OPINION - Roald Dahl censorship is a disaster for our children

 (Daniel Hambury)
(Daniel Hambury)

SIR Salman Rushdie knows about upfront censorship: last year he was nearly killed by a man who said he disliked his views on Islam and he spent a decade in hiding after a fatwa from Iran.

He is, then, something of an expert on how writing is policed, so we should note his stand on the soft censorship of Roald Dahl by Puffin, the publishers of his children’s books. He called it “absurd” and said “Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed”.

Yes and yes. The more we scrutinise the changes by the sensitivity readers (employed by almost every publisher), the worse they look. It’s not just that Augustus Gloop is no longer “fat”, just “enormous”. The readers have removed the adjectives “black” and “white” — you can no longer be “white” with fear. They actively insert sentiments where they feel the author fell short: so where witches are described as bald beneath their wigs (a terrifying touch), they add, reassuringly, that there are other reasons why women might wear wigs and “there’s nothing wrong with that”. Thank you for that.

It’s amusing to think how fast Dahl would have found another publisher if he were around. But the problem is not just that there’s no end to it: if we’re making the Oompa-Loompas gender-neutral then why not take issue with this quasi-colonialist treatment of these harmless tinies who are brought as forced labour to Britain, eh?

The worse thing is that authors and publishers now internalise censorship before they even get to the sensitivity readers. I spoke to a distinguished children’s publisher recently who said that she didn’t use the readers but she was aware of the issues around race, disability, gender etc, so would guide authors to take account of these things. Censorship happens inside your head.

In the Sixties and Seventies Puffin had an editor of genius, Kaye Webb, who brought together an astonishing cast of authors, including Dahl, and snapped up the paperback rights to all the greats. She felt keenly her moral responsibility in forming tastes but she also knew that children wanted to be entertained. Story-telling mattered.

That was when the little Puffin on the spine of a book was something to lift the spirits, a guarantee that the book was worth reading. Now it represents a different spirit. Children’s loss, I’d say.