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Archive for the ‘Roald Dahl’ Category

I’ve been aching for a good book of letters the last few years and then came across two excellent volumes within weeks of each other.  One was Love in the Blitz by Eileen Alexander (which I shared excerpts from here and here), the other Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother edited by Donald Sturrock.

Like so many children, I grew up reading Dahl’s children’s books and having them read aloud to me but it was his two volumes of autobiography – Boy and Going Solo (both now available from Slightly Foxed) – that have stayed with me the longest.  In these letters, we see many of the same events but through Dahl’s eyes at the time rather than as an adult looking back.  Thanks to excellent editing work by Sturrock (Dahl’s biographer) we also see how much of what Dahl was writing as a child was already fiction.

The letters begin when Dahl is nine, writing home to his mother from boarding school.  Sofie Magdalene Dahl had lost her eldest daughter and husband only a few weeks apart when Roald, her only son, was small.  Left a wealthy widow with four children of her own and two step-children, she was clearly a strong personality and the four decades-worth of letters in the volume testify to the strength of her relationship with her son.

Throughout his school years Dahl would paint an at times rosy or at worst benign portrait of a place he loathed and found to be full of violence and cruelty.  Sturrock ascribes this in part to the censorious practice of teachers being able to review students’ letters home but it is intriguing when compared to Dahl’s frankness about so many other things.  Dahl swears jollily from a young age and his mother must have shared his scatological sense of humour as it continues well into adulthood.  The only sadness in reading this book is in not having Sofie Magdalene’s side of the correspondence but even without it you can get some glimpses of her in the trusting, companionable way her son writes to her.

After finishing school, Dahl joined Shell Petroleum and was sent to Tanganyika where his letters attest to a steady work- and busy social-life:

I’m a bit drunk so you won’t get much of a letter.  I had meant to write to you this afternoon because I knew I should be drunk by the evening because we had a darts match on.  But someone asked me to go bathing in the Indian Ocean, so I did that instead & said well I’ll write my letter after dinner. […] Then we had a darts match against the Gymkhana ‘A’ Team in this house – it was only finished ½ an hour ago, & a great deal of liquor was consumed by all concerned.  You see the result in my handwriting for which many apologies, but the alternative is that I wait until I’m sober & miss the bloody mail & you’ll probably think I’ve been eaten by a rhinoceros or a white ant or something equally dangerous.

Though not yet thinking of a writing career, you start to see during these years snippets and images that would not be out of place in his future books, like this portrait of a fellow passenger sailing to Africa:

There’s a man sitting near me (a fat one), who is almost unconscious from the heat.  He’s flowing over his chair like a hot jellyfish – and he’s steaming too.  He may melt.

That image just begs for a Quentin Blake illustration, doesn’t it?

When the war begins, Dahl enlisted in the Royal Air Force and, as anyone who has read Going Solo will surely remember, eventually crashed his plane in the desert.  Sturrock’s interjections here are vital, comparing the facts to the fictions Dahl presents to his mother – and pointing out how rarely Dahl’s future descriptions of the crash would correspond to the truth of it.

Later in the war, Dahl finds himself posted to America as an attaché where it becomes frankly fairytale-esque.  He is instantly successful as a writer, finds himself working with Walt Disney, spends a weekend with the Roosevelts, and generally meets everyone.  And, for once, it’s all the truth.  (This reminds of me of The Irregulars by Jennet Conant, which looks at the intelligence work Dahl was doing while in America.  I had it on my shelf for years without ever reading it but wish now I had it readily to hand!)

The letters tail off after the war, with only a few spanning the decades until his mother’s death in 1967, not out of any cooling of the relationship but from the happy explanation that they were so often together during that period.  They were tumultuous years for Dahl – the dramatic injury of his son who was struck by a car as an infant, the death of his daughter, the traumatic aneurysms suffered by his wife, the actress Patricia Neal, which left her initially unable to walk or talk, and the establishing of a wildly successful writing career – but it is best to look to Sturrock’s biography detailed coverage.

This was just the book I was looking for this year.  Dahl’s letters are bright, funny and trusting, knowing that his correspondent is the most supportive person he will ever have.  They’ve left me wanting to reread his own books but especially to read Sturrock’s biography as he did such a wonderful job selecting and introducing the letters in relation to Dahl’s extraordinary life.

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I reread Danny: The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl this afternoon for the first time in I don’t know how many years.  To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I read anything by Dahl and that upsets me a bit because when I was little, before I learned to read for myself, there was no author whose works were more familiar to me.  Before I came to know all the inhabitants of Avonlea intimately, before I had heard tell of the March sisters, even before I learned the directions to Neverland, I had half memorized (entirely memorized, in the case of Esio Trot) the works of Roald Dahl.

I don’t know why my father gravitated towards Dahl’s works.  Perhaps he had read James and the Giant Peach (published in 1961) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) in his childhood but our favourite books, the ones we went back to over and over and over again (like most children, I adored repetition), were books published when he was an adult and which we got to discover together: The BFG (1982), Esio Trot (1989), and Danny, the Champion of the World (1975).

Danny, for those who didn’t have the pleasure of meeting him either as children or adults, is a young boy who lives in a caravan with his father behind the filling station that his father owns and runs.  His mother died when he was only a few months old and so Danny’s entire life has revolved around his wonderful, amazing father.  He teaches Danny how to fix cars, showers him with love, and tells the best bedtime stories (including the story of the BFG).  Danny makes his feelings about his father quite clear from the beginning: “My father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had.”

When he is nine years old, Danny learns his father’s deep, dark secret: he is a poacher.  Or rather, he was before Danny was born – having been trained by his own father – but, now that Danny is older, is hoping to take it up again.  Especially since the local landowner Mr Hazell, an odious nouveau riche type who guards his pheasants and sneers at the locals, so thoroughly deserves to have his birds poached.  Danny, like any young boy, is intrigued.  When his father decides, on the eve of the big hunt, that Mr Hazell really deserves to be embarrassed in front of all his rich and important guests who hate their host but come for the excellent shooting, it is Danny who comes up with the cunning scheme which, when successfully carried out, makes him the Pheasant Poaching Champion of the World.

Dahl knew what he was doing when writing for children.  There is the stereotypical bad guy – Mr Hazell – but I think part of what makes this book so clever is how Danny slowly learns more about all of the adults in his life, whether it be his father, the village doctor, the local policeman, or even the vicar’s wife!  When you are little, these figures seem so distant and unapproachable and Dahl captures the moment of transition perfectly, when the child awakens to the fact that adults are people too and surprisingly complex ones at that.

But really, this book is entirely about Danny and his father.  Danny’s father is the parent all children wish for at one time or another.  All his attention and all his love belongs to Danny.  He makes a wonderful cosy home for them, shares all he knows about the natural world with his inquisitive son, and, most of all, he is fun to be with.  He lets Danny drive cars around the filling station, lays out midnight feasts when they can’t sleep at night, and just enjoys himself to the fullest.  He is daring and enthusiastic – without being reckless – and never happier than when sharing an adventure with his son.

It is suiting then that my memories of this book are mostly of my father.  The story had faded in my mind – though I did remember Danny’s ingenious poaching plan in stunning detail – but I have never forgotten being tucked into bed and listening to my father read this to me.  And every time he read it, because my father is not the kind of man who can tell a story once if he can tell it a dozen times, he would tell me about his grandfather, who, before coming to Canada, was a gamekeeper on an estate in Berkshire, responsible for keeping poachers like Danny and his father away from the pheasants.  And then he would tell me about his own childhood summers spent staying on his grandfather’s farm and so my bedtime stories turned into tales worthy of Danny’s father and, like Danny, I hung on every word.

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