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101 Years of Roald Dahl

September 13, 2016


Of course Roald Dahl affected me.  He affected us all.   It so happens he was born 101 years ago today, born in Wales to Norwegian parents.  Brutally beaten at schools (according to his own strangely detailed account), he was sent to East Africa, became a World War Two fighter pilot and an almost accidental author.  He married Oscar-winning movie star Patricia Neal, before experiencing horrific family tragedy and staggering global success.

I saw him once as a kid.  As a subscriber to Penguin Books’ youth wing (“The Puffin Club”), I showed up annually at a sort of book-related jamboree.  And there was Dahl, thin and intense, sat in a chair and signing books.    The queue to meet Dahl was very long, however and Dahl didn’t look very friendly.  I looked into his eyes and saw something keen and impatient, something that might judge me.  I passed on the opportunity.

I stopped reading Dahl after I turned about eleven.  As a consequence, his later children’s books (“The BFG, The Witches, Matilda etc.) mean nothing to me.  They might be brilliant, but they’re not my generation.  My Dahl canon began with James and the Giant Peach and ended with Danny, Champion of the World.  Although hang on – I also read the Henry Sugar collection, mostly memorable for a shocking little tale in which a nice middle class boy is set upon by crudely drawn proles who lay him longwise between railway tracks so that the express train goes (safely) over him before slaughtering a Swan and tying its wings to him.

Dahl is the sort of author who you love to read as a child and then worry about having loved as an adult.  It’s not just finding out about Dahl himself and the anti-semitic outbursts…. it’s also about the suspicion that Dahl’s writing makes a fetish of the cruelties he denounces.  He recounted horrific beatings at his own school and then made fictional children (including Danny) suffer accordingly.  At the end of his life, he even declared that there was nothing particularly wrong with corporal punishment.  Ah, the circle of life…

There is in his work, an ongoing fascination with the badness of children.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is notable in children’s fiction in that the villains are in fact other children (with the important exceptions of Verruca Salt’s parents).  The punishments dealt out are extreme to say the least.  Wonka is a vengeful and disproportionate Deity. Am I the only one concerned about the fact that Violet and Mike are mutated freaks for life while Verruca merely gets messy?

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with scaring children, if done in a managed way.  All of childhood is about fear management of some kind.  The Magic Finger is a quite deliciously horrifying concept, worthy of a Twilight Zone episode.   The real question is what the fear does to you in the longer term?  Do you grow up wanting to face fear and address its causes or do you just want to perpetuate it?

Perhaps Dahl’s most generous and delightful writing is all about food.  It’s small wonder that Heston Blumenthal is in love with Dahl.  The happiest moments in Dahl occur when the disadvantaged are allowed to feast.  The swollen Peach that carries James to freedom – the promise of endless chocolate to Charlie’s starving family, pheasants poached by Danny and his father – all promise transcendence – a gustatory sublime.   Perhaps the most unproblematic happy ending is provided in Fantastic Mr Fox –  where a creature persecuted by Boggis, Bunch, and Bean (one short, one fat one lean), ends up with his remarkable complex of tunnels which will secure good eating for the forseeable future for his entire family.

Dahl’s most adult stories are childish while his children’s stories are dark and inappropriate.  He of course wrote the script for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from a book by his friend Ian Fleming.  The movie of course used the same bad guy actor (Gert Fröbe)  from Goldfinger.  He also wrote the screenplay for You Only Live Twice.  There is a sense in which Dahl’s classic imagining of Blofeld is merely a warped Wonka trapped within another fantasy kingdom and with piranha fish instead of oompa loompas.

Dahl was a gaunt, thin man, who wrote about extreme body shapes, and who loved talking about food in terms of extremes of privation and excess.  Wonka’s  Chocolate Factory is magical because of those horrible early chapters describing the cabbage based diet of the Buckets and the slowness with which Charlies consumes a single chocolate bar.

So when I think about these books, I think about fear, cruelty and extremes of eating and not eating.  He also asks (and maybe even answers) questions about whether or not certain ways of describing children in pain are not exploitative and may in fact help perpetuate suffering.

In the meantime, everyone everywhere should have some sort of chocolate today.

And yes.  There is vegan chocolate.


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