Should they have done away with Dick and Fannie?

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So, I am reading ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’ by Enid Blyton to my little boy- well, the first one in the series- ‘The Enchanted Wood’ and he loves it. It’s great, old-fashioned fun and he’s as hooked as I was when I read it as a child. It has allowed me to happily revisit this childhood favourite, but it’s funny how it changes when I read it through, my now adult, eyes…there is new danger… reading of children who wander around the woods all day long, alone for hours, unaccompanied and taking huge risks, that I cared nothing for as a girl, in fact, the lack of adult supervision was thrilling then and i’m sure it’s part of what my son delights in now.  He’s wiser than I was, he’s dubious about the authenticity of magic: brownies, pixies and fairy-folk are less plausible for him.  I was far more hopeful (gullible).  Then there’s the names…I have to admit i’m torn here.  Do I read him the old ones or the new versions?

In case you’re not aware, Enid Blyton’s texts had characters named Jo, Bessie and Fannie; their cousin Dick comes to stay later. The publishers, in their wisdom, have brought out newer versions.  Joe, Beth, Frannie and Rick.  Yes, I kid you not. Rick.  I felt this was a poor alternative and a bit laughable really, if they were going to change them, they should have just departed fully from the originals- as the rhyming alternative only seems more farcical.

I admit, I was vaguely aware of the double meaning of some of the names as a girl and thought it odd that the author used them, but it certainly didn’t bother me for long, and I became engrossed in the adventures of these children and desperate to know what would happen to them next.  Indeed, the names became meaningless to me.  As Shakespeare so famously questioned, through his heroine, Juliet, ‘what’s in a name?’

I grant you, names, nouns, words, lexis, whatever you want to term all these things we utter-they are ‘signifiers’ of other things- and so are very important. The editors of Enid Blyton’s stories clearly believe that it matters enough to edit them out -but I take issue with some changes. The change from ‘Bessie’ to ‘Beth’ is said to be because they felt ‘Bessie’ too old-fashioned and ‘Dame Slap’ has become ‘Dame Snap’, as corporal punishment has been edited out of the books entirely, in addition, some of the sexism in the original books has been omitted.  Surely this is going a bit far?  I mean they showed little foresight in changing ‘Bessie’ to ‘Beth’ for a start, as ‘Bessie’ and many other ‘old-fashioned’ names have made a fierce comeback recently.  Registers are being loaded up with Arthurs, Alfreds, Betsys and Florences.  I mean, yes, I see that it is harder when said names become aligned with genitalia- and this isn’t desirable for a child’s book on the whole is it? But, i’m fully prepared for the fact that language will change in my lifetime and that even my humble moniker could become synonymous with someones’ nether regions eventually -as regrettable as that may be. I’m fully accepting that people may blush at the thought of an ‘Anita’ and I asked my husband how he’d feel if his name morphed into a rude word, and he wasn’t particularly bothered, saying he knew a Dick at uni and he got on fine.  I didn’t ask anymore.

It is unfortunate when times change and words take on new, unfavourable meanings- but surely we shouldn’t change the names and words of a much-loved author just because they are outdated?  These pieces of work reflect the history and cultural norms of the time in which they were written. They are a snapshot.  Our kids are going to read many texts throughout their school careers written in ‘outdated’ English and- particularly under the present government- many by old, white, british, men before the 20th century and so will undoubtedly be met with various examples of gender discrimination and many words and names that reflect the time in which they were written.  I know as an English teacher this is all part of the learning – to give them this insight into the way the authors wrote and lived ‘then’.  What next?  Are we going to edit Shakespeare’s insults out of all his plays because they offend or distract?  Is Macbeth too Scottish?  Are we going to take the sexism out of the social commentaries of Bronte or Austen?  It would be an editing and censorship nightmare. There are loads of Fannies in Austen.

