I have always been a reader. As a child I was good at it, and I loved it. I loved Enid Blyton. Noddy and Big Ears, the Secret Seven, the Famous Five. I read the adventures of Rupert Bear and Blinky Bill and I still love Winnie the Pooh.
I never read Roald Dahl, though. I’ve heard of him, of course, and I’ve read about what the publisher has done to (effectively) make his books safe for modern children. There have been a number of articles in the local press about the changes made at the behest of ‘sensitivity readers’. They are people who read the books, checking that nobody will be offended by the language or expressions used. Here’s a secret, guys. That’s impossible. Somebody, somewhere, is going to be offended. And if that’s not true then it’s not worth reading.
Mind you, not everyone is in favour of the changes. This issue has been subject of the week and it’s easy enough to find articles about it. The best response I’ve come across is by Tim Stanley who wrote an article in the Telegraph The butchering of Roald Dahl is an assault on liberty by a neurotic elite. Sorry, it’s behind a pay wall, but I’ll try to show you the most important bits. Stanley not only talks about what has been changed, he also points out what hasn’t been changed.
“Out go hundreds of references to characters being fat, idiots, hags or male/female (the Oompa-Loompas are gender neutral now), though whatever Greta Miserypants they hired to do this hack job is far from consistent. In Dahl’s classic description of ugliness, “double chin” is excised but “wonky nose and a crooked mouth” stay put. Speaking on behalf of the ugly community, I find all three equally offensive.”
(Greta Miserypants is not me, by the way.) And then he goes to the nub of the issue.
” Ah, but this sensitivity guff isn’t about the children, is it? No. It’s about adults and their politics.
Puffin says it has reviewed the language to ensure all can enjoy it today, but if they were snow-white in their motives, they wouldn’t publish Dahl at all. Think about it. The Twits is about a nasty couple who torture monkeys. George uses his marvellous medicine to poison his gran. The Fantastic Mr Fox is a thief hunted by sadists. And if Puffin feels it’s wrong to laugh at witches – they’ve even removed the pimples from their bald heads – why not just pulp the book? Because that would lose them money.”
And then Mister Stanley points out that if we really wanted to be all woke, perhaps somebody should be looking at the classics – Shakespeare, Dickens, the Iliad and what about the Old Testament?
It seems the French and the Dutch have not fallen for the censorship of Roald Dahl. They won’t be making any changes to their translations.
“European publishers have joined a backlash against changing Roald Dahl’s books, saying his stories “lose all their power” if his language is watered down.” [source]
Good for them.
But it’s not just Dahl. One of my favourites from my childhood was Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series. Here again, the publisher decided the author’s words needed to be changed for today’s kids. They released their new edition in 2010.
“Changes made included replacing the word “tinker” with “traveller”, “mother and father” with “mum and dad” and “awful swotter” becoming “bookworm” The revisions also made the language more gender-neutral, with the character Anne altered to enjoy teddies instead of dolls.”
But the update flopped. In 2016 they realized they might have got it wrong and went back to the pre-2010 version. Read about it here.
Tear off the fancy wording of ‘sensitivity reader’ and what are you left with? That very ugly word, CENSORSHIP.
After all, who among us is able to decide what we cannot read because we shouldn’t? Probably the same people who banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Portnoy’s Complaint, the Kama Sutra etc etc.
We’re getting closer to George Orwell’s 1984 every day.
Finally, allow me to share a little story I found on Facebook, posted by a gentleman who calls himself Advocatus Peregrini. I assume it is true but if it’s not, then perhaps its the way of the future.
In a recent conversation, he corrected an American woman who claimed that Shakespeare said “Love conquers all” in the play Romeo and Juliet. When he pointed out that the phrase was actually said by Virgil and Chaucer, the woman insisted that Shakespeare did say it. It later emerged that she had only read a version of the play, distributed by a religious education publisher, in which the tragic ending is changed. R and J reconcile with their families and get married.(!)
After the conversation, he wondered if that was to be the fate of Shakespeare, and all other literature if the happy-clappy people get their way and all the tragedy and nastiness is sanitised out.
What would they do with Hamlet? Titus Andronicus? MacBeth? Nothing wholesome, he was sure. What they can’t appropriate, they ban. Or burn.
He said, “In trying to protect children, we leave them undefended from “…the slings and arrows” that life will no doubt throw their way. But, as ever, it really isn’t about the children. It’s about the adults, and their desire to avoid answering difficult questions from agile young minds. To answer the questions that literature raises, you have to have thought deeply about them yourself. And that is something that few dare to do.”
Thanks, Mr Peregrini. Amen to all that.
And here are a two pictures of irises prepared by Midjourney in the style of Francois Rivoire.