He was a friendly looking pirate and clearly the sort who would say 'Arr, me 'earties'. He had been donated to the toy library by a large department store which had no further use for him.
Our children loved him. When they arrived each week, they rushed up to him and gave him a hug or a pat. Then one day my wife discovered that he had gone: a higher authority had removed him because he conveyed a negative image of disabled people.
I decided to phone the person who had taken the decision - a social worker. She (and, later, another social worker) confirmed the explanation, linking it with wider issues in social policy concerned with books and films that had racist or sexist implications.
One of the social workers said that she, personally, was not happy with books such as Peter Pan (this had something to do with the book and something to do with the reputation of J M Barrie); the other felt the same about Robin Hood (as there was too much violence in it). They also said there were few, if any, positive images of people with disabilities in film and literature (which is not the case at all).
Overall, they had felt it best to withdraw the pirate. They would not allow him back.
I agree fully with the general policy objectives of the local authority. But I was astounded that the pirate should have been deemed offensive. The decision seemed a dangerous interpretation of a good principle. Moreover, parents had not been consulted.
I told the story to a friend of mine working in television, who decided to do a short feature on it. We found a cardboard replica of the pirate and dragged it around the streets with us, asking parents at random what they thought of him. The overwhelming majority did not find it offensive nor did they think it conveyed a negative image of disability. We then went to speak to the local Disability Action Group.
Their spokesperson said they had had a good laugh about it. They found it hard to believe that such a silly decision had been taken. And she made three further important points.
First, while they did think it might create a wrong impression of disability, it was not offensive. Second, they were adamant that it should not have been banished from sight, as it could have been used positively to teach children about disability. Third, and most important, they had been angered that the social services had not bothered to consult their group.
We finally spoke to the deputy director of social services for North Yorkshire. It soon became clear that there was profound official embarrassment about the decision to remove the pirate. The deputy director agreed that if the pirate could be located, it would probably be returned, after due consultation. In his view the decision had been 'daft'.
As I write, it is not yet clear whether the pirate has been located or whether he will be returned. But the story raises profound issues. While the officials acted in good faith, clearly personal ideological preferences also influenced their judgements. And anyway, in this broader cultural field, should they be the custodians of public or social morality?
If they are, should there not be wider consultation and more accountability than there was in the case of the pirate? Certainly, discriminatory practices should be combated: but that is different from censorship.
Finally, and crucially, our cultures, histories and literature are full of the good and the bad, positive and negative images, according to one's outlook. And it is important that children grow up to distinguish between them. It is inappropriate that officials should have the right to undertake a 'cultural cleansing' of these traditions. It is in understanding the differences and in discriminating between then that the moral growth of children occurs. Arr, me 'earties]Reuse content