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Roald Dahl

Although it hasn't been officially given the go-ahead, my proposal to write my Masters dissertation on Roald Dahl's children's books has been tacitly approved. This is an exciting prospect. I have to tie it in somehow with library issues, so intend to look at objections and attempts to censor his books and the questions raised by such challenges for libraries. I should be able to spend quite a bit of time looking at the text, though.

This means I have a convenient excuse not only to revisit some of my favourite children's books but also to read the handful that have passed me by. I'll be focusing on it for three months from the beginning of June to the end of August.

To help me get in the mood, do you have any favourite Dahl books, characters or passages? I've put this thread in the children's books section, but that needn't restrict you. Discovering his writings for adults was a great joy to me in my late teens, though it is his children's books I know best. Favourites? The BFG, George's Marvellous Medicine, Fantastic Mr Fox and The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me - this last one not his best known book, but I think one of the most lovable. I'll write more later.

Well done, Chibiabos - for finding an interesting subject for your dissertation, I mean!  All the friends I had who did the librarianship course at Bristol wrote their dissertations on the most boring topics imaginable, so I am very impressed that you are actually writing yours about *books*!

I have a soft spot for George's Marvllous Medicine, especially as my boy used to enjoy my reading it out to him.

I draw the line at The Twits, though. There's a particularly objectionable passage where Dahl takes the piss out of men with beards.

The only way you can get away with a remotely literary topic is if you write something related to children's library provision, and I read so many children's books anyway that it required practically no thought at all. Browsing past dissertation titles ("Management of agricultural information in developing countries with special reference to Sri Lanka" and the like) makes me appreciate the opportunity of focusing on books and what's in them. There's a fascinating range of things people have written about, though, particularly on historical topics - "A look at females and stereotyping in young children's literature", "The town library at Wisbech from its foundation until 1700", "George Eliot's reading: a brief survey", "Christian morality in Victorian children's literature" and so on. Could be fun.

Himadri, I won't be so indelicate as to enquire what you may have stuck in your beard at the moment. I will just have to make assumptions.

Somehow though of course I am very familiar in one sense with Roald Dahl his works haven't become part of my life to any degree.  Perhaps they are books which kids read to themselves more than have read to them, and they weren't around when I was a child.  We had a tape of some rhymes of his whose titles I can't quite remember.  Quite cruel versions of fairy tales or nursery rhymes.  And very very funny.

My son loves Matilda to the extent that he thought naming a child Matilda would be a good thing.  (He can't be the only one thinking that, as I note Matilda has made a comeback in the last two or three years.  Or is that coming from other source?)

Cheers, Caro.

I rather like 'Esio Trot'.

I have only read 'Charlie and The Chocolate Factory'. I remember Esio Trot on Radio 5 in the early days. After the 7pm news there was a sort of bedtime story, and Esio Trot was one of those. Radio 5 then went on to the adult sport/media programmes.

I am currently reading a book set in Malaysia, and alongside the politics and differences between Indians, Tamils, Malaysians, Ex colonials, rich and poor, the name dropping of bought Western food products as an indication of wealth and status is the revelation that on TV they had Little House on The Prairie. What must they have thought of that?

Esio Trot's one of the ones I don't know at all but am looking forward to, Mike. Currently in a pile with other ones I haven't read. I must confess I have not hitherto been fond of the small amount of (often quite gruesome) poetry, but perhaps that will change. I don't remember much about it. His collection Rhyme Stew was quite controversial on its publication because of sexual references, and now bears a warning on the cover that young children should stay away...
Gul Darr

My favourite is Danny, The Champion of the World. I read it together with my family, a few chapters a night, during one camping holiday and everyone enjoyed it immensely. A great memory.

Though I like Danny, the Champion of the World and have fond memories of reading it as a class in Year 5, it's not one of my very favourites. It's a bit of an odd one out - there's less raucous humour and caricature in it than there is in most of his other books, but the eventual meting out of justice is no less satisfying than it is in, say, Fantastic Mr Fox or Matilda.
Melanie D

That's great news about your dissertation, Chibiabos! Well done! What a great subject!

I always find it hard to choose a favourite amongst Roald Dahl's children's books. Not only are they brilliant in themsleves - but, like Gul, I associate them with so many lovely family memories...

