Saturday 15 October 2016

The peculiar timelessness of Enid Blyton

The children’s author Enid Blyton, who died nearly half a century ago, has been in the news recently. The publishers, Hachette, have announced that they are scrapping their updated versions of Blyton’s Famous Five books.

The stated intention, when this project was launched six years ago, was to replace old-fashioned language that might make it harder for children to enjoy the stories. ‘Housemistress’ and ‘school tunic’ were updated to ‘teacher’ and ‘uniform’, archaic slang such as ‘awful swotter’, ‘jolly japes’ and ‘lashings of pop’ were replaced with blander alternatives. In some places there was a political dimension to these revisions. Blyton’s ‘dirty tinkers’, for example, would from now on be described more politely as ‘travellers’.

Enid Blyton wrote more than 600 children’s books, producing, at her most prolific, 50 a year. There was a rumour during the 1950s that to maintain this level of output she employed a team of ghost writers. A librarian, sued by the author for repeating this story, had to apologise in court. The truth was Enid Blyton didn’t need any help. By her own account, she wrote without thinking, allowing the stories to emerge unmediated from her unconscious onto the keys of her typewriter.

During the 1960s and 70s critics began attacking her on other grounds. Educators had long considered her books too simple, claiming that young readers were addicted to them because they presented no linguistic demands. More damning than that, her books were now seen to be marred by xenophobia, sexism and snobbery. The girls and boys whose adventures are narrated either conform to gender stereotypes or are rebuked for challenging them. Coming from middle-class families, they are too often pitted against suspicious outsiders whose criminality is associated with foreignness or low social status.

Inevitably, the news that Blyton’s publishers have abandoned these updated versions has been celebrated by some as a defeat for the forces of political correctness. But I think this reveals a misunderstanding both of the motives for the project and of why it failed. Blyton’s more overtly racist stories have not been in print in English for decades. Mercifully only used copies of The Three Gollywogs are available on Amazon, where reader reviews express a mixture of nostalgia and defiance. ('My grandma used to read the book to me when I was a baby… those who see gollywogs as racist or offensive need their heads tested.’)

The 2010 revisions seem to have been motivated mainly by a desire to smooth the path for the twenty-first century reader. The intention, as the publishers said at the time, was to make the texts ‘timeless’.  But timelessness requires more than the removal of obstacles. Peculiar language is as likely to be a hook as a stumbling block. I’d hazard a guess that very few of Blyton’s earlier readers were as socially privileged as her characters, or had any experience of boarding school, or ever talked in real life about ‘jolly japes’. The old-fashioned public schools that featured in the kinds of books I found in Cheltenham Public Library as a child were almost as far removed from my own experience as Hogwarts. Books create their own worlds into which readers are drawn. Language is an essential part of how those worlds are created.

This piece has appeared previously in The Bangladesh Daily Star

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Pragmatism Time

George Orwell knew about evil. He took a bullet in the throat fighting fascism in Spain. Later he barely escaped with his life when the Soviet-backed Spanish government judged him to be the wrong kind of leftist.

I don’t know if it was Orwell who introduced the phrase lesser of two evils into electoral politics, but the earliest source I know is his 1948 essay, ‘Writers and Leviathan’. The argument is aimed at fellow writers but applies to any citizen of a democratic country. We are obliged to take part in politics, he says, even though it’s ‘a dirty, degrading business’ and we should give up thinking we can choose between good and evil: ‘one can never do more than decide which of two evils is the lesser.’

With about five weeks to go before the US Presidential Election, Hillary Clinton, who offers competence but fails to inspire, could still lose. Here are five types of voter who might yet be persuaded to climb aboard the creaking Clinton charabanc.

1  The Purist

Ralph Nader famously stood for the Green party in 2000, splitting the progressive vote and contributing to the defeat of Al Gore. This is what he thinks about Clinton v Trump:

‘If I don’t have a third party to vote for, I’ll write in my vote. I will never vote for someone who is going to engage in illegal armed force, unconstitutional killing of innocent people, selling Washington to Wall Street and driving our country into the ground’ (Democracy Now, 19 September 2016).

That’s Hillary he’s talking about. Apart from the final dystopian flourish, it sounds like business as usual for the American Empire. The question is which part of this would not be worse with Trump in charge?

2  The Disillusioned Lover

Last week, sleepless in the small hours, I heard an interview on the BBC World Service with a young man who loved Obama in 2008. Eight years on, hurt and disillusioned at the absence of transformation, he plans to stay home. ‘If voting changed anything,’ he said, ‘they’d have made it illegal years ago.’

That's not such a novel idea. Even in the land of the free, universal suffrage doesn’t just grow in the wild like magic mushrooms. 56 years after LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act into law, there are Republican-controlled states manoeuvring to prevent poor and minority citizens from voting. Trump himself has explicitly encouraged voter intimidation, urging his supporters to make their presence felt at polling stations in Democratic districts.

Voting is legal because people have struggled to make it so. And it doesn't require you to fall in love, just to choose.

3  The Revolutionary

I love Susan Sarandon. Bull Durham is my absolute favourite baseball movie of all time. But she’s wrong about this election. Explaining earlier this year why she wouldn’t be shifting her allegiance from Sanders to Clinton, she said, ‘Some people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately if he gets in. Then things will really, you know, explode’ (MSNBC, 30 March 2016).

The trouble with explosions is that you can’t control who gets hurt. People sometimes say 'it's going to get worse before it gets better' but this is a consolation, not a strategy.

4  The Tribalist

After the first debate, a woman who looked as if she’d lived through at least a dozen general elections, said, ‘I’m voting for the conservative party. If that jackass [Trump] happens to be leading the mule-train, well, so be it.’

It’s a great line, but a terrible argument. If George Bush senior can break ranks and vote for Hillary, so can anyone. Even for a conservative, voting for the jackass is not compulsory.

5  The Missing

In 2008, in the highest turnout since the 1960s, only about 57% of the voting age population cast a ballot. It dropped in 2012 to about 55%. This year doesn’t promise to break any records. On past evidence, upward of a 100 million people will fail to vote.

Some of these will be idealists reluctant to dirty their hands in support of the status quo (see above). Some will be ex-offenders permanently removed from the electoral roll. Some with no criminal record will find themselves excluded on Kafkaesque technicalities. Many, working long shifts to support their families, will genuinely struggle to find the time for a journey on ill-funded public transport to a distant polling station to stand in line for hours. Others will think they probably should vote but won’t quite get it together, or will imagine that somehow politics doesn’t apply to them.

For the disadvantaged, disaffected or disengaged, a Clinton presidency may not be an exciting prospect, but terror at the thought of Trump in the Oval Office ought to be enough to drive more of them to the polls.