This week saw two incidents that exploded into the literary firmament, the shock wave propagating out into the public domain and inciting worldwide comment and debate. At the risk of stepping into a political minefield and having my metaphorical legs blown off, I present here my own take on matters.
Firstly, English Heritage updated its online entry for Enid Blyton, a recipient of the organisation’s blue plaque honour. For those not familiar with the scheme, blue plaques are awarded in England to figures of historical significance. You can see them dotted around the country on the walls of buildings where the recipients once lived.
English Heritage’s revised description of Blyton notes that her work was criticised – during her lifetime and after – “for its racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit”. Such updates are being made, according to English Heritage, “to provide a fuller picture of each person’s life, including aspects that people may find troubling.” Clearly, much of this is in reaction to the Black Lives Matter summer of last year, and the global reckoning that followed in its wake, a reckoning that included, for instance, the toppling of statues and the desire to reframe one-sided historical narratives with relevant context.
Blyton’s revised entry has caused particular angst, namely because her books sold some 600 million copies in innumerable countries around the world, and formed a cornerstone of many people’s childhoods. This army of nostalgic, middle-aged readers has taken to Twitter to express their ire, defending Blyton – sometimes with an ardour that borders on fanaticism – and demanding the cancellation of English Heritage and all those who have dared to impugn their literary heroine’s moral virtue.
Once again, battle lines have been drawn and we are all being urged to take up one position or the other.
The truth, as always, is a little more slippery.
My own feelings, for instance, are ambivalent. Enid Blyton’s books are one reason I am an author today. The Famous Five and The Secret Seven novels were staples of my childhood, foundational elements of my earliest forays into ‘serious’ reading. I cannot recall being aware of any overt racism in those books at that time and I’m not going to pretend that my fond memories of them have now soured in light of current revelations. Neither am I going to pretend that I’m not affected by some of the things I’ve discovered this week.
Many of Blyton’s defenders argue that she was merely a product of her time, picking up on the cultural cues swirling around her, cues that she may have grown up with. They argue that it is unfair for us to critique her through a lens ground from our modern ‘woke’ sensibilities.
Yet the truth is that she was criticised even as far back as 1966 by the politician Lena Jeger writing in The Guardian in the wake of proposed amendments to the Race Relations Act. She highlighted one of Blyton’s books, The Little Black Doll, a book I’d never heard of till this week.
In the book, Sambo, the black doll of a white girl, is told by our heroine that “I think you are ugly Sambo. I don’t like your black face”. The heartbroken doll runs away. Ultimately, magic rain washes off Sambo’s black face and suddenly everyone loves him. A pixie squeals “You aren’t black anymore, Sambo. You’ve got the dearest, pinkest, kindest face I ever saw!”
For all those suggesting that Blyton was merely reflecting her social environment, I can only say that any writer penning such words must surely have had some semblance of an idea that they would be offensive. It beggars belief that Blyton couldn’t have anticipated the effect such sentiments might have on people of colour. The book was published in 1965 not 1765!
Here’s a little thought experiment.
Imagine a prominent black author from Blyton’s time. Now imagine he or she wrote a children’s book where a white child was vilified for the colour of his skin or his blue eyes or blond hair. Imagine, if you, a white parent, found this book in your child’s hands. How would you feel watching your child imbibe such a negative message about their identity?
I can only imagine the mixture of confusion and sadness black children might have felt reading a book such as The Little Black Doll. And consider the effect on millions of white children who read it. What’s the takeaway message? White face good. Black face bad. How does that shape their thinking at a formative time in their lives?
This is racist messaging of the worst kind and I feel particularly embarrassed that so many supposedly well-read people from the subcontinent have taken to Twitter vowing to defend Blyton to the death without taking account of the sensibilities of those who might have been offended by such offerings.
And there are other examples.
Blyton’s The Three Golliwogs included characters named Golly, Woggie, and a third name beginning with N which I won’t repeat, but which can be guessed at. I’m afraid that all the buttered scones and ginger beer in the world cannot wash away the bad taste left by such creations.
Having said this, there is no doubt that Blyton’s extraordinary oeuvre brought millions upon millions of children to reading, myself included. That cannot be a bad thing and to try to erase that achievement or to suggest that her books have no literary merit is disingenuous in the extreme.
The problem is that we are not allowed, in today’s ‘cancel culture’ era, to participate in a nuanced, complex debate about the issue. We’re expected to take up arms and choose one side or the other. We have all been enlisted in the so-called ‘culture wars’, where sitting on the fence, or being confused as to how one should feel is simply not permissible. To do so invites the ire of the pitchfork-wielding mob.
And this leads me to the second incident from this week: Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay tackling cancel culture and the ‘worrying homogeny of thought’ in today’s environment.
Adichie writes: “There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion… People who claim to love literature – the messy stories of our humanity – but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy… People… who have no compassion for anybody genuinely curious or confused. Ask them a question and you are told that the answer is to repeat a mantra. Ask again for clarity and be accused of violence…What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness… It is obscene.’
The essay, needless to say, went viral, crashing Adichie’s website. Adichie appears to have tapped into a depth of feeling that many of us would like to express but haven’t been able to. The despair and anger we feel when we see important discussions hijacked by immoderate loudmouths who only seem to want to tear down others for the sake of their own virtue-signalling.
On the subject of Enid Blyton, this is what Adichie had to say in a past interview in Net-A-Porter. “I like the worlds she created. I wanted to be in the circus or The Famous Five, and I had this hankering for ginger beer – which turned out to be a bit disappointing when I tasted it… I know she was supposed to be terrible and a racist, but I enjoyed her books. I’m not someone who goes around trying to disapprove of writers; it’s the lack of choice and differing point of view that matters, and which I want to highlight.”
The truth is that none of us enjoy seeing our heroes torn down. When that happens, we feel as if a small part of ourselves is also lost, a measure of innocence that will never be regained. I felt the same way when I discovered that Roald Dahl had once made anti-Semitic comments. How could the creator of one of the seminal books of my childhood, Danny, the Champion of the World, have voiced such bigoted opinions?
We are all guilty of hagiographic excess when thinking of our idols, of portraying them in the best possible light. In reality, they are people like us, with complex emotions, sensibilities, and all too human frailties. The fact is that if we look hard enough we can find fault in practically every historical character. This is not necessarily a bad thing. For human society to progress we must be willing to acknowledge past errors so that we can learn from them. But it makes no sense to erase or ‘cancel’ history; historical revisionism benefits no one, unless it is employed to highlight those elements that will serve to aid our understanding as we face the future.
In that sense, I believe that English Heritage’s attempts to contextualise some of Blyton’s work is probably in the right spirit. They have made it clear they do not intend to remove the blue plaque that honours her contribution. They aren’t in the business of ‘cancelling’ historical figures, no matter what the Twitter mob and the mouth-frothing, self-proclaimed upholders of our national virtue would have you believe.
The fact is that without discussion nothing changes.
What we could all do with is less of the rhetoric and beetroot-faced rage, and a calmer, more balanced conversation. Maybe over a cup of tea with some buttered scones of the type Blyton so favoured.
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