I think I've shared most of Dahl's stories as bedtime reading with my daughter at one time or another. I must admit, I have a great affection for The Twits (sorry Himadri!) Again like Gul, it's a vivid holiday memory that underlies my attachment to that, I think. I read it every night to my daughter during a rainy, but very happy, week in Wales. Mind you, as beard decorators go, I suppose Mr Twit's a bit of an amateur really - didn't Blackbeard put sparklers in his beard as terror inspiring beard-bling? Not sure who he was terrifying most, though! A bit of a risky business, I would imagine!... Anyway, that's just a wayward train of thought.... back to Roald Dahl.

Though it is so hard to choose, I think Matilda is my favourite. I especially love those early chapters where Matilda discovers the library and is first captivated by the magic of Dickens and other literary greats. The book love going on there - and all that celebration of book-magic and libraries as thresholds to exciting discovery and adventure, is so wonderfully and beguilingly done. A touchstone moment in children's literature, I think...

Dahl's very good at fetishising books - in a good way, naturally... There are numerous examples from among his own output, but my favourite comes in The BFG. The BFG has had no formal education, but one night he "borrows" a copy of Nicholas Nickleby from a child's bedroom and reads it many times, thereby teaching himself to read. He doesn't speak or write particularly well, but I can see this might be encouraging to a child who perhaps isn't the fastest learner but is excited by books all the same. The BFG's lack of temporal awareness may be more problematic - he intends to return the book to the boy who owns it, despite having taken it from him 80 years ago. And of course when he has saved the world from child-eating giants, he settles down and becomes a writer! It's one of the most lovely instances of wish-fulfilment in books.

I just haven't read enough Dahl to be familiar with The BFG, but this synopsis rather reminds me of Lloyd Jone's Mr Pip, which has Matilda (can there be more deliberation about this than I assume?) in Papua New Guinea learning to read via Great Expectations and finds a great empathy with Pip of that book.  It is an adult's book though though not so happy as this.  (In fact at times very very gruelling to read.)

Cheers, Caro.

Today marks the start of work on my dissertation, to which end I have read three of the handful of Dahl books with which I was not hitherto familiar, to wit, Esio Trot, Revolting Rhymes and The Minpins, with an eye to identifying things small-minded parents might complain about.

Esio Trot is a joy, the story of a lonely man who woos the lady on the balcony below his flat by pretending he knows how to make her tortoise grow. It's such a charming story, and Quentin Blake's illustrations are among the loveliest I've seen. There is a cheeky bit about the word 'up' being spelt 'pu' backwards (hints at the direction Dahl would shortly take with The Vicar of Nibbleswicke), and a moment where Mr Hoppy gets very excited by Mrs Silver's promise to be his "slave for life", but otherwise not much anyone might object to.

Revolting Rhymes, like all Dahl's poetry, I found deeply pedestrian. He is competent at scansion, but his language is so ordinary that it fails to involve the mind. Occasionally he happens on a pretty or clever phrase, which lightens the leaden effect of his writing. The book consists of six nasty retellings of nursery tales - Prince calls Goldilocks a "dirty slut" (!), Ugly Sisters decapitated, Little Red Riding Hood dispatches wolf with a pistol she keeps in her knickers, etc. It would be rather fun if it weren't so dull.

The Minpins, published posthumously, is one of Dahl's sweetest books, and it shows signs of a softening of his sensibilities. There is a fairly gruesome monster who is made all the scarier for the fact that it is never seen due to the cloud of smoke and fire that surrounds it. Little Billy overcomes it with the help of the tiny Minpins who live in the wood and the birds, who carry them about. It's quite beautiful in places, and part of that effect is due to the illustrations being by Patrick Benson and not Dahl's regular collaborator Quentin Blake. I remember loving a book of Robin Hood illustrated by Benson that my teacher read us in school when I was about seven. Benson's drawings are more restrained and less comic than Blake's, which suits this story well.

Another Dahl book down - Rhyme Stew. This is his rudest children's book, and bears a warning on the cover that it's not for the very young. His uninteresting poetic style is redeemed here by some racy material. Bare-bottomed girls and the like. There is one poem which culminates in a vicar thrusting his hand into a woman's knickers and another about a schoolboy receiving extra tuition after school from his gym mistress, alongside fun retellings of stories like The Hare and the Tortoise and The Emperor's New Clothes. The biography of Dahl I'm reading suggests his poetry exhibits some of the qualities of Carroll and of Lear, which may explain why I don't much like it, though I'm not convinced Dahl is fit to lick the boots of either of them where poetry is concerned.

Some more Dahl books down in my quest to demolish his entire output.

