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Reading Enid Blyton’s books isn’t the same as putting her on a coin. I’m not a snowflake for knowing that

We needn’t censor art, whatever your views on its quality, but where’s the damage in caveating the person behind the art or questioning how we celebrate them?

Harriet Hall
Wednesday 28 August 2019 18:35 BST
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Richard Madeley: 'To call Enid Blyton homophobic is ridiculous'

Increasingly, people on the right seem to think their sharpest weapon against liberals is to slander them with incongruous slurs that they are “too PC”, that they are “snowflakes” or even “overzealously woke”. You know your arguments are running dry when you try to insult people by claiming they’re too considerate of others. That sort of low-level abuse wouldn’t even pass in a schoolyard.

But here we are again. Within seconds of the news breaking that The Royal Mint has halted plans to commemorate 50 years since Enid Blyton’s death on a 50p coin, shouts of “Zealot!” reverberated across Twitter.

Minutes obtained via a freedom of information request by the Mail on Sunday found the advisory committee was concerned “over the backlash that may result” from the Noddy creator’s likeness appearing on coins, given that she “is known to have been a racist, sexist, homophobe and not a very well-regarded writer”.

Many of us grew up with Blyton’s books; with Noddy in his little red and yellow car, with the adventures of The Famous Five and The Secret Seven. Her books have been translated into 90 languages and she is one of the bestselling authors in history, ahead of JK Rowling. She was voted the nation’s most beloved author at the 2008 Costa Book Awards.

All this is immaterial when it comes to engraving the writer’s likeness on a 50p coin. A decision not to include Blyton doesn’t reject this impressive contribution, censor her writing or erase her from history.

Not all art translates seamlessly to reflect society’s developing values – and much has been done to change that. The criminal golliwogs in Noddy were changed to become goblins before I began consuming the books as a child. Agatha Christie’s Ten Little N****** was changed to become And Then There Were None. Removing damaging racist stereotypes from these works didn’t take away from the story. The racism was peripheral to the plot: entirely unnecessary. There’s education in knowing that.

Many argue that Blyton was simply “from another time” and we should just get over it. But this sort of take doesn’t stand up when Macmillan publishers rejected one of her manuscripts in 1960 due to xenophobia, and her 1966 book about an “ugly black doll” whose colour ran in the rain to reveal pink skin was called out as racist by newspapers at the time, as author Matt Haig pointed out on Twitter.

It’s a useful process to go through the motions of questioning those we hold in high esteem. Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is highly antisemitic, as is Dickens’ portrayal of the petty thief Fagin in Oliver Twist.

When I wrote my book She: A Celebration of 100 Renegade Women, I found the lives of many celebrated women to be less than inspiring. Was someone who had done one ostensibly great thing redeemed for their more insalubrious beliefs simply because of that contribution? I didn’t think so.

As a result, I rejected the inclusion of birth-control pioneer Marie Stopes on the grounds of her desire to use her methods in her quest for eugenics; I did the same with Margaret Sanger. I omitted Mother Theresa given the valid criticism that surrounds her.

But it was my choice as an author to make these calls to provide what I felt was a well-rounded and diverse list of women. The Royal Mint requires impartiality which the inclusion of Blyton cannot allow for.

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Indiscriminate nostalgia shouldn’t stop us jettisoning the unsavoury icons of our past; it shouldn’t prevent us from caveating work by the likes of Picasso, Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling and others. Blyton’s views should head to the history books alongside theirs. But her work doesn’t have to.

This isn’t about trashing the legacy of a brilliant children’s author. For The Royal Mint to have suggested she was anything but a talented writer was a cheap shot. The BBC snobbishly censored Blyton, banning her from the airwaves for the best part of three decades because her works “haven’t much literary value”.

Blyton’s books will continue to be read for generations to come. The tales are classics; the prejudices that she included – against gay people, people of colour, and indeed even women – should be removed. There is still value in her art. Should we venerate Blyton as a person, however? Putting her face on a coin would indicate tacit acceptance of the views found in some of her work in a way that altering but continuing to read her books doesn’t. We can’t pretend that such figures don’t exist when their values clash with ours: that would be historically dishonest. We can, however, draw the line at venerating those who espoused ideologies that actively oppressed others.

We needn’t censor art, but where’s the damage in caveating the person behind the art and questioning how we celebrate them – if, indeed, we really should? If we don’t interrogate our icons, have we really learned anything at all?

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