that strange mental operation called “intention” and say that the text is not racist because the writer did not intend the text to be racist.
These people need to get off their high bloody horses and accept them for the innocent way that they were written. I am quite sure Enid Blyton would never even have thought of anything like that
* You can say that Enid Blyton’s books have some quality called “innocence” or that they came from “simpler times” and that this acts as a sort of literary fainites.
* Do not destroy children’s innocent pleasure in reading by putting a nasty spin on things.
* But let’s not forget, these were written for innocents.
You can launch a counter assault: people who say that this text is racist are puritans, or unemployed, or they are wasting their time on an essentially pointless activity.
*Media controlling these complaint Muppets!
*Get a life people & stop trying to change the past,
*No, people need to get a life.
*Where does this rubbish emanate from - the ‘do gooders’ who have nothing else to do than waste their and other peoples time.
*I wish the bloody do-gooders could find something useful to do instead of criticising dead people.
*Please woke folk, get over yourselves and find something more productive to do
You can claim—a very common one, this—that critics are finding only in the text what they bring to the text; that they, being mean spirited and hateful of literature, are combing the text in order to read things into it which aren’t there.
*You have to wonder about the minds that twist everything toward sexual innuendo—they live in a skewed world
*Everything is looked into under a magnifying glass for errors and negativity rather than just looking at the positives.
*If you have a twisted mind you can read anything you like into a story.
You can even claim that there is a secret agenda in play
* I think there is an agenda to kill imagination and creativity, magical wonder. I think they want us all to conform to one way of thinking.
But the most extreme argument is the most common one. It is a plea to disengage faculties. A faith-position which says that reading takes place in some kind of zen, sub-rational state. There is no sub-text. Three bold rag-dolls named after a racial slur do not imply anything about the writer’s attitude to race because books are not like that. Repeated appearances of dishonest gypsies does not in any way suggest that the writer thought that gypsies were, on the whole, dishonest. Stories are just stories and should be allowed to just be stories. Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream to toy-town.
*Let our children enjoy the stories as we did way back to our grandparents time.
*What nonsense is this?! They are books. Stories. Creative writing. Artistic endeavours are subjective and open to interpretation. We cannot judge past results by today’s standards. Let’s just judge for them for what they are. Which is, tools for escapism and to allow your imagination to free fall into a magical existence.
Interestingly, the Blytonians are very reluctant to make the two defences which would certainly hold water.
They could point out that words do, in fact, change their meanings. I doubt that when Enid Blyton wrote “Noddy and Big Ears were feeling gay...” or introduced two protagonists called (really) Fanny and Dick she was consciously inserting double entendres into a kids book. The words are dirty now, but they genuinely weren’t dirty then. Modern editions very sensibly change “gay” to “merry” and “Dick” to “Ricky”. (The counter-wokes scream about P.C Gonemad, but this is really no different from changing Autumn to Fall in the American edition, or Noddy to Oui-Oui in the French one.) Demonstrate to me that in 1968 the N-word was not current, or not a slur, and I shall concede the argument.
The Blytonians could also defend their scripture in the way I have defended Talons of Weng Chiang, Cerebus the Aardvark, Othello, the Ring Cycle and practically every other book that has ever been written in the history of the human race.
“Yes, these texts contains sinophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and racism, but this does not make then irreducibly sinophobic, misogynistic, anti-semitic and racist texts. We can praise the story telling, but condemn the bad words. We can enjoy the tunes, but deplore the politics. They are good stories, which I loved and love, but which I can now see contain some bad attitudes (and, in fact, bad special effects). There is celebration of the story telling and condemnation of the bad attitudes.”
Why is this so hard?
The truth is, the Anti-Woke-Mob agree with the Woke Mob. If Enid Blyton really did refer to black people by using the n-word; if Talons of Weng Chiang really did contain vicious caricatures of Chinese people; and if Colston really had been a slaver then we really would have to burn their books and rip their statues down. If a modern author published a children’s book about Three Bold Wankers called Cock, Willy and Cuntty (who sang their favourite song, The Good Ship Venus) the Blytonians would immediately form a mob and start screaming “ban this evil filth now”. As Enid Blyton herself did in her lifetime.
Since they want to keep their books and their statues they have to deny reality. This racist thing is not racist. That space ship does not look like a cardboard cut-out. Slavery did not exist. Or if it did Colston was not a slaver. Or if he was, the slaves didn't mind. The least reward they will have is that the memory of Kirrin island and the Lab and Olde England shall remain ever clear and unstained in their heart and neither shall fade nor grow stale.
The Woke Mob and the Anti-Woke-Mob are in agreement. The two sides of every political debate always are. The pigs are always turning into men and the men are always turning into pigs. We are always meeting the enemy and it is always us.