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 be 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.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Get out of my life

We live in a time of prejudice and fear of the other. I myself, in a London street or on the tube, have tensed up when confronted with an elderly white person. Leaving the capital in the past few weeks to visit Wales and the north of England, I’ve caught myself peering with suspicion at the middle-aged Telegraph reader in the tea shop and the red-faced codger in Wetherspoons, wondering, is this the face of Brexit? This would be a joke, if it were not partly true.

The demographics are striking. On average, Leave voters, who made up about a third of the adult population, were significantly older, more provincial, less educated, less diverse and less familiar with diversity. This was a howl of distress, some liberal commentators rushed to explain, from people suffering the ravages of post-industrial decline and the lopsided punishment of austerity, the victims of globalisation who feel abandoned by Labour. No doubt. But it was also a snarl from the hangers and floggers of Little England, nostalgic for a mythical past of sturdy independence.  

This unlikely coalition of left and right was pulled together, with the help of the more unscrupulous newspapers, by a ragtag group of politicians who made extravagant promises that they would never be in a position to keep and that they walked away from as soon as the result was in. Within days there was a new word, regrexit, for what it felt like to realise you’d been duped. Polls suggest that the people of Wales, a region that can expect to lose almost £250 million a year in EU subsidies, would now vote to Remain if they had a second chance.

Too many people were induced to vote not only against their own interests but against the common good. Little thought was given to how Brexit might affect Scotland, divided in its attachment to the United Kingdom but overwhelmingly supportive of the EU; and even less to Northern Ireland, whose delicate peace agreement depends on a soft border with the Republic under the umbrella of Europe. Concerns about constitutional problems, along with predictions of economic damage, were dismissed as fear-mongering spread by ‘experts’. 

The choice was reduced to two words, Remain or Leave. We knew what Remain meant – we’d been living with the evolving reality of European cooperation for 40 years. But it turned out no one had a clue what Leave meant, not even the people selling it. A month on, we’re still none the wiser.

The electorate spoke cryptically, in the manner of the Apollonian oracle, but the self-appointed high priests of Brexit are officiously eager to interpret. According to back-bencher John Redwood, ‘We voted to take back control of our laws, our money and our borders.’ For others it’s all about keeping out immigrants. For Bill Cash, any plan to stay in the single market – even if a deal can be done, as proposed by Boris Johnson, to ‘slash immigration’ – would be a betrayal. ‘If you’re out,’ Cash gnomically explains, ‘you’re out.’ Yes, indeed. And Brexit means Brexit. But what does Brexit mean? What is the model for what we hope to become? Norway? Canada? the Cayman Islands?

To add to the muddle, the anti-EU tabloids have been getting worked up about the suffering of Brits holidaying on the continent. Families rushing to France at the end of the school term were delayed by heightened French security in the wake of the Nice attack. ‘Dover hell’ the Express called it, claiming it was ‘revenge for Brexit’. More bizarrely, The Daily Mail has blamed the plunging value of the pound, as experienced by British tourists, on dodgy foreigners selling Euros at rip-off prices. Trade with our European neighbours? The free movement of people? We’re finished with all that. But why should it stop us hopping over the channel and buying their stuff whenever we feel like it?

There’s a book by Anthony E Wolf on coping with teenage children called Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall. That’s the level of thinking exhibited by the Brexit movement. This would be a joke, if it were not entirely sad.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Brexit stage right? I hope we don't.

An old friend sends me this contribution to the referendum debate, titled June 2016:

Observe the condescension and disdain
Of those Important Men who urge ‘Remain!’
We want the thing that they appear to hate:
An Independent Democratic State.

The time is come to cast off foolish fears
And loose the shackles of the wasted years:
Let’s be again the people we have been
- Ah! what a birthday present for The Queen!

