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‘The Roald Dahl Affair is a Lesson in the Culture War of Nostalgia’

If voters can’t be scared by the threat of the ‘woke left’ devaluing their house – they might be scared by it devaluing their childhood, writes Graham Williamson 

The character of Augustus Gloop in Tim Burton’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ (2005). Photo: United Archives GmbH/Alamy

The Roald Dahl Affair is a Lesson in the Culture War of Nostalgia

If voters can’t be scared by the threat of the ‘woke left’ devaluing their house – they might be scared by it devaluing their childhood, writes Graham Williamson 

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In 2024, it will be 15 years since the Telegraph published its bombshell story about the MPs’ expenses. This year, its investigative team has been… reading children’s novels. 

The news that Puffin has altered discriminatory language in Roald Dahl’s children’s books is less significant in every way imaginable, though it has drawn a response from Downing Street, assuring us that “the Prime Minister agrees with the BFG that we shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words”. (The joke of the passage quoted, which is intended to be understood by children, is that the BFG is, in fact, using words extremely carelessly and imprecisely). 

Just because the political right are exercised by the changes to Dahl’s books doesn’t mean the left should support them. As Sian Norris has pointed out in these pages, many of the changes don’t even work on their own terms, while Mic Wright has made the case in his newsletter that, rather than being imposed by some nebulous ‘woke’ conspiracy, the alterations are the inevitable result of modern capitalism’s tendency to regard art as ‘content’ to be optimised for better market performance.

The irony is, this coldly market-driven approach to art is one the right normally champions. Arts funding is always the first to be slashed in our now-regular bouts of austerity. Schools are being told to junk their humanities departments in favour of STEM, while ‘luvvies’ and ‘academics’ regularly feature in the Conservative press’ demonologies. 

If you had to guess the Conservative reaction to the Dahl story based on the above, you might assume it would resemble the reaction to that clumsy visitor who recently destroyed a £34,000 Jeff Koons sculpture: amusement, with an unspoken subtext that those silly artists had it coming for doing something so frivolous, rather than a real, important, job like currency speculation. Yet this hasn’t been the case.

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Bel Mooney in the Daily Mail absurdly declared that “this issue affects all of us” – unlike, say, food poverty, which the Times‘ Thunderer mocked in a spectacularly unfunny woke Peter Rabbit skit later in the week. Elsewhere in The Times, Camilla Long denounced “civilisation ebbing away… the forces of evil posing as good”. 

Long was once infamous for a review of the Oscar-winning film Moonlight, which dismissed the film as “relevant to whom? Certainly not the audience. Most will be straight, white, middle-class”. Unlike the protagonist of Moonlight, Long is not a gay black working-class boy. Equally, she’s not an obese German child stuck in a chocolate factory pipeline, but the plight of Augustus Gloop has got her emoting about the goodness of art in terms too gushy for a BAFTA acceptance speech. 

Obviously if these outpourings were married to any self-examination – if people on the right really were realising that, actually, there is something sacrosanct about art and it should be protected from the crudest elements of marketisation – it would be something to celebrate. But it’s not. It’s happening because Dahl represents childhood, and childhood has a key utility in ‘culture war’ rhetoric.

It builds on an existing trope of cultural conservatism, which taps into most people’s feelings about childhood as a happy time – then performs a sleight of hand: if your childhood was a happy time, that’s because the past was a happy time.

Parliamentary Conservatives remember the 1970s as a near dystopian wasteland of strikes and power cuts. Cultural conservatives will tell you the decade was all about skinned knees and jam sandwiches. 

This rhetoric has increased as nostalgia has become more of a central cultural force. Both of 2022’s biggest films were faithful follow-ups to movies released more than a decade ago – proving that, in the streaming age, the past is never past. As the nostalgia industry encourages us to wallow more and more in our adolescent tastes, we come to resent change. 

Consider the Golliwog. Enid Blyton’s Noddy books once contained a thriving underworld of Golliwogs, crude racist caricatures who did things like stripping Noddy naked and stealing his car. That incident, in Noddy and the Dark Wood, was altered for a 1986 reprint, though in right-wing Facebook groups the injustice still rankles: many challenge their readers to be ‘brave’ enough to repost pictures of Golliwogs. 

The usual refrain is that it’s ‘just a toy’. Maybe it is. But is it normal for adults to be this invested in their childhood teddy?

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I have no idea whether the toys I had as a child are still produced – because I’m nearly 40. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, thought as a child, reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.

The right is betting on nostalgia because the traditional mechanism for producing Conservative voters has broken down. Previously, people naturally drifted to the right after getting a home and a steady job, but fewer and fewer under-50s can manage either, and the Conservatives are showing the damage whenever this cohort is polled. If voters can’t be scared into the fold by the threat of Labour devaluing their house, they might be scared by Labour devaluing their childhood. 

Anyone who grew up with geeky interests will have seen the seeds of this – some story from your childhood will be remade in line with modern kids’ sensibilities and everyone will cry en masse that the producers have ‘raped their childhood’. The metaphorical use of rape, familiar from far-right discourse around immigration, should explain how this has become such a useful bridge for right-wingers.

YouTube is dense with bearded 30-something men explaining the wokeist conspiracy behind each instance of race-blind casting. It is the one successful piece of right-wing outreach to the young.

The Dahl storm resembles a successful exercise in vertical integration. The pressures of the content economy makes publishers alter their books to be more marketable, and their other media holdings then make money being outraged at it. It’s a closed loop of empty rage and, like the nostalgia industry in general, it will never ever produce anything new or relevant. Leave it in the past.

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