Roald Dahl: The first man down the memory hole

Kit Knightly

The first shocking censorship of 2023 dropped last week. As covered by CJ Hopkins in his most recent column, Roald Dahl’s publishers have hired a team of “sensitivity readers”, in order to edit the next edition of Dahl’s books to remove outdated language.

According to this piece in The New Statesman:

The changes range from the removal of outright racist stereotypes to the deletion of the word “fat”, gendered phrases (be it “chambermaid”, “females” or “hag”) and references to “pink” or “white” skin. In some cases, these are minor tweaks to one or two words in a sentence. Others are far more interventionist, including entire songs rewritten in James and the Giant Peach, or new sentences added in The Witches which explain that there are myriad reasons why people might wear wigs.

While that may read like a PC nightmare, it’s more insidious than that. This is not about being woke or unwoke, it’s about the normalisation of post hoc censorship that should concern everyone.

Some have described the edits as a natural by-product of capitalism.

It’s been noted that the edits come in the wake of the Dahl estate closing a huge deal with Netflix for exclusive rights to all of Dahl’s work. So some are framing this as Netflix seeking to protect their investment by making sure Dahl remains profitable in the age of cancel culture.

But even that is a simplification – after all, Netflix is more than just an entertainment company, they have noted political ties and have relentlessly pushed state-backed propaganda in the past.

Even the choice of Dahl as the man to lead a forlorn hope down the memory hole is carefully calculated. His known racist attitudes make him controversial enough that some will be hesitant to defend his work. While the fact he was a children’s author means anyone who does raise concerns can be dismissed with either indifference (“it’s just a kids books, it doesn’t matter”) or false-moralising (“we need to protect children!”).

He’s the perfect choice to be laid down on the wire.

And if they set a precedent that it’s now ok to go back and “revise language”…what’s next? who’s next? Dickens? Twain?

What about the news. That’s the big ticket item after all, right?

What words will no longer be acceptable next year? “Inside job”? “Guantanamo bay”?

What history will be deemed “offensive”? What facts will be “potentially harmful”?

We’ve already had a little taste of this with Covid, when the death rate of the 1918 Spanish Flu was suddenly revised down in February 2020, to literally physically impossible numbers, just to make covid appear more dangerous.

Mainstream precedents would allow this process to switch from small covert examples to much larger overt ones.

In other book-related news, this week it was widely reported, that the UK government’s anti- terror program, “PREVENT” had placed (among others) Shakespeare, Tolkien and George Orwell on their list of “key texts” that could “radicalise right-wing extremists”.

Somewhat ironically, this practice of retroactive censorship is a tactic straight out of 1984.

No wonder they don’t want us to read it. It doesn’t “create extremists”, but it does give away their plans.


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