Dirty Beasts gets the poetry out of the way, thankfully. It's not engaging stuff. About half of the poems end with people being eaten by animals, though the brighter points include a morality tale about a girl who gets a porcupine stuck up her bottom because of sitting down without looking first, and one about a spoilt American boy who refuses to give his pet anteater any food, then introduces the anteater to his aunt (which the anteater hears as 'ant'), and ends up as lunch himself along with the grouchy relative. A couple of moments of dodgy xenophobia, which might not be quite so problematic if one didn't have the feeling that they were heartfelt.

The Enormous Crocodile is a fairly slight and not entirely satisfactory story, though beautifully illustrated by Quentin Blake. It's about a crocodile who wants to have a child for lunch. He poses as various inanimate objects, his schemes foiled each time by the other animals who do not like him. The story ends gratifyingly nastily, with the elephant flinging the crocodile round and round and letting go so that he flies directly into the sun and explodes. Not very likely, no, but then my suspicions of inauthenticity were aroused early on when the animals started talking to each other.

Roald Dahl's Guide to Railway Safety was published posthumously in 1991, a commission from the British Railways Board. The text consists largely of dos and don'ts, but there is an introduction where Dahl apologises in advance for the sermonising that will follow, and writes about how adults forget what it is like to be a child, which could come in handy when I eventually get round to writing this dissertation. There are lovely illustrations by Quentin Blake of, for instance, a child being graphically decapitated by a post when he leans out of the window of a moving train, and a railway porter being unwittingly drenched in urine.

The Gremlins is Dahl's first published work. It originally came out in 1943 and spent many decades out of print until it was reissued in 2006. It seems an odd document now because it was a collaboration between Dahl and Disney, and for a couple of years was intended to be made into a propaganda film. Merchandising was even produced based on the preliminary designs, but in the end the film was abandoned and the book was all that came of it. The story's frankly not very good. Dahl's plotting is poor, his prose dull and his characterisation nonexistent. It's about the little 'gremlins' that RAF pilots believed tampered with their engines. Dahl would later claim to have invented the term 'gremlin', something which is demonstrably untrue. The most endearing thing about the book turns out to be the Disney drawings, which are sweet. The gremlins occasionally resemble the Disneyfied Piglet, though obviously they are much more morally defensible.

I've also just finished Jeremy Treglown's unauthorised biography of Roald Dahl, which came out in 1994, four years after Dahl's death. I don't know if one should be more sceptical of an authorised biography or an unauthorised one, but even the least sensational biography of Dahl would surely have to conclude that he was an immensely dislikeable man. His anti-Semitism is quite well known and has never been satisfactorily disproved, but he seems to have been disagreeable on almost every conceivable level. Treglown recounts a meeting between Dahl and Salman Rushdie in which Dahl pointedly held forth on what a wonderful man Enoch Powell was. The various nastinesses are complemented by entertaining stories of Dahl's many practical jokes, which still can't have been much fun if one found oneself on the receiving end. An interesting thing to come out of it is just how many of the most memorable and amiable elements of Dahl's books resulted from the suggestions of his editors, particularly in later years when his regular editor was Stephen Roxburgh, a real unsung hero. The first drafts of a good handful of the best books Dahl produced in the '80s sound quite awful compared to what they became after Roxburgh's judicious suggestions were incorporated by Dahl.

Another to add to the list - The Magic Finger. I remember reading this as a child and not taking to it, but revisiting it now I can see a charm and felicity of storytelling that endears it greatly to me. The nameless narrator is a girl who, infuriated by her hunting neighbours who flaunt the corpse of a deer they have shot, puts "the magic finger" on all of them. They awake to find themselves transformed into the ducks they have been using for target practice. They fly out and try to make a nest, while the real ducks take over their house. Some bargaining ensues, with the ducks making it clear how unfair it is to kill them. The family sees sense and there follows a lovely passage where we see them at one with nature, and resolving to change their surname from Gregg to Egg. It's not a long book, but it's one of Dahl's most likeable.

I wonder why you like that more as an adult than as a child, and if that would be typical, Gareth.  I haven't read it, but from you write it may well be a message that would appeal more to an adult than a boy.  Girls might feel differently.

