The Editor’s Desk: Sixpence on the meter

Avoiding ‘fossilisation’ when it comes to literary works is a difficult task

Last week I wrote about Scholastic changing specific British references in the Harry Potter books to their American equivalents before the books were published in the States, and argued that this policy—presumably designed to make things easier for American readers—did those readers a disservice, by taking away an opportunity for them to learn a bit more about a different culture. And it’s not as if the Harry Potter books are the only example, as I found out firsthand a number of years ago.

When I was eight or so I discovered the Paddington Bear books by Michael Bond, and fell in love with them. Indeed, along with the Sherlock Holmes stories, the Paddington books shaped my view of England in general and London in particular for many years. It was through Paddington that I learned about such things as Guy Fawkes Day, the concept of morning tea (or “elevenses”), the London Underground, Christmas grottoes, street markets, and much more.

I kept all the books through the years, and in early in 2001, when my son was three, I decided to start reading them to him. Alas; at some point during one of my moves, the first book in the series, A Bear Called Paddington, had gone missing. I purchased a new copy, published in 1997, and one night started reading the first story aloud.

In it, Paddington is discovered by the Brown family, who invite him to come live with them at their home at 32 Windsor Gardens. After a stop at the buffet at Paddington Station, where Paddington gets thoroughly covered in cream and jam while eating a cake, the Browns hail a taxi, and are told gruffly by the driver that “Bears is extra … Sticky bears is twice as much again.” When the driver realizes that Paddington has accidentally smeared cream around the interior of the taxi, we are told that “Mr. Brown peered at the meter. He half expected to see a sign go up saying they had to pay another fifty pence.”

I read this passage aloud to my son, then stopped. Something wasn’t quite right about that “fifty pence”. I flipped to the front of the book, which confirmed that it had originally been published in 1958. However, in 1958 Britain had not yet converted its monetary system to decimalization, meaning no one would then have used the term “fifty pence”.

I could only assume that the money reference had been updated from the original—which reads “they had to pay another sixpence”, as I subsequently found—for modern audiences, which I found rather sad. One of the many charms of the Paddington series, for me, had been the window it opened into another world, and terms such as “sixpence” and “shillings” sounded much more exotic than our plain old dollars and cents.

I ended up writing a letter about it to the British publishing trade magazine The Bookseller, which published it. To my surprise, a couple of weeks later,I received a letter from Susan Bond, the wife of the book’s author, who had obviously read my letter.

“While I entirely agree that changes which underestimate a child’s understanding are irritating and even insulting, fossilisation is too,” she wrote. “My husband is alive and well and still writing new Paddington stories. That being the case I think it is quite legitimate to update such minor elements as amounts of money when the early books are reprinted so that they don’t conflict with the newly-published stories. In some respects this seems to be a no-win situation!”

Mrs. Bond makes a very good point about “fossilisation”, and I suspect she’s right when she says that it is a no-win situation. However, I note that when A Bear Called Paddington was reprinted as a Collins Modern Classic in 2001, Mr. Brown once again expects to see an extra sixpence on the taxi meter. I doubt that my letter had anything to do with it, but it’s nice to have it restored.

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