I don't suspect irony. My friend is a monarchist. His first verse reminds me that the Leavers have mastered what George Bush senior once called “the vision thing”. They are fluent in the language of sovereignty and freedom, while the Remainers seem to speak only of money. Business leaders understandably emphasise the financial consequences of Brexit. Carolyn Fairbairn, Director General of the CBI says, “The message from our members is resounding – most want the UK to stay in the EU because it is better for their business, jobs and prosperity” (1). But we might expect our leaders to offer something more uplifting.

Chief among those “Important Men” urging us to stay are the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. “Condescension and disdain” come naturally to them. Cameron adds a note of desperation, having, in defiance of his own pro-Europe convictions, gambled the nation’s future for short term political gain. If this referendum were simply a vote of confidence in the Tory leadership, I’d be queueing for the exit.

I’m not blind to the difficulties the EU faces. The 2008 crash exposed the weakness of the Eurozone. The refugee crisis has done the same for the Schengen area. There are no simple solutions to these problems and I understand the impulse to walk away from the whole complicated mess. But where to? The past is no longer available. In the world of cutthroat global capitalism, plucky little Britain going it alone is a mythical island. If we can’t make our voice heard in the European Parliament, what chance do we have in the boardrooms of ExxonMobil or Pfizer or Amazon?

June 2016 characterizes such thoughts as “foolish fears”. Its second verse slides into reverse gear, hinting at a Golden Age of independence and democracy when we had only ourselves to take care of. But it was never just us –not since the first Elizabethans began colonising America. For centuries we were part of a larger entity on which our wealth and power depended. The Empire worked as long as the illusion could be maintained that our exploitation of other peoples, who had neither democracy nor independence, was for their own good. That’s over and few people feel nostalgic for it.

At its best the Leave campaign appeals to our courage and sense of heroic independence, but the drive to get out of Europe is mainly fueled by less noble ambitions. To the powerless, suffering the effects of austerity piled on top of recession, Brexit is sold as a way of closing our borders, as if the paucity of public housing, the creeping privatization of the NHS and the widening gap between rich and poor were the fault of EU migrants, a group who in reality, according to recent HMRC figures, paid 3 billion in tax for the year ending April 2014 and claimed only 500 million in benefits (2).

We're told we could have a new hospital every week with what we pay the EU. Is that the plan, then? Even if we saved anything like this amount, would a Tory government under Boris Johnson invest it in public services? There’s no reason to think so. Johnson has been Mayor of London for eight years during which global developers have run amok. New towers dominate the skyline and thousands of luxury apartments are left empty by foreign property investors while working Londoners are priced out of the market (3). As Prime Minister he would be likely to pursue a similarly aggressive free market agenda.

In the face of Government opposition, EU law has brought us cleaner drinking water, cleaner air, and less polluted rivers and beaches (4). A report commissioned by the TUC notes that the EU has provided “access to paid annual holidays, improved health and safety protection, rights to unpaid parental leave, rights to time off work for urgent family reasons” and “equal treatment rights for part-time, fixed-term and agency workers” (5). The British Human Rights Act, which brings us into line with European law, establishes rights to free speech and personal privacy that were not previously protected (6). The shackles that the Brexit leaders want to be liberated from are regulations such as these.

There’s a danger that the refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, added to decades of fake news stories about EU bans on everything from curvy bananas to bagpipes, will induce people to vote against their own interests, and not just financially. This would be a good time to celebrate the wider vision of the EU, how British lives are enhanced by the freedom to travel, study, work and settle in other European countries, and the many ways we benefit from the free traffic of ideas and culture among nations bound together by proximity, tangled history and shared interests. 

Thursday, 7 April 2016


Do you believe in punishment for abortion?
The answer is… there has to be some form of punishment.
For the woman?
What punishment?
I have not determined what the punishment would be.
Why not?
Because I haven’t determined it.