As regards railway safety - there's a lot to be said for keeping yourself inside a train.  I remember being on a tourist train just doing a short circuit at a historical theme place near where we lived.  My son, can't remember his age at the time, but perhaps 9, insisted on putting his hands out to grab the leaves of trees or something.  Eventually a branch struck his hand and left him with little cuts and scratches all over it.  My son as a child 'saw colours' when he got shocked and that day he 'saw colours' and we had to curtail our visit.  Silly boy - hope it taught him a lesson.

Cheers, Caro.

I think what you write about the book's message appealing more to adults than to children is probably quite right. I didn't have any strong feelings on the matter as a child, but as an adult the central message of being nice to each other - live and let live, I suppose - is something I feel strongly.

Another one read today, Boy. I expect a focus of my dissertation will be overprotective parents wishing to shield their sensitive offspring from frightening stories. That's not an attitude I have much sympathy with where Dahl's concerned, but revisiting this book has made me realise that it was the one Dahl book that did frighten me as a child. My greatest fear as a boy, I believe now, was that I would one day have to fight in the army. It was a scary time in the early 1990s with the Gulf War going on, and I still remember being woken up one morning specifically to be told the war was over. My fears could have been allayed if I had only asked about conscription, but at that age I didn't know how to articulate them. This book ends with Dahl going off to East Africa with the RAF. He writes of it as an exciting time, but the things that excited him - wild animals and flying planes - didn't excite me at all. I hated the sound of all that dustiness. Even scarier were the beatings Dahl suffered at school (which at least I knew didn't go on any longer, at least not at my school - and happily my headteacher Mr Giles was a very benevolent man), and the episode where he has his adenoids out, which still makes me wince. He takes great pains to emphasise that medical procedures without anaesthetic are very irregular nowadays, but that doesn't take the nastiness out of him feeling his mouth is on fire and spitting blood and chunks of flesh. It's a good book, though, this one. Dahl hasn't forgotten the scariness of being a child and he communicates it most effectively. I don't think my own fear of elements of this book caused any lasting trauma, but the memories rereading it has dredged up raises some interesting questions.

That’s really interesting, Gareth. I find myself fascinated by the subject of childhood fears. What particularly strikes me is how very vivid they are: that aspect disappears in adulthood – at least, it has done for me. As an adult, I experience not so much fear, but anxiety – that slow process that gnaws away inside the brain. It is quite different from the terror of the moment that I still remember from childhood.

Fear, horror, terror … these are strange feelings. For me, they are not evoked by those ludicrous gorefests that modern horror films specialise in: such films do nothing for me at all. No, horror is a certain state of mind – a state of mind that we experience most vividly and most intensely, I think, in our childhood years.

Sorry if I get a bit autobiographical here, but it’s hard to speak of these things without bringing autobiography into it. But I sometimes do wonder whether my love of ghost stories and of horror films is merely some perverse attempt to recapture what I used to feel as a child, but cannot any more. For, as a child, I used to be terrified of all sorts of things. Looking back, my being transplanted from one environment to a very different one at the age of five – my being removed so abruptly from all that I had been familiar with – was a traumatic experience: after that transplantation, I used to get very vivid nightmares – so vivid, that I remember many of them even some forty-five years afterwards. I even remember being afraid to go to bed at night because I knew I’d get those nightmares again. I used to be particularly afraid of school, where I couldn’t understand a word of what anyone was saying. I used to try to fake all sorts of illness to be able to stay at home, but unfortunately, my father was a doctor and there was no fooling him. One of the happiest days of my life was that day when my father confirmed that yes, I really do have mumps, and I have to be off school for the next two weeks!

But that vivid sense of immediate terror is not something I have ever felt in my adult years. Anxieties, yes – but never the immediacy of terror. That’s what is so fascinating about it all – the memory of a feeling one can’t feel any more. Some of the most effective depictions of fear are those that capture that element of childhood fears, I think.

I certainly still experience sheer terror in terms of one or two things - things that have stayed with me from childhood - and I don't really have that sense of having left anything behind.  It is interesting what changes as you get older, and what doesn't.

I am very much enjoying your accounts of Dahl's books, Chibiabos!

I feel terror sometimes after a nightmare; in fact that is how I define a nightmare.  An unpleasant dream not accompanied by that terror is not a nightmare, just a horrid dream.  And I wonder if that does have some connection with childhood terrors.  I would say if asked that I had an untroubled childhood really (though my mother died when I was only four and my father when I was nearly 16, so that may be some sort of denial really), but I do recall odd feelings at night when the walls would move distressingly and frighten me.  I would sometimes have to go and seek comfort in my grandmother's bed, even though my sister was with me in my room.  Once this happened when I had a friend staying and it quite spoiled her visit for me.  I can't describe it, but the wallpaper seemed to move and it didn't matter if I had my eyes open or shut.  Or perhaps it did, and one way helped.  There was no specific thing to be afraid of, though, it was quite nebulous.  

