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Back to the 1960s with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang


chitty-chittyI’m currently reading Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to my six-year-old daughter. I can’t even begin to count the many times I have watched the movie version. In the UK, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Sound of Music and The Great Escape are always shown on the TV during the Christmas holidays and people are happy to watch them again and again and again.

I can say that Fleming is no great children’s writer with clunky copy throughout – it’s actually quite tough to read out loud. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was also published in 1964 and last night it showed – I was reading away when I spotted the next sentence contained the word ‘Golliwog’ used as an insult by one of the characters. (Context – we’re a white family from England.) I hesitated and wondered whether I should read all the text. I knew it was a word that my daughter will have never encountered so I skipped ahead and resumed reading.

Afterwards, I wondered whether I had done the right thing – after all the book is 45 years old and written by an old school author cloaked in the last remnants of British colonialism. Trying to explain racism to a six-year-old would not be easy and I’d rather try that one in a couple of years when she becomes more aware of the grim realities of the world.

As a child, I attended a middle school in a rural area and there was one black kid in the entire school. I remember that the word ‘golliwog’ was a frequent insult in our playground in the late 1970s. I even heard it in television sitcoms. It was only a few years since the end of The Black and White Minstrels show. Things have changed but I have always believed it’s important to consider the period when a book was a written (eg To Kill A Mockingbird) or a movie (eg The Wild One with Marlon Brando) was made.

I have managed to explain death, wars, theft and bad people who hang around parks to my daughter. The word ‘golliwog’ is going to have to wait.

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Richard Davies