Should Enid Blyton be no-platformed ?

Yesterday, I started reading Five Go to Smuggler’s Top, the Enid Blyton classic, to my youngest. He’s not a keen reader and I thought an undemanding ‘Famous Five’ adventure might help him get the bug, as it has done millions of children before him, and as it did for me as a child. I tried out four or five story openings from different authors, and happily, predictably, it was Blyton that got his vote.

All was going fine until I read out the following passage:

‘Sooty! Now why do you call him that?’ said Uncle Quentin … ‘If you saw him you wouldn’t think so’, said Dick, with a laugh. ‘He’s awfully dark! Hair as black as soot, eyes like bits of coal, eyebrows that look as if they’ve been put in with charcoal. And his name means “The black one”, doesn’t it? Le -noir – that’s French for black.’

What saves it from being obviously racist, discriminatory, stereotypical, offensive and outmoded in its attitudes (correct me if I am wrong here) – and, presumably, from being censored – is that the boy in question is Pierre Lenoir, and French. Which means that the term ‘Sooty’ is being used to describe somebody who is white, just darker in complexion than your average fair-haired fair-skinned 1940s English public schoolboy. And unless one is to regard the Anglo-Saxon English and the Gallic French as belonging to distinct ethnic groups (which, one suspects, would itself be judged offensive according to current orthodoxies – the permitted categories are white, black, Asian and so forth), then it cannot be a problem to call someone who is white ‘Sooty’. 

Nevertheless, though amused, I feel awkward reading the passage. Should I be self-censoring it? What will I do when I come to a passage in which Blyton describes a child who is black? Will my child go into school tomorrow and call his black or Asian schoolmate ‘Sooty’, and get suspended for engaging in racially aggravated hate crime? Will I be suspended from my job for reading ‘racist’ literature to my children? We travel to France in August to visit my French in-laws. Will they be called ‘Sooty’? Perhaps the French have names for pale-skinned English children. Will I be offended?  

I was once called ‘pale-face’ by a mixed-race school friend. I wasn’t offended because, compared to him, I was pale – though my superior manners prevented me from returning the compliment. Nowadays, fear would be the operative factor.     

The fattest boy at my school had the nickname ‘Slim’. So far as I remember, it was affectionately meant, and accepted in that spirit. Would it have been better if, as today, none of us dared make any reference to the fact? That we saw him and thought, as he attempted to vault over the pommel horse in the gym, ‘Christ, he’s fat’, but pretended there was nothing untoward as he got wedged on top? I don’t know.

It used to be the case that if no offence was given or intended, none should be taken. But those times have long passed. To say that nowadays we tiptoe round on eggshells is a monumental understatement. Where will it all end?   

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18 Comments on Should Enid Blyton be no-platformed ?

  1. I remember coming across a reference to Charles II (in Pepys or Aubrey or similar) as a ‘tall black man’. In those days it meant hair. As the author says, you can’t win with professional offence-seekers who need to compensate for their lack of education and ability to think.

    Good manners demands that we expunge or apologise for reprehensible attitudes of past times – Eliot’s Jew-hate for instance. The BBC did a good job of dealing with Waugh’s unthink on the black boyfriend in Decline and Fall.

    • Eliot (and Chesterton) had no particular ‘Jew-hate’. They used phrases appropriate to their time – Jews were strongly associated with the money-lending occupation in those days, and that occupation was not seen as savoury.

      Their general attitude was praiseworthy – that rapacious persons should not oppress the powerless, and I can see no reason either to expunge or apologise for this. However, we should be deeply embarrassed to be part of a modern generation which supports hypocrisy, lying, appalling double standards, cheating and encouraging mob violence and official state oppression to enforce illogical, random social fashions.

      • “we should be deeply embarrassed to be part of a modern generation which supports hypocrisy, lying, appalling double standards, cheating and encouraging mob violence”

        Says somebody who likes to call themselves “Dodgy Geezer”, a phrase redolent of all of those things, but presumably by good, honest, old-fashioned London gangsters.

  2. By today’s holy standards she was definitely a racist old bat, which almost guarantees her protected status afforded by those of us still able to laugh aloud at the hapless fate of Golly in the Noddy books. Perhaps age has wearied my recollection, but I seem to recall PC Plod endlessly locking up the little black fella, and also a wanted poster in the nick, with Golly’s face glowering out.

    When I think of Noddy now, I suspect that he was a heroically gay creation. Cute little hat, neck-scarf, tight blue shorts (and that car) – practically a twink-hunter’s dream date. It’s also a matter of history that Blyton based the odd language of the elves on Polari, which she knew from her London literary days.

    I like to think that Noddy and Golly escaped Toytown, moving to the much more tolerant Boytown where they set up a happy home, eventually adopting a number of deranged orphan elves. His clearly gay nature should endear him to the gay-rights lobby, constant moaners about there not being enough positive gay role models for children.

    Apparently, Blyton used to play tennis in the nude – another reason to remember her fondly. Wouldn’t the endlessly repetitive and dull BBC-fest that is Wimbledon be immeasurably improved if played according to naturist lines. New balls please.

