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8 March 2023

From Roald Dahl to Ian Fleming, censorship is good for the book trade

Releasing bowdlerised books into a predictable storm of ridicule and then making the “classic texts” available is clever business.

By Andrew Marr

First Roald Dahl; now Ian Fleming. Censorship is not, it turns out, a simple matter. Both men had a very dark side. It isn’t only the sexist and racist language in the James Bond books but also, for example, a strong undercurrent of sadomasochism, which derived from Fleming’s own preferences. Removing individual words that jolt modern readers is a comparatively straightforward business. But there are pages in Casino Royale on Bond’s torture by Le Chiffre that read today like a BDSM text, much grimmer than anything you would expect to find in a modern thriller. Should they be cut?

The comparison with Dahl is a good one: the controversy around his children’s stories was as much to do with cruelty as with cultural “updating”. In each case, we should keep a cynical eye on the publishing trade. Releasing bowdlerised books into a predictable storm of ridicule and then announcing that the “classic texts” will be available as well is business-like.

Taking out words to make texts more accessible to today’s readers is commercial and reasonable. But the danger of censoring texts, thrillers or Shakespeare, is that in losing what scares or offends us, we lose old truths too – about our innate savagery, for instance, which never quite goes away. Liberalism advances by rejecting “old truths” as the signifiers of oppression, and yet a literature without shadows is useless.

What Dahl knew is that children are (or can be) beastly, vengeful and cruel. Childhood innocence? I’m reminded of the late great Adrian Mitchell’s poem about the playground, or as he called it “the killing ground”: “Well you get it for being Jewish/And you get it for being black/You get it for being chicken/And you get it for fighting back/You get it for being big and fat/ Get it for being small/Oh those who get it get it and get it/For any damn thing at all.”

[See also: The dark heart of Roald Dahl]

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Box-ticking and Bach

John Gilhooly, who runs London’s Wigmore Hall, has made a passionate plea for an expansion of musical education in a speech for the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards. But he also betrayed a worry about government-imposed reshaping of musical programming. “Too often policymakers today regard artists as ‘creatives’ who can be mobilised to fulfil the criteria imposed upon them. Artistic excellence is not something that we should be ashamed to champion. We should not have to think twice about saying that Bach, for instance, was a colossus… but in the current funding climate, statements like that seem to be less than welcome, or worse still, even irrelevant.”

This is an important warning. Gilhooly quoted the first chairman of the Arts Council, John Maynard Keynes, who said that the task of an official body “is not to teach or sensor, but to give courage, confidence and opportunity”. Some arts bodies may soon reject government funding to maintain artistic freedom.

[See also: The women classical music forgot]

It’s a royal sellout

There is an interesting kerfuffle developing over which rock and pop artists are going to perform for King Charles’s Coronation: Elton John, Adele, Ed Sheeran and Harry Styles are all out; Olly Murs and Tom Tallis are in. It’s a strange deal, these royal events, for popular performers. On the one hand you get a huge audience, a big stage, and the gratitude of the monarchy; on the other, since you appear to be part of the institution buying itself credibility, you seem a bit naff. It was subtly different during the Queen’s reign – who wants to say no to mother? Being King in the 2020s may mean endless cultural renegotiation.

Live streaming

As the huge American streaming services grapple for eyeballs and survival, Netflix has crossed another barrier. It’s going live. So far, the ability of traditional broadcasters to cover live events, from music and sport to politics, has been a kind of final defensive wall, which the slower-moving, high-budget streamers can’t breach. So Chris Rock: Selective Outrage on Netflix earlier this month, a live stand-up by the engaging American comedian, may make media history. Or not: will younger customers, accustomed to on-demand, ever again cluster around a telly for a particular moment?

Professional jealousy

And so to a book launch for a new thriller, The Spy Across the Water, by my former BBC colleague Jim Naughtie. He is already getting John le Carré comparisons. It contains, so far, no offensive language or unsettling sadomasochism, and is irritatingly good. I’ve published two novels and my wife’s dry verdict on the second after hearing a chortle over the keyboard was accurate enough to finish me off: “The trouble is, you had much more fun writing it than anyone’s ever had reading it.”

[See also: The myth of King Charles and the very modern monarchy]

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid