Sunday, 28 September 2014

Delicious Dahl

So, you may or may not be aware that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It got me thinking, and not just about chocolate. I love Roald Dahl, he was a one-of-a-kind writer, the likes of which we'll never enjoy again (David Walliams you can try, but you can't come close). So it's incredible that his books are so timeless. It's incredible to think that even in this day and age of techno-wonder, Dahl can still captivate children and adult readers from half a century away.

I have a problem choosing my favourite Dahl. My earliest Dahl memory is The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me. Oh those sweets! (There were Gumywizzlers and Fizzwinkles from China, Frothblowers and Spitsizzlers from Africa, Tummyticklers and Gobwangles from the Fiji Islands and Liplickers and Plushnuggets from the Land of the Midnight Sun... I can remember quite especially the Giant Wangdoodles from Australia, every one with a huge ripe red strawberry hidden inside its crispy chocolate crust... and the Electric Fizzcocklers that made every hair on your head stand straight up as soon as you popped one into your mouth.. and there were Nishnobblers and Gumglotters and Blue Bubblers and Sherbert Slurpers and Tongue Rakers and as well as all this, there was a whole lot of splendid stuff from the great Wonka factory itself..)

Quentin Blake's illustrations brought the pages to life as much as the words (for me Roald Dahl is synonymous with Quentin Blake. It's not a real Roald Dahl book without Blake's illustrations), and of course the wonderful rhymes, made up words and larger than life characters.

I love Matilda mainly for the descriptions of Matilda discovering another world inside books: She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her room in an English village.

But also for the myriad of characters. Mrs Trunchball - absolutely unforgettable, Miss Honey and of course Matilda's own parents. I love the supernatural aspect of the telekinesis - I used to sit for ages trying to make my pens move with my eyes.

I love The BFG. For snozzcumbers and frobscottle, for dreams in bottles, for the BFG's enormous ears, for the description of the BFG striding across the world:

The Giant ran on and on. But now a curious change took place in his way of running. He seemed suddenly to go into a higher gear. Faster and faster he went and soon he was travelling at such a speed that the landscape blurred. The wind stung Sophie's cheeks. It made her eyes water. It whipped her head back and whistled in her ears. She could no longer feel the Giant's feet touching the ground. She had a weird sensation they were flying. It was impossible to tell whether they were over land or sea. This Giant had some sort of magic in his legs...Was it really possible they were crossing oceans?'

And The Witches is surely a rite of passage - has there ever been a more graphic and terrifying description of Witches in all of literature? Is there any build up more terrifying than the chapter in which the Grand High Witch asks the 'RSPCCC' ladies to 'rrree-moof your gloves...rrree-mmof your shoes...rrree-moof your vigs!' and bit by bit the awful truth becomes apparent that we are trapped in a room full of witches? Has the cigar smoking matter of fact Norwegian grandmother ever been bettered?

The Dog in the Dark, Dreams and Shadows, and The Witches
That face of hers was the most frightful and frightening thing I have ever seen...It was so crumpled and wizened, so shrunken and shrivelled...There was something terribly wrong with it, something foul and putrid and decayed. It seemed quite literally to be rotting away at the edges, and in the middle of the face, around the mouth and cheeks, I could see the skin all cankered and worm-eaten, as though maggots were working away in there.

But I also love Roald Dah's autobiographies, Boy and Going Solo. Going Solo in particular. Dahl brings to life a world disappeared, the age of Empire or British eccentrics. I remember my teacher reading it to the class in the last year of Primary School and being utterly captivated by it. He read Boy too and I will never forget the description of the canings:

I was frightened of that cane. There was no small boy in the world who wouldn't be. it wasn't simply an instrument for beating you. It was a weapon for wounding. It lacerated the skin. It caused severe black and scarlet bruising that took three weeks to disappear, and all the time during those three weeks, you could feel your heart beating along the wounds.

But it's Going Solo that stuck in my mind. From the Green Mamba in Africa to the plane crash in the Western Desert, it is perfect storytelling.

The snake-man was standing absolutely still just inside the door of the living room...I couldn't see the snake. I didn't think the snake-man had seen it yet either.
A minute went by...two minutes... three... four... five. Nobody moved. There was death in that room. The air was heavy with death and the snake-man stood as motionless as a pillar of stone, with the long rod held out in front of him.
And still he waited. Another minute...and another... and another...
...A moment later I caught sight of the snake. It was lying full-length along the skirting of the right-hand wall, but hidden from the snake-man's view by the back of the sofa. It lay there like a long, beautiful, deadly shaft of green glass...

I've heard since that Roald Dahl wasn't always truthful in his biographies but I've never wanted to know the true stories or find out the falsehoods. I believe in the world he created and the things he told me and that's enough for me.

So what makes Dahl so timeless? It's hard to say. Perhaps it is the sheer absence of technology that make them so adaptable. They describe a life and time that are almost fantastical to children now, and they accept it without question because of the surety and confidence of his writing. Who doesn't envy Danny and his dad living in the caravan, even if they are poor and live off toast and hot chocolate? It's a world full of love and so, always appealing. The Magic Finger, The Witches, George's Marvellous Medicine also exist in a separate world, not quite fantasy, not quite here and now but also not the distant past. The bright bubbling characters make the stories relevant and contemporary. Perhaps it is the lack of detail in the settings that allow the stories to continue to thrive. The stories live and breath through the characters and the plot and so it does not matter when or where it is really set.

And of course, no matter what happens in the story the thread that binds it all together is the enduring and overwhelming love that exists in the worlds Dahl creates. Whether it be between Sophie and the BFG, a boy and his Granny, Matilda and Miss Honey, A fox and his family, a man and his inventions, Charlie Bucket and his poor but loving family, the Giraffe, the Pelly and the Monkey, the burgeoning love between two tortoise owners;  Dahl's books are full of characters caring for each other or for their world. In The Twits, Mr and Mrs Twit may not have a lot of love to exist on, but it can be found in the delight Dahl describes their bitter relationship with, and of course in the way the birds band together to ensure the Twits get their comeuppance and rescue the poor monkeys. There is always love  to be found for lost and lonely children, or safe havens for children to experiment and explore in (The Magic Finger, Georges Marvellous Medicine), there is always humour, there is always danger and endless invention, but there is always always a sense of home and of belonging.

Danny, the Champion of the World and his father. This limited edition ...
I really loved it in that gipsy caravan. I loved it especially in the evenings when I was tucked up in my bunk and my father was telling me stories. The paraffin lamp was turned low, and I could see lumps of wood glowing red-hot in the old stove and wonderful it was to be lying there snug and warm in my bunk in that little room. Most wonderful of all was the feeling that when I went to sleep, my father would still be there, very close to me, sitting in his chair by the fire, or lying in the bunk above my own.

'We have tears in our eyes
As we wave our goodbyes,
We so loved being with you, we three.
So do please now and then
Come and see us again
The Giraffe and the Pelly and me.
All you do is look
At a page in this book
Because that's where we always will be.
No book ever ends
When its full of your friends
The Giraffe and the Pelly and me.'