I don't often feel fear now, though I am sure I would if I heard someone inside the house at night for instance, and I am not someone who travels easily in bad conditions.  Just today there is a heavy frost and I am tense about having to drive after it (even though that won't be till 2pm when hopefully it will have melted).  But perhaps that is just anxiety as Himadri says and not actual fear.  

But I certainly don't seek out terror in books or television or movies - though I do love crime novels.  But I am sure that's more for the puzzles and characters.  I don't really enjoy those movies where the music goes odd and you are expected to be terrified.  I haven't seen one for a long time, though.  Obvioiusly many people do like this sort of pseudo-terror as they seek them out.  I tend to talk about terror movies where sometimes I think they are called horror movies.  The difference for me is that a horror movie is more imaginative or magical - vampires, werewolfs etc, whereas a terror movie is like Gaslight (there must be hundreds of modern ones, but I don't see them)  or those movies where people are trying to escape someone creeping up on them.  

Cheers, Caro.

Gareth, your remarks about dreading having to fight in the army I found very interesting.  I had to do National Service in the R.A.F. when I was 18, but I can't remember now whether I had any dread or fear of conflict breaking out somewhere and being involved in it.  But it's so long ago that maybe I just can't remember.  The whole experience was interesting and opened my eyes to a lot of things.  As for other childhood fears, I remember being afraid of both dogs and cats up to the age of about six. Where that came from I don't know.  It disappeared when we acquired a cat of our own.  

E/V (and Himadri on another thread), I'm delighted that I'm not writing these things purely for my own benefit, though they may prove useful reference points for my essay. I am making more copious notes on each book as I go along too, but wouldn't wish to subject anyone to them.

Mike, I was terrified of cats and dogs and most other animals as a child. We only had goldfish in our house, which I liked (no need to make physical contact with them, which may have been what i dreaded with other animals) and later on rabbits which I found very annoying (my father and brothers thought it would be lovely having rabbits but didn't realise quite how much looking after they required, and nobody minded too much when they eventually joined the choir invisible). The only dogs I ever encountered as a small child tried to knock me over, and my neighbours had a cat that scratched me and drew blood. Understandably I'm not much of an animal person even now, though I have always loved hedgehogs, birds and butterflies dearly.

Today's haul: firstly, James and the Giant Peach. I must have been really quite little when I read this. My suspicions as I approached it this time were that it started to sag a bit once the peach escaped from the garden, purely on the basis of not remembering any of the story past that point. I'd even momentarily forgotten the peach's eventual fate (being impaled on the spike of the Empire State Building), though I remembered what was going to happen before I reached that bit. The ending where the children of New York rush to eat the peach before it goes off is delightful. The final conceit - that James settles down to write a book, and that book is the one you have just finished reading - was repeated twenty years later almost word for word at the end of The BFG.

This was the book that really made Dahl's name as a children's writer, and the first Charlie book a few years later cemented it. What I found most impressive about this book is his prodigious imagination, which I think is at its most extravagant. The idea of animals setting up home inside the stone of a freakishly large peach is inspired. The animals are well characterised, there are a couple of fine villains in Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, and the story is well paced, not outstaying its welcome. Perhaps it drags a little in the middle, but I don't notice that so much now because I can read a lot faster than I did when I was 7. The edition I read contains the original illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert. They're beautiful. I cede to nobody in my admiration of Dahl's partnership with Quentin Blake, but a regrettable side-effect of it is that the two are now so inseparable that after Dahl's death Blake was commissioned to provide illustrations for practically all the Dahl books he hadn't done at the time of publication. (The Minpins is the only exception I can think of, and the volumes of autobiography which have mainly photographic illustrations). This means it's difficult to get hold of Dahl books without Blake illustrations nowadays, and, good though Blake is, this book proves he doesn't - and shouldn't - have a monopoly on illustrating Dahl.

Secondly, The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, written about elsewhere. I was going to read Fantastic Mr Fox too, but I want to leave it until later. Better to get some of my less favourite ones out of the way first. Think I'll give Going Solo a go tomorrow - not sure I've read it cover to cover before.

More Dahl books finished since Friday