Are you a fan of Roald Dahl? Are you a teacher that reads his books to your classes of young children? Were you, yourself, brought up on his magic?
I was a fan, and I did for many years read his books to children on an almost daily basis.
Believe it or not, his popularity with children throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s was even more prominent than it is now. He is still selling millions of books every year – and he died thirty years ago! In fact, I think it was only J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter phenomenon that, from the late 1990s, distracted teachers and children away from the predominance of Roald Dahl as Britain’s pre-eminent storyteller of the modern age.
Now Roald Dahl’s family have posted a notice on his website (not very prominently apparently) apologising for anti-Semitic comments he made over thirty-three years ago.
Does knowing this make any difference to your opinion of him or indeed any artist or public figure who turns out not to be the paragon of virtue we perhaps naively thought they were?
Should we judge the personal morality of a writer, artist or public figure alongside their literary, artistic or public achievements? It’s an interesting question isn’t it?
It’s a question that has cropped up for me many times over the years (and not least with Roald Dahl, who I’ll come back to in a minute). For example, I’m a very big fan of Patrick O’Brian, the historical novelist of seafaring tales. I have read all his books and then turned to his biography. I discovered he had abandoned his wife and young disabled child to devote his life to writing. Should I stop reading him?
I was a very big fan of Eric Clapton and had many of his albums from his early days with the Yardbirds and Cream. Then in 1976 he made (an admittedly drunken) outburst at a gig in Birmingham declaring his support for Enoch Powell and that ‘we should get the wogs and the coons out’. Did I stop listening to him and buying his records?
I was a big admirer of Bill Clinton’s Presidency. There were unsubstantiated reports of his philandering before he was twice elected the 42nd President of the United States. There was no doubt about his affair with Monica Lewinsky however while he was President, or the way she was treated by him, or the humiliation of his wife after their affair became public. Did it change my view of Clinton and his political achievements?
It’s complicated. But to cut a long story short, the answer is ‘yes’ to all of those questions, at least in part. The same was true for Roald Dahl – indeed, even more emphatically. I learned about Roald Dahl’s views about Jews (and black people) while I was still reading his books to children – and never picked up one again.
But I’m not moralising here. As I said, it’s complicated and you will bring in a variety of ethical and moral justifications for your views whether pro or con, the examples I’ve cited.
I wouldn’t expect you to ‘ban’ Roald Dahl from your classroom. I’m against ‘banning’ things and ‘cancelling’ people – so you would find me supporting you if you made a case for separating your ethical justifications for reading him to children as a great storyteller (on the one hand); from your moral views about his character and his virtues as a person (on the other).
Life is complex. I think teachers and individuals should deal with complexity – not purity – and always be allowed to make those decisions for themselves without being told they 'must do this, that or the other' because it’s politically fashionable to do so. Does Roald Dahl's family really need to apologise for comments he made thirty years ago? That smacks of protecting his image and legacy to me, not apology.
Children should be allowed to listen to and read Roald’s Dahl’s stories as much as they want and then decide for themselves whether his anti-Semitic comments matter to them. Not to you, but to them.
Anti-Semitism and racism matters, of course it does. But we should always be allowed to judge for ourselves whether the comments and attitudes of others matters to us. The same goes for all the other writers, artists and public figures – the current heroes and heroines and those of our nation’s history too – whose public lives and achievements were often very different from their private morality and lack of virtue.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk.
You may be interested in his course in ‘The Foundations of Professionalism in Teaching’ – a 3-module course with over 4.5 hours of HD quality video presentations, additional course reading and materials, self assessment exercises and completion certificates.