Lori Anderson: A brush with racism in doll’s house

The gollie in the Wardie school mural - offensive or instructive? Picture: Ian Rutherford
The gollie in the Wardie school mural - offensive or instructive? Picture: Ian Rutherford
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GOOD Golly Miss Molly, do my eyes deceive me or is that a golliwog I see before me? The term golliwog may now be passé and replaced by the more politically correct “golly”, but although the long stripy doll remains a favourite for some, he is a bitter bone of contention for many.

There is, however, one point on which both sides can agree: Golly has been out causing trouble again. First, there was the controversy in September when a black poet, Lemn Sissay, who was a guest of the Wordplay Literature Festival in Shetland, visited the Magpies Nest, a shop whose window display was crammed with their bright smiles. He told the owner, Thelma Leask, 70, that he loved them and asked if she would take a photograph of him with the dolls, one of which he then bought but upon returning home he wrote a furious blog post about “the bitterness of an angry lost old Shetland lady” and her “racist” wares.

Earlier this week, a complaint was made to Police Scotland about a potential “hate crime” after a parent visited Wardie Primary School in Edinburgh and spotted a golliwog in the corner of a mural painted in 1936. The painting by RH Westwater features scenes from Alice in Wonderland across nine panels and was restored in 2011 with a £17,600 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. (Why Golly makes an appearance no one quite knows as he doesn’t appear in Lewis Carroll’s original book.) Margaret Rocha, who was considering the school for her son, complained that it was inappropriate image for a school hall and contacted both Edinburgh Council and the police. As she said: “It’s one thing if it was a museum piece or an exhibition where you might explain what a swastika was or a Ku Klux Klan outfit. It goes back to the American Black Sambo – the blacked-up face.”

A spokesman for Police Scotland said they were liaising with the education department and said: “Police Scotland treats all reports relating to hate incidents extremely seriously and will thoroughly investigate whenever a report of this nature is made.” I wish their statement had read: “We have no time for this. Noddy’s car’s been knocked.”

The golliwog was created in 1895 by the author Florence Upton for her book, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog and its image was based on minstrel dolls which were then popular. The actual doll was later sold to raise funds for a First World War ambulance and for years resided in Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence, before being moved to the Museum of Childhood in London.

The golliwog image was then procured in 1910 by Robertson’s for their marmalade jars which later triggered a badge-collecting craze amongst children (the company finally phased the character out in 2002). Enid Blyton, the children’s author, then weaved golliwogs into her Noddy stories, but not as a chum of Noddy and Big Ears but a troublesome villain who was the scourge of Toytown. In one sorry story, Noddy was battered and stripped by a gang of golliwogs. The golliwogs appeared in the books right up until 1987, when the publishers replaced them with goblins. Ever since, they have continued to cause trouble. Among the first nation to ban the golliwog as offensive was Nazi Germany, where they were deemed unsuitable for Aryan children.

In 1993 a Rastafarian council worker on an official visit to a child-minder’s home refused to issue a new child-minding certificate after he glimpsed a golliwog among her collection of vintage toys. The Working Group Against Racism in Children’s Resources stated in 2001 that the toy was “an offensive caricature embodying the mythical qualities often attributed to black people; superstition, large appetites, primitive simplicity and savagery”.

The argument against the golliwog is that he is an uncomfortable reminder of a time in history when to be black was to be considered naturally inferior, to be a dim-witted character of jest. A golliwog is a symbol of a less enlightened era. Black people can take offence, not at the doll, which is a piece of cloth and string, but at the history from which it springs.

It could be argued that Scots could take offence at a caricature of a Scotsman, if cast as a red-headed, freckled, hard-drinking,doll, but such a toy wouldn’t stem from a time when Scots could be bought and sold, whipped and branded, and considered less than human simply because of the colour of their skin. A golliwog isn’t a puppet but it certainly comes with strings attached, knots that tie it up with racism. A key part of the problem with gollies is the final syllable of their former name which was a racist epithet even during Florence Upton’s lifetime. As she herself said: “I am frightened when I read the fearsome etymology some deep, dark minds can see in his name.”

So should we ban such a doll? Of course not: it is for individuals to decide if they feel comfortable owning one or giving one to a child. As for his appearance in an 80-year-old painting, there will be those who see no good in a golly and would encourage the school to whitewash out this corner of history. I strongly disagree. While no-one would suggest painting a golly on a school wall today, it can certainly be used as teaching tool about how attitudes change over time.