The Sunday Telegraph
‘Retain and explain’ is a woke trap to rewrite history
Enid Blyton is the latest figure to see her monument saved, but her reputation trashed by heritage bodies
Growing up in postcolonial India in the 1950s, I was addicted to the novels of Enid Blyton, much to the disapproval of my father, who kept trying to direct me instead to Dickens. It never occurred to either of us to deem Blyton racist, sexist or xenophobic. She was a product of her era, and I loved the fact that her Famous Five were led by a tomboy girl.
Yet now Blyton has been denounced as not just racist by English Heritage, the charity ostensibly dedicated to safeguarding the country’s history, but as lacking in literary merit, too. And, perversely, this is the Government’s emerging policy towards protecting memorials working just as intended.
Under “retain and explain”, Blyton’s blue plaque will be kept but, in the online information English Heritage has assembled to explain her relevance, her reputation has been trashed.
The Government adopted “retain and explain” as a tactic to head off the demolition squads of Black Lives Matter. It makes sense, until one considers who’s doing the explaining. Most institutions have neither the will nor the expertise to hire in serious historians to explain the historical context around controversial figures. Instead, the task seems to devolve on inhouse staff who usually share the Left-wing prejudices of those who would prefer demolition.
One result is the retrospective shaming of Blyton. Other examples abound, including a statue of an apocryphal monkey, hanged in Hartlepool because it was mistaken for a Napoleonic spy, which a local body proposed should get a new plaque disowning any connection to unwanted immigrants. Last year, we saw the spectacle of the memorial to Lord Melville in Edinburgh given a plaque lamenting his leadership of the East India Company and alleging that he delayed the abolition of slavery, with no mention that he saw this as a strategy for ensuring that policy’s adoption. And who’s to say what satanic badge of shame awaits Cecil Rhodes, as Oriel College tries to placate Rhodes Must Fall campaigners.
A particularly egregious example is the Clive Collection at Powis Castle, which I’m researching for Restore Trust, the pressure group attempting to counter the surrender of our once august National Trust to the forces of wokedom. The Clive Collection is a fascinating introduction to the IndoBritish encounter, housed in a wonderfully designed gallery that echoes its Oriental splendours.
The artefacts were collected partly by Robert Clive, first Governor of Bengal, and later by his son, who served as governor of Madras. The collection ranges from weapons, portraits and furniture to a famous gold and ruby tiger finial from the throne of Tipu Sultan, last king of Mysore. Had they not been collected, conserved and so imaginatively displayed by the Clive family, it’s a near certainty that they would not have survived at home in India, where relics were commonly melted down or discarded as junk.
None of this gets a mention in the National Trust’s blurb, which describes the collection as having been looted. No mention that war booty was an entirely legal and widespread way of rewarding military victors across Europe and Asia until well into the 19th century.
Clive, a brilliant self-made man, given to bouts of depression, might have been a hero for our own times. Instead, he’s presented as an avaricious buccaneer who stole Bengal from its noble Mughal rulers. No mention either that Clive was persuaded by the nobles of Bengal to overthrow a dissolute ruler, Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah, notorious for his cruelty and hated by his own subjects.
What such examples show is the near-impossibility of explaining in short captions what are often complex and contested reputations. Public spaces belong to the public, the vast majority of whom have little appetite for seeing monuments defaced by sanctimonious disclaimers. While most of us would back the policy to retain, must we really suffer it being accompanied by simplistic health warnings similar to those on cigarette packs? By all means let’s also explain, but ensure those who do the explaining have the necessary expertise.