Hot on the heels of the Roald Dahl débâcle, I see from the front page of the Sunday Telegraph that the James Bond books have been edited to remove racist references.  All fourteen spy thrillers are being reissued in April to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the publication of the first, Casino Royale.  Apparently the alterations followed a review by “sensitivity readers”.  I suppose this must refer to a group of people who have gone through the texts with a fine-tooth comb looking for offensive words, phrases, or extracts that need to be expunged.  I seem to recall that Syme, a character in Orwell’s 1984, was similarly entasked.  He too, like the text he worked on, was disappeared. 

Apparently not all disparaging racist remarks have gone.  Bond has remained critical of Oddjob, Goldfinger’s Korean man servant.  Was he North Korean or South Korean?  Perhaps some ethnic groups are still fair game.  And sexist and homophobic remarks have been allowed to remain.  So the main focus of attention is on Afro-Caribbean peoples.   When I read that an entire chunk of dialogue, a conversation in Harlem between a black man and his girl faithfully and phonetically reproduced, had been expunged from Live and Let Die, I got out my second impression (1954), and refreshed my memory.  Bond and his friend Felix Leiter sit in a booth in a diner in Harlem and eavesdrop, rather after the fashion of Professor Higgins studying the speech patterns of cockney flower girls in London’s east end.  It struck me that both Fleming and Bond are rather complimentary to the couple in the next booth.  Just for the record, I don’t think Bond was a racist.  He got along just fine with his friend Quarrel, a Cayman islander, in Dr No, and with Fidele Barbey, from the Seychelles, in The Hildebrand Rarity.  Despite the fact that, like his creator, he was an Old Etonian, he wasn’t even a snob.     

I can well imagine there will be a backlash.  Actually two backlashes.  Some people will say, “Enough of this woke nonsense!”  Others will say, “If black people are not to be disparaged, then what about women?  Why has the tang of rape been allowed to remain sweet?  And what about the LGBTQI community?  You haven’t gone nearly far enough!”  Then Ian Fleming Publications will be in a real pickle.

The Enid Blyton canon is undergoing a similar revision.

Is censorship of Ian Fleming’s canon “political correctness gone mad”?  I myself avoid this expression, along with “woke nonsense”.  In my experience they are usually employed by people who occupy positions of power.  In order to figure out whether a remark is hurtful, vicious, and damaging, you need to try to put yourself into the shoes of the person at the receiving end, the butt of the joke, the victim of the barb. 

In 2004, When Boris Johnson was editor of the Spectator, he published a poem by James Michie entitled Friendly Fire, calling for the extermination of Scottish people, who were “polluting our stock”.  The poem is said to be satirical.  It presents a caricature of the Scottish nation as wee, chippy, provocatively foreign, and a drain on the economy.  The poem advocates the refortification of Hadrian’s Wall, and the formation of a ghetto on its northern side.  But James Michie would go further:

The nation

Deserves not merely isolation

But comprehensive extermination.

We must not flinch from a solution.

(I await legal prosecution.)    

Maureen Fraser, then director of the Commission for Racial Equality in Scotland, condemned the poem as very offensive, and deeply inflammatory.  She found some of the language to be completely and utterly unacceptable.  The SNP MP Ian Blackford raised the issue in the House of Commons.  Some people thought his outrage was of the “faux” variety.  Humbug.  He was advised to lighten up.  It’s only a bit of banter.  And it is self-evidently a terrible poem, written in the style of William Topaz McGonagall.  The clue is in the title.  The “fire” is “friendly”. 

Of course, a friend’s ammunition is just as lethal as an enemy’s.  And more dangerous.  As was discovered in the Vietnam War, not all incidents of friendly fire are purely accidental.  You don’t expect to be shot in the back.      

“Just a bit of banter” is, like “woke nonsense”, another expression to be avoided.  All these references to sandy hair, knobbly knees, kilt, skean-dhu, sporran, and the Free Kirk (of which Kate Forbes is a member) – they are all clearly light-hearted and jocular.  And the last line with its acknowledgement that the poet is sailing close to the wind is evidently a disclaimer, a literary volte-face or palinode, a get-out-of-jail-free card.  The Jocks will take it all in good part.  

On the other hand, there is clearly a conscious and deliberate deployment of language that has a long and dark history – verminous race, polluting our stock, offensively foreign, ghetto, extermination, solution.      

The final solution.  You see what is being evoked.  I wonder if the editor of the Spectator had any idea that the Gaelic nation that was being lampooned had indeed, in the proscription of the tartan, the Gaelic language, and in the Highland Clearances, been subjected to a final solution.

Following the furore, the Spectator removed Friendly Fire from its website. 

I wish they hadn’t.  I would prefer the purveyors of friendly fire to remain in full view, out in the open, shooting themselves in the foot.  I wonder whether the Spectator removed Friendly Fire because they were persuaded it was in bad taste, or because they felt it was causing the organ reputational damage.  They might have said, “We fouled up.  This is not who we are.”  Removing a scurrilous article is a bit like the establishment stripping a disgraced individual of his knighthood, not because the individual is a cad and a bounder, but because the perpetuation of his gong tarnishes the establishment’s sheen.  That person is not a knight.  He was never a knight.  Like Dreyfus, his epaulettes are ceremonially ripped from his shoulders. 

No.  Let history remain to be seen, unmodified, as it happened.  Don’t obliterate it with a blue pencil.  Just write “stet”.  And don’t offer up an apologia.  You know the sort of thing: This language which seems entirely unacceptable to us, was commonplace in its day and reflected societal views widely held at the time.  Duh.  Freedom to critique is the reciprocal of freedom of expression and should not be micromanaged by any self-appointed arbiters of taste.  One of the most basic freedoms to be cherished, perhaps the most basic, is the right we each have as individuals to make up our own minds. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s