I don’t think we can learn anything much about Trump’s views on abortion from his recent interview with Chris Mathews, because he has no views on abortion. It’s just one of those things he’s supposed to be against while he’s running for office. As for his attitude to women, the interview reinforces what we already know, that he doesn’t think much about them except so far as they serve or fail to serve his needs. The most revealing thing about this exchange is what it tells us about the role of President as Trump imagines it. He sees himself, like a medieval king or a Roman emperor, autonomously determining punishments.  

I happen to be re-watching the BBC/HBO series Rome. Ten years on, the parallels with the contemporary American political scene are striking. In episode 2 (written by the series creator Bruno Heller) the young Octavius is asked by a conservative centurion why things in Rome have to change. He says, ‘Because the Roman people are suffering, because slaves have taken all the work, because nobles have taken all the land and the streets are full of the homeless.’ Replace Romans with Americans, slaves with sweatshop workers and other underpaid offshore employees, and nobles with the one percent, and you have the problem that is attracting voters to both Trump and Sanders in unexpected numbers.

Sanders offers an analysis of the issues and an approach towards a solution. Trump, an armchair Caesar, offers only himself. Having crucified or put to the sword many aspiring executives in Reality-TV land and conquered vast swathes of real estate, and being now rich with the spoils of business, he crosses the Rubicon into presidential politics.

The priests who preside over the sacred rites are bribed or dazzled into overlooking his past blasphemies. The senators and nobles, a self-serving crew who pay lip-service to the ideals of the Republic, see Trump for what he is – a would-be tyrant who is stirring up the populace against them. Of course the tyranny he offers is not significantly different from their own, but, expressed more nakedly and in cruder terms, it threatens the stability on which their power depends. 

They look around for a Pompey, a veteran of old campaigns, to defeat the upstart. Romney is on hand to call Trump a fraud and a conman. McCain lends his weight to the attack. But these are yesterday’s men, has-beens. Their legions are demoralised and disloyal. In desperation, the senators plot to assassinate the dictator on the Convention floor.

Anticipating civil disturbance, the Cleveland police are already equipping themselves with additional riot gear. Let’s hope it’s only the Republican Party that is plunged into civil war and that they limit their weapons to tweets, blogs and hostile briefings. Meanwhile we can expect Trump to continue issuing decrees from the imperial throne of his imagination.

What about the guy that gets her pregnant – is he responsible under the law? 
I would say… no.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Even Cameron contains multitudes

Within a day of the terrorist outrage in Brussels, US presidential candidate Ted Cruz had seized the moral low-ground, suggesting that police should ‘patrol and secure Muslim neighbourhoods’ in America before they ‘become radicalised’. He was unable to say which neighbourhoods he had in mind, nor how such aggressive policing would encourage the residents to feel more bonded with the rest of society. Meanwhile in Britain, UKIP leader Nigel Farage exploited the attack as an argument for Brexit, as though terrorism is a peculiarly European problem.     

On Easter Sunday, hundreds of demonstrators disrupted a peaceful gathering of mourners in the Brussel’s Place de la Bourse, chanting nationalist slogans, making Nazi salutes and confronting Muslim women in the crowd. To what problem, I wonder, did they imagine this aggressive behaviour was the solution? Britain’s own far right groups, such as the National Front, the English Defence League, the Scottish Defence League, South East Alliance and Combat 18 (so named because Hitler’s initials A and H are the first and eighth letters of the alphabet), have gathered in Dover in recent months to signal their opposition to the refugees across the Channel.  

These are some of the more grotesque ways of missing the point. With a tad more subtlety, David Cameron, responding to concerns about the numbers of British citizens attempting to travel to Syria to join Isis, said earlier this year that there are too many Muslim women unable to speak English. Referring to those who have entered the UK on a five-year spousal settlement programme, he said that ‘After two and half years they should be improving their English and we will be testing them.’ Asked whether those who failed would be deported, he replied, ‘You can’t guarantee you can stay if you are not improving your language.’

Cameron puts a feminist gloss on this new policy, suggesting that it is patriarchal cultures that keep women from integrating. But the discriminatory threat speaks more loudly than the promise of liberation. Risking an Orwellian paradox, he explained that ‘We will never truly build One Nation unless we are more assertive about our liberal values.’

I think of my late father-in-law Irving Zeiger who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household in Cleveland, Ohio. When he misbehaved at school and his widowed mother was called in to see the principal, young Irv had to translate. Their neighbourhood was full of Jews and Italians, many of whom would have struggled, like Anna Zeiger, to pass a test in English. America didn’t do badly out of that generation of immigrants.

For a more contemporary insight, I turn to British blogger Fatima Rajina, who is keeping a record of a research project she is conducting with fellow academic Victoria Redclift (to whom I am related), comparing communities of Bengali heritage in London’s Brick Lane and LA’s recently established Little Bangladesh (

Rajina expresses anger at Cameron’s linking of the terrorist threat to the linguistic choices and deficiencies of Muslim women. She is grateful to her own mother for making her speak Bengali at home, ‘the only place she felt we could preserve and engage with our Bengali identity’. With proficiency in five languages other than English, Rajina feels that ‘knowing another language is like having another soul’. Time spent in Bangladesh during childhood gave her ‘an insight into the culture, the everyday nuances I would have missed otherwise’. With so much of her work conducted in English, a language which for her ‘lacks animation and is slightly burdensome’, speaking Bengali, she says, ‘gives me life and breathing space; it gives me freedom.’

Fatima Rajina’s experience allows her an unusually wide reach, but her sense of occupying multiple identities is far from unique. In my own family, I see how Jewish and American attachments overlap and conflict.  I know what it is to feel both English and Irish, both British and European, and it isn’t obvious to me that I have more in common with the demonstrators in Dover than with the refugees in Calais.

Cameron’s authoritarian impulses pale in comparison with Cruz’s. But like Cruz he seems to imagine that social cohesion can be imposed by threats and scolding. And he slips too easily into a position of thoughtless privilege, apparently unaware that he himself inhabits social and economic subcultures from which many of his fellow citizens feel excluded. 

For more on minority languages in Britain 

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Name recognition

As a TV star he was known as the Trumpster. It’s an interesting way to construct a nickname. The definite article elevates the subject to guru status, while the diminutive suffix suggests intimacy and affection. Not everyone with a following gets this treatment, but not every name lends itself to the form. Try it with Kasich.

The word Trumpster floats poetically between trickster and dumpster. Now that Trump’s followers are getting almost as much attention as the man himself, it has acquired a new meaning as a term for the true believers, otherwise known as trumplings.

Trump’s name has turned out to be a linguistic playground. Even in its original form it’s richly evocative, suggesting a winning hand, while carrying lofty suggestions of a ceremonial fanfare, a martial summons, or a final encounter with the Almighty as imagined by St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: Behold, we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump. Less loftily, it’s slang for fart.

Dictionary definitions of ‘trumpery’ are suddenly popular (calculated to deceive by false show, trifles, rubbish, nonsense). Commentators have come up with the term Trumponomics, which is a bit like designing the packaging for some brilliant devise that hasn’t been invented yet. Then there’s the name’s irresistible rhyming potential, exploited by the Dump Trump movement. For some, the Trump Rump is the part of the anatomy from which the would-be president speaks. I hope to see the same phrase recycled for the surviving Donald-loyalists once the Republican Party has splintered irrevocably into warring factions and the body politic is on a waiting list for a trumpectomy. 

Meanwhile, here are a few Trump variations that have not yet entered the lexicon:

Trumpf – a cascade of meaningless words

Trumpkopf – an impressionable voter

Trumpen proletariat – economically disadvantaged people who have not yet worked out that they should be voting for Bernie Sanders

Trumpo – one who suffers from the delusion that in uttering xenophobic slurs he is courageously standing up to the ‘new McCarthyism’ of political correctness

Trumple – to implode after a meteoric rise