Language can offend people it’s true- but I struggle with this a bit.  I acknowledge that words can be hurtful, damaging or cruel and I don’t comply with the notion that we’ve become too politically correct, I don’t think we can ever be too politically correct, in the true sense of the term. It is absolutely right that we should be respectful of peoples’ race, religion and gender and mind carefully how we refer to them.  At times though, words are also just that.  They can be made into crosswords, puns and anagrams. They are playful, silly and interesting and don’t need to be taken too seriously.

It’s a difficult thing when we put our adult perceptions on books meant for children, it warps it.  I mean, give kids credit, they may laugh, snigger and guffaw at first, especially on lines like, ‘Dick gets up to mischief’,  but honestly, I remember wading through those wonderful stories oblivious to anything but the wonder of Moonface’s slippery-slip and Silky’s pop biscuits. No double meanings there I might add.  I was truly enchanted by the fairy-folk; lands at the top of the tree; gripped by the danger and desperate for the next chapter.

There’s a film coming out.  Maybe they knew this would not translate as well to the screen and they may well be right, we don’t want to distract from the stories, but I think editing of any author is a contentious issue.  Where do we draw the line?

I’m reading the old editions to my son, mainly because we had those copies in the house and, being five, he is beautifully innocent and has no idea as to the connotations of those names.  I don’t feel an edit is required for us, although this might come back to bite me one day when he exclaims, ‘Dick!’ to the poor teacher seeking a character’s name suggestion from the class and gets a royal telling off or he might be scarred for life by my reading him a story of a very greedy Fannie… but I can’t see it.  Honestly, they are just names, and whilst we wriggle and squirm and become uncomfortable at the sheer mention of them, it was Enid Blyton’s wonderful imagination that was the heart of those stories and it is timeless. I am sure she wouldn’t mind them changing her characters’ names if it meant more children would enjoy her stories but I should also imagine she’d think it was quite silly.

The sexism…well that’s trickier.  I mean, it is grating when Jo is told to do boys’ work in the garden and the girls do some ‘easier’ jobs for their mother, but, once again we are merely reminded of a less enlightened time and surely this is a springboard for discussion with our children?  I’ll balance it out for my kids at some point with some cool, graphic novel about female ninjas i’m sure.  I don’t want to damage young minds or offend, but I think facing these language idiosyncrasies head-on is more favourable to a cover-up job.  I seem to recall that the Nazis heavily edited books that didn’t comply with their philosophies.

So, resolved not to be a language Nazi, and allowing common sense to prevail, I shall wistfully continue reading the beautiful stories of picnics and pixies with my son and enjoy the magic and charm of a bygone era.  Indeed, I must go, Dick just ran into Fannie in the woods. 😉

xxxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxx

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Never underestimate a ‘whim’, speed-dating rabbits or lollipop ladies…

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a rabbit in possession of a hutch to himself must be in want of a mate. image

My childrens’ rabbits are feuding and it’s our own fault. They were bought on a mood-lifting ‘whim’ to help ease the misery that weeks of chicken pox -and subsequent infections -bestowed on us.

We are into ‘whims’. We got married quite quickly; had babies rather quickly and are now going around populating our garage with furry creatures -quite quickly.  I think to survive the melancholy of life, sometimes, you just have to do things on a ‘whim’.

When I was younger, before courts hauled parents over the coals for keeping children off school and publicly disgraced them for sneaking off to Minorca, we used to have the odd ‘stolen’ day. Now, my mother valued education, she ended up with children who have all studied and two ended up teaching, but, she knew the value of ‘whims’.  We used to wake up bleary-eyed, heads hanging and expecting the usual: uniformed, bag-packed, walk of death to school, when, she’d suddenly say, “we are not going today”.  The shock would ripple. “What do you mean?!” elated voices would implore. “We are going to have a stolen day”, came the blasé reply. Oh did I love it.  We’d go to the zoo or somewhere special and relish every minute of it because we ‘knew’ it was stolen.  Like someone else’s chips- it was so much better. Now, don’t go trying it and blaming me if your kids nag you for more; become school refusers and shop you for it.  I’m not advocating it as a parenting choice, i’m just pointing out that ‘whims’ can be beautifully refreshing- and memorable!

