Charlie and the Great Straw-Person Parade

Roald Dahl signing books for pre-woke era children in Amsterdam in 1988. Photo: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo/ Nationaal Archief 

The anti-woke brigade gained a new hero this week: the much loved and still widely read late children’s author, Roald Dahl. Triggered by a modest footnote in one of Puffin’s latest editions, the Daily Telegraph carried out an exhaustive study of the revisions and uncovered ‘hundreds’ of changes made, in the newspaper’s words, ‘to bring his books in line with contemporary sensibilities.’ It might have rested there, but the next day the Guardian lifted the story and ran a précis version that opened with the sentence: ‘Roald Dahl’s children’s books are being rewritten to remove language deemed offensive by the publisher Puffin.’ This questionable statement appears to have been the seed for a frenzy of woke-bashing that swelled up like a giant peach and blew over to the US, where the human rights organization PEN America expressed alarm at the idea of altering ‘venerated works’ … ‘in a purported effort to scrub the books of that which might offend someone’.

I have enormous respect for PEN and the work they do on behalf of writers who face harassment, censorship and torture around the world, but on this occasion they seem to have got their Muggle-Wumps in a twist. Let’s begin with the numbers: the Telegraph speaks of ‘hundreds of changes’ but doesn’t specify an actual quantity. In addition to being one of the most popular children’s authors of recent times, Dahl was one of the most prolific. He published 18 novels for children, most of which are still in print, as well as dozens of short stories. Even allowing for the shorter nature of children’s fiction, that adds up to several hundred thousand words. In The Witches, one of his more controversial works (Warner Bros had to apologise a few years ago for its depiction of the titular characters as bald with disfigured hands and feet in its screen adaptation, even though this was faithful to the book) the Telegraph found 59 changes in a novel of 36,000 words. Taliban-level censorship it is not.

As for the changes themselves, only a small number support the Telegraph’s charge, amplified by the Guardian, that they were imposed by sinister ‘sensitivity readers’. Though it’s true that Puffin consulted an agency, Inclusive Minds, during the review process to advise on sensitive subjects, even a cursory look at the alterations reveals that most of them are intended to make the book relevant to today’s children. A reference to ‘chambermaid’ is changed to ‘cleaner’ because these days even Telegraph readers are unlikely to have a maid and parents don’t want to spend their precious 15 minutes of story time explaining archaic service jobs to their children. Rudyard Kipling is swapped out for Jane Austen because Austen’s novels get made into Hollywood movies while Kipling’s volumes get made into props for tables in golf club bars. Mike Teavee has lost his belt full of guns, in recognition of the fact that children no longer run around pointing plastic pistols at each other and shouting: ‘bang bang, you’re dead’ (and it’s not because they’ve been mollycoddled by their oversensitive parents, but because they can play Call of Duty online and pump each other full of virtual lead at 77 rounds a second, complete with realistic explosions and blood that bursts from their perforated bodies in a perfect parabola).

A line in The Witches originally said a woman can be a witch ‘even if she is working as a cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman.’ The new version reads ‘even if she is working as a top scientist or running a business.’ The Telegraph held this aloft in triumph, like a tell-tale wig in the story, as evidence of egregious woke meddling. But the point of Dahl’s original sentence was to tell children that any woman could be a witch, even someone like their friends’ mothers or their aunts. In his time middle-class women typically took on subordinate or secretarial roles, but today’s children grow up with mothers who have professional careers, so it makes sense to update the line. Dahl knew this, because he wrote for children, not Telegraph readers nostalgic for the days when ‘typing letters for a businessman’ was regarded as gainful employment for an educated woman.

Some of the changes are clumsy. I’m not sure why an ‘adorable dress’ had to become a ‘lovely dress’, or why ‘America and France and Holland and Germany’ are taken out of a description of ‘the rest of the world’, unless it’s to recognize that today’s children have broader horizons. Changing ‘Cloud-Men’ to ‘Cloud People’ is not a hill I’m prepared to die on either, though perhaps it means the rain will fall in a more uniform direction. But this represents a tiny proportion of the changes. Some elegant phrases have lost their sheen – the worst casualty I’ve come across so far is: ‘her face, I’m afraid, was neither a thing of beauty nor a joy forever’ (Matilda), reduced to ‘her face was not a thing of beauty’. Some of the fussier changes smack of presenteeism. But for the most part they are not the work of ‘sensitivity readers’ but of careful editors, an endangered species (particularly, on this evidence, at The Guardian) whose work American PEN should cherish, not abhor.

