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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