  3. Will we ever finish these piffling discussions about sexist, homophobic, islamophobic and, above all, racist micro-aggressions, unconscious xenophobia etc? Are we still not grown up enough to seriously discus the problem of black violence?

    I have just been reading about the Guildford train murder. Now that the perpetrator, Darren Pencille, has been convicted his past criminal history can be revealed. Suffice to say that he was a known “career criminal” and part of a notorious South London gang (SMS) whose members have terrorised areas of Tooting, Streatham and Thornton Heath SINCE THE 1990s. Why was this situation allowed to prevail? Is it too troublesome or costly to protect law abiding citizens from gangland thuggery? As ever the minds of the great and the good trot out the same tired old solutions: more investment in youth projects, more positive role models.

    Let’s not worry about all that. Let’s just carry on fretting about whether some historic text might offend one or other of our thin-skinned minority groups and thus take the shine off our diversity & inclusiveness credentials.

    • The Left has successfully thrown a steel cordon around the primitive savagery unleashed into England since the 1960s. No-one is allowed even to name it, let alone move against it. We are instead enjoined to celebrate it, in the way Jewish captives were forced to sing as their brothers and sisters went to the gallows.

  4. It’s the horrific thought that your children could be humiliated and traumatised by some PC basket subjecting them to “awareness” courses which really gives one pause, quite apart from any consequences to oneself. We really do live in an era of thought-crime; and the swine who’ve imposed these restrictions call themselves “liberal”.

  5. ‘He’s awfully dark! Hair as black as soot, eyes like bits of coal, eyebrows that look as if they’ve been put in with charcoal. And his name means “The black one”, doesn’t it? Le -noir – that’s French for black.’

    “…What saves it from being obviously racist, discriminatory, stereotypical, offensive and outmoded in its attitudes (correct me if I am wrong here) – and, presumably, from being censored – is that the boy in question is Pierre Lenoir, and French. Which means that the term ‘Sooty’ is being used to describe somebody who is white, just darker in complexion than your average fair-haired fair-skinned 1940s English public schoolboy…. ”

    As commented earlier, ‘black man’ was typically used to refer to people’s HAIR. If the writer had meant to refer to a ‘Mediterranean’ skin colour, she would have written ‘swarthy’.

    Mr Monteith is doing worse than ‘tiptoeing around’ – he is making up a comment on skin colour where IT DOES NOT EXIST. Self-censoring is reaching new heights when people actively look for a phrase to be offended at, and, when they can’t find one, make one up so that they can be offended…

    • It even says in the bits you’ve quoted that he understands this isn’t about skin colour. He explains in the rest of the article why he’s still uncomfortable with this kind of labelling. And his last paragraph shows he’s more in agreement with you than you seem to think.

      Lazy stereotyping and labelling generally is undesirable. I mean, I wonder what you do that makes you think you’re dodgy.

  6. At one time in the third year of Infant School, our teacher would read us a chapter of ‘Five go to Smugglers’Top’ at the end of the school day. We were all enthralled and couldn’t wait to hear the next chapter. I remember how intrigued we were to learn that Mr Block wasn’t deaf after all.

    • Good to hear this. I had the same experience at school. I find the contrast with David Walliams interesting. His books are full of clever asides, witticisms and farts, and inevitably the rage – hence 30 million sold. But speaking as an adult forced occasionally to hear his child read them aloud, they are desperately dull. No story, no adventure, no characterisation. Yet I look forward to hearing the next chapter of Blyton, even as an adult.

      She was a page turner and so far as children’s literature (and our balance of payments) is concerned, a bloody genius. I see she is on 600 million estimated worldwide sales. Rowling is catching up fast, but I wouldn’t give Harry Potter much chance in a tussle with Julian of ‘The Famous Five’.

  7. Oh Bah! My comment on the availability of “The story of Little B-word S-word” seems to have disappeared. Could “little,” with its suggestions of inferiority and insignificance also perhaps be considered offensive and be altered to “l-word?” Not to worry, I fully understand the dangers of brickbats hurled at our puny defences, and finances, by the howling hordes of modern day fascists. No need to turn that into the “F-word.” We all know who they are and our feelings towards them – or do we?

    • You really haven’t got a clue, have you? You don’t even know what fascism is. The irony is that you appear to want to do exactly what you’re complaining about from them.

      • I’ve got a very good clue. A radical, socialist, totalitarian, left-wing, secular, nationalistic mob rule. The kind of mob who make anything the people they call fascists do seem quite benign. So Enid Blyton definitely wasn’t a fascist.

        • You see, there you go again. I haven’t called anybody a fascist.

          I’ll take socialist from your list, but not the rest of it. You obviously just like to insult people. I note you’re religious too, which probably explains a lot. A lot of religions genuinely satisfy the fascist definition.

          I doubt you actually know anything about Blyton’s politics, although she was an ardent feminist, hence the George character. Perhaps that would be on your hate list too.

          For the record, I loved the famous five books, and before that, the secret seven, but anybody who reads the early editions especially who doesn’t cringe at some of the language needs to have a look at themselves.

          You appear to have a lot of fury about those people you insulted. Perhaps you should just calm down.

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