‘Whims’ also get things neatly into perspective as an adult.  When you really feel ‘that’ person’s opinion matters sooooo much, or, you absolutely ‘have’ to do this thing or that, ‘whims’ can come along and blast that out of the water.  It is a bit of a finger-up to the rules, but, history is littered with those who have broken the rules and it has served them very well on occasion.  This is coming from a teacher – a mouthpiece for the rules.

I don’t believe in breaking rules for the sake of it, or deliberately hurting others in the process, but, I do think some rules are self-imposed or can become out of balance with our purpose here on earth.  “Whims” have an important job.  They can make you remember that it is o.k not to care what others think, when they get too important, or to relax a family home a little after weeks of telling yourselves, we need to ‘do’ life better.  Really?  Do we need to ‘do’ life better? A ‘whim’ is needed when we think we could have a better way of approaching the washing, shopping, bill-paying, work-life balancing, card-buying, homework organising, DIY ing and many more verbs that I don’t want to think of…i’d rather this go off on a whim…

So, the rabbits, we were told, were communal creatures who needed a furry friend. Right. So the two rabbits that bite each other at every opportunity (I won’t go into the explicit nature of the last attack) are meant to be together? I spoke to a rabbit expert. She claims they can be matched up with more appropriate partners… ?!?! Apparently, like us, some bond instantly, literally love at first sight; others do a bit of jostling and chasing then fall in love, slowly, then others hate on sight and will probably never bond and she wouldn’t risk trying to match them up. My only option…rabbit speed-dating apparently. I kid you not. This woman does it for a living.

It got me a thinking though about how some people gel and some don’t. I can suffer from a mild social paranoia – I think we all suffer from it at times, for me, like a cold, it is mild and it comes and goes. I mainly get it when I go into new situations where the stakes are high- like when my son started school. This is a tricky time.  You don’t want to alienate a whole group of people you are going to be seeing off and on for the the next decade potentially.  This is on top of the general parental angst around this time-am I doing things right? Am I too scruffy to go to the school like this? Should I wear hot pants at the nativity? (Only joking!) You can’t worry about everything -you just have to keep it all in perspective.

The problem is, like a cold, it resurfaces , like the time I had fallen asleep and woken very late and had to run to the school with a pillow mark and hair that looked like I had auditioned for ‘The Supremes’. My daughter chose this moment to let me know she is two and threw a tantrum of such epic proportions that an entire playground of parents and staff stopped to have a good-old gander.  Then -on a ‘whim’ – a lovely woman I had never met placed her hand on my back and simply said, “we’ve all been there”.  I felt my shoulders drop and I smiled it out.  Thanks to that woman, I gained a teensy bit of perspective when I needed it.  You see at the end of it all I am not going to wonder if I should have worried more am I?  I mean, yes, I may turn up looking like a call-girl at the school gates on occasion because I let my two year old do my make-up or a bag lady that forgot her bird-feed because I haven’t slept properly all week- and can’t be bothered to sort the pile of clothes on my bedroom floor- but it won’t matter in the grand scheme of things.  I believe in a grand scheme and I believe in ‘whims’.  They’ve worked out well for me. Really, people, especially parents, just need others to be in community -not competition-with and we all really, really need whims!

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Not the real lollipop lady.

The lollipop lady though – now she really hates me. She’ll meet every eye, smile warmly to every parent and child, but when she sees me it’s all she can do to hold a grimace. I rub her up the wrong way. All I say is “good morning” and “thank you”- I swear- nothing else has ever left my lips-but still she avoids eye-contact and smiles sweetly at the next mother or father or child. One day I tried to ignore her; perhaps I was too keen, maybe I smacked of desperation for lollipop lady love. It didn’t work. Lollipop ladies don’t like playing hard to get. I am living with this.  I mean she smiles at my kids and that is who she is there for- I don’t need to jump on their bandwagon. I have concluded, I won’t always be accepted, not everyone will like me and some will dislike me for no reason on sight, as with rabbits, this is nature and it is ok. As long as there are ‘whims’ floating about I will be just fine. xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx