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International Socialism, January 1978


Nigel Fountain

Colonising Our Minds


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 104, January 1978, pp. 24–25.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Catching Them Young 1: Sex, Race and Class in Children’s Fiction
Catching Them Young 2: Political Ideas in Children’s Fiction

by Bob Dixon
Pluto Press, £1.80 each

I brooded as I read Bob Dixon’s two volume work that ‘Biggles brought the butt of the automatic down on the German’s closely cropped head’ is a line at least as indelibly printed on my subconscious as ‘Workers of all lands unite’. I still have to resist the temptation to mentally shear contemporary Germans’ locks into the Prussian hair style of Captain W.E. John’s creation, Erich Von Stalhein. Which proves, I suppose, that the reading of my childhood made an impact that no subsequent books have ever exceeded.

‘It is often said that children prefer a “black and white world”, writes Dixon, ‘a world where heroes and villains, goodies and baddies are sharply distinguished from one another. I think it needs to be asked how much of this is promoted by adults.’ A hell of a lot, I suspect, but Muggins was a willing dupe in their ploys.

His book is in sections on sexism, class, racism, comics, empire and the supernatural. He awards a special section to that Queen of rotten writing, Enid Blyton, whom I had the good fortune to avoid throughout childhood. A great virtue of the book is how it surprised me. It was impossible not to react personally, to re-assess my own development as he patiently takes apart that cluster of ideas and reams that played such a part in my early reading. One problem was that I was frantically searching for what I had known, and that I was more interested in what was bad than the examples of what he suggest are good, or less bad. What I knew, and what was bad seemed largely the same.

If this was the case, I pondered, how come I wound up a socialist?

I liked G.A. Henty, nineteenth century specialist in appalling imperialist novels. I won a merit badge at the age of nine for an essay defending the Confederacy plagiarised from some Henty story of the American Civil War. A couple of years ago I read in the paper that ‘No-one who read Henty can ever quite forget it’. The man speaking was Colonel Colin ‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchell who led the British Army on their murdering missions into the Crater area of Aden in the late 1960s. Too bloody right, I thought.

‘In the long class struggle, Henty conducted a fictional offensive’, writes Dixon. He did indeed, but some of his followers, such as me, grew sickened by the blood, bored by the guts and defected. They also, apart from Mad Mitch and his pals, grew older.

The full corruption of that genre of writing, from Robinson Crusoe through to its final orgy of racism in Edgar Wallace’s Sanders of the River books is chillingly dissected by Dixon, as is the reaction in his survey of the self-image of black children. I too saw anew that horrific power that the British ruling class was endowed with, and how the residual slime has clung to the fragments of that dead empire that now follow Callaghan’s satellite in orbit around Washington.

In the category of sexism – by the time Dixon has dealt with books like What Katy Did another bell tinkled in my memory. I have never read the book – or Little Women but somehow it seemed familiar. Of course, men may have missed the keyworks of female juvenile literature, but many of us, including me, have read The Story of O ...

Women receive this ideology of rebellion, masochism and submission in their infancy, as a suitable training for their adult role. Men are conditioned for dominance in their childhood and are rewarded with the female half of the equation – in the guise of pornography – in adolescence and adulthood.

When he turned to class my main concern was to salvage something from the wreckage. In some ways – I found him unduly harsh. The ideology of our rulers being the dominant ideology, I was anxious to grab what scraps I could from the table. While Dixon correctly sees Geoffrey Trease as a tainted and failed progressive I cling to his books. His novels on the English Civil War first awoke me to the idea that the Cavaliers were not after all the goodies. Of the Edwardian Fabian children’s writer E. Nesbit he writes that ‘It’s rather surprising that her undoubted political awareness doesn’t show in her novels for children’.

I think it does. She deals continuously with groups of middle class children cast out of their ‘rightful’ place in the social universe (a classic Fabian vision). It gave an outline of Edwardian life, seen from its periphery, and sometimes, as in a vision of the future where children cried because they couldn’t go to school, it hit home. It may not have been much, but when you were a miserable ten year old it verged on Bolshevism, had I heard of such a thing.

The last chapter of the book The Supernatural first traces the development of religious themes within fiction and culminates with the work of modern fantasy writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula le Guin and C.S. Lewis. ‘The older tract writers would have located evil more consistently in the poor no doubt, but neither they nor the present group of writers have found evil in the people who maintain and manipulate our economic system and benefit from it,’ Dixon comments.

They probably don’t. Nor particularly did Freud, but this does not invalidate his works. The world of fantasy mirrors the world of psychology as an area which socialists have difficulty in comprehending – or using – and Dixon takes an easy course.

He settles into the theme of the equation of ‘darkness’ with evil and the polarity that the writers draw between the absolutes of ‘bad’ and ‘good’. Now most of his targets, such as Richard Adams, Alan Garner, Madeleine l’Engle (of whom I have heard nothing, and wish to hear no more) are worthy sitting ducks, but I have strong reservations about his categorisation of the absolutes, and about C.S. Lewis and Ursula.

Fantasy can either be an entry into a semi-permanent residency in Middle Earth, from whence many a bleary eyed Bilbo Baggins is still emerging into the cold light of a Notting Hill dole queue, or it can be an illumination of the transitoriness of this particular system. I would summon John Milton and William Blake to my side.

Fantasy does not have to catapult us to that land of stoned pixies, but can give us entry into our heads, already partially colonised by capitalism. Fantasy can inspire, scare, make us aware of the magic that is unknown and inexplicable – potential within human beings.

I read C.S. Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ books as a child. Curiously neither I, or many other people who I have since spoken to realised that they were Christian allegories, a fact that sticks out like a crooked crucifix with hindsight. I did notice – and object to – the cruder aspects of Lewis’s class bias which detracted from the books. I enjoyed them for the excitement and differentness of that world, and for the more intellectual structure behind them.

I began to gain insights into how people thought, how things could change – quite the opposite doubtless to what Lewis wanted – and not the ones that Bob Dixon or any other adults would have noticed but crucial to me. I began to get a method out of Lewis’s madness.

Would indeed that there were a socialist that could do this. Dixon’s final favourable reference to a book called Twopence a Tub, which apparently exposes the fakery of nineteenth century methodism, is a very red herring.

The case of Ursula le Guin is curious. I read her Earthsea Trilogy of children’s novels recently, soon after her adult science fiction work The Dispossessed, which must be one of the few good modern anarcho-socialist novels. That book doubtless coloured my views of the trilogy, but if I am to be honest I enjoyed Earthsea more.

In his lumping of the trilogy with the other books I think that Dixon is quite wrong. Its distinctive feature is that the evil that le Guin deals with stems from the protagonists, and is dealt with by them. It does not drag in some dog eared deity or magic rabbit. It is a world of wizards and kings, but also a place of ‘ordinary’ people, which include the wizards.

Bob Dixon’s book is fascinating, and a brave foray into a huge and hostile area. He has set up camp – useful if others could follow.

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