The changes reflecting modern sensibilities tend to deal with the subjects of mental illness, disability and gender equality. As with so many things denounced as political correctness, they aim to promote kindness and understanding. So men and women are more likely to be ‘people’, jobs are less gendered (‘his father was a farmer’ becomes ‘his parents were farmers’) and the whole wide vocabulary of terms such as mad, crazy, dotty, round the bend are either taken out or modified. This does take the edge off some of Dahl’s turns of phrase, but again none of it is at the expense of what children really care about, which is the stories. Augustus Gloop may no longer be described as ‘fat’, but he still gets stuck up the drainpipe because he drinks too greedily from the chocolate lake. Most seven-year-olds can work out why, and if they don’t they can ask nanny to explain it to them (for non-Telegraph readers: a ‘nanny’ is a woman some people pay to raise their children, because expending their own time and love on them is regarded as dangerously woke).

Some of the editing is inconsistent: in some places ‘Mummy and Daddy’ is changed to parents, but elsewhere, where ‘Mummy’ once stood alone, usually when performing a menial task such as washing up, ‘Daddy’ has been placed alongside her. ‘Dotty’ is one of several euphemisms for ‘mad’ that are widely erased, but in Matilda it comes back in as a substitute for ‘mad’. But it’s amusing to see a newspaper that regularly carries dire warnings about women being ‘erased’ now complaining that ‘females’ have become ‘women’ in Dahl’s stories, or bemoaning the removal of certain terms whose meaning has changed in the world beyond the country club. I particularly relish the idea of a Telegraph reader determinedly hunting down a woke-free edition of George’s Marvellous Medicine in a second-hand shop, opening it up proudly at bedtime, and then having to explain the phrases ‘we’ve made Grandma feel frisky as a ferret’ and ‘horny finger’ to little Sextus. He may well, to salvage another phrase from the Dahl scrapheap, find himself going ‘red in the face’.

One Telegraph complaint is downright spiteful. In The Witches, the witches are bald and wear wigs. One sentence reads: ‘there was something indecent about a bald woman’. Elsewhere, a reference to pulling women’s hair has been changed to ‘there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs’. Perhaps Dahl associated baldness in women with the Nazi collaborators in Europe who had their heads publicly shaved after the war. But times change and points of reference evolve. Chemotherapy treatment was still at a relatively early stage, having been pioneered in the 1960s, when The Witches was published in 1983. Moreover, survival rates for most cancers were still low and patients often hid their illness, especially parents, who didn’t want to burden their children with the knowledge that they were likely to die soon. Nowadays the chances of recovering are greatly improved, therapy is much better and patients are encouraged to spend a full life with their families. Dahl could not have known when he wrote The Witches that the most common cause of baldness in women 40 years later would be cancer treatment, or that many children would watch their mothers go through it, as my own did in the period before Magteld died. I realise the Daily Telegraph will stop at nothing in its crusade to eradicate wokery from the face of the earth, but insisting that children’s books should continue to stigmatise the effects of a devastating illness and confront patients with it in their children’s bedrooms is crass even by its zealous standards. I can only hope American PEN takes some time to consider whether it really wants to saddle up with this crusade.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, Roald Dahl sometimes revised his own stories to keep them fresh for new generations of children. This was partly for commercial reasons, but also because he knew what his readers wanted: stories that engaged them. He specialised in grotesque characters that drew children in to his anarchic, topsy-turvy world and made them want to read the books again and again. That is the key difference between children’s books and adult books. Of all the books for adults on my shelves, maybe a dozen have been read a second time. But the children’s books are worn through from being perused endlessly. Dahl wrote for children in that vital transition period, when they first listen to their stories at bedtime or school reading time, and later on pick up the same books and read them for themselves. It is a magical stage, and one when the barriers to independent reading should be as low as possible. If a bit of light restoration work to update cultural references and remove archaic phrases such as ‘denizens of the underworld’ and ‘tinker’s toot’ allows another generation to enjoy his books, it is a service to literature, not a desecration of it.

When my family moved into our current home, my wife (no longer bald-headed, now that her chemotherapy had failed) cleared one of the shelves in the neatly stacked bookcase and arranged the children’s books higgledy-piggledy, mixed in with their drawings, comics and small toys. She made me promise that that shelf would always be for the boys, and it would be a space devoid of order, where they could take books out and chuck them back in again as they saw fit. Remembering this makes me think that the precious denizens of American PEN have not been children for a long time, because Magteld (Matilda) knew something Roald Dahl also knew. That good children’s books are not just read: they are re-read, scattered on bedroom floors, scrawled in, dog-eared, stained by grubby fingers, have their spines split and the corners of their pages turned or torn, because they are loved. Loved, not – saints preserve us! – ‘venerated’.

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