Thursday 9 July 2009

When children's books were two-and-sixpence

Over breakfast I am indulging myself by allowing to read a chapter or two of our old Paddington omnibus each day. When we were little, we had a story-tape of the book, and my most vivid memory from that is the voice of the taxi-driver in the very first chapter, when they are taking Paddington home for the first time. "Bears is sixpence extra. Sticky bears is ninepence." So imagine my disgust when, at work, I discover that they have modernised the currency or taken out all references altogether! The quote is now along the lines of, "Bears is extra. Sticky bears is twice as much again." Firstly, it sounds all wrong. It doesn't scan. Secondly it is inaccurate. Now, I know that when the currency was changed back when my parents were little, it was very confusing and people would talk about sixpence actually being two and a half new pence. But ninepence is not 200% of sixpence. It is 150%. Maths isn't my best subject, never was, but I know that much.

And I got to thinking of the tendency to update classic books, a practice that I find abhorent, unless it is necessary. For example, some old books contain careless, throwaway phrases that are nowadays unacceptable and offensive, and I think it is quite right to remove them. But unless that is the case I think books should be left as they were.

Enid Blyton is another author whose novels are updated. Sometimes, such as in modern editions of The Magic Faraway Tree and The Adventurous Four, even the characters' names are modernised, and in almost all her books the currency is changed from shillings and sixpences to pounds and fifty pences. I had a copy of The Naughtiest Girl Again where the childrens' weekly pocket money was 20p, instead of the original two shillings. Two shillings in old money was a sensible amount of pocket money for children of that age; in new money, 20p won't buy a packet of polos. There was a scene where four children were asked to pay for a broken window out of their combined 80p pocket money. Good luck to them!

But even when there is a decent exchange rate, it is rather insulting to the reader - and it gives the whole book a feeling of inconsistency. Enid Blyton's books are very much of their time, so to give them modern names, modern pocket money, modern clothing, etc, doesn't fit in with that (although I've a nasty suspicion even the slang has changed in some versions: "I say!" to "Wow!" One wonders where it will stop. Will future editions of the Famous Five replace their lashings of ginger beer and new-made bread with Coca-Cola and happy meals? Will things stop being "jolly good" and "horrid" and start being [unrepeatable]?)

Children aren't stupid - at least, they wouldn't be if adults didn't dumb their books down for them. They are quite capable of understanding that a shilling was the currency of the time the book was written, and what "smashing" means. I'm just glad that my copies of these books were, for the most part, untainted by modernisations - but I do wonder if I should buy second-hand copies now, for the benefit of my unborn children, in case they are no longer available in their original text if and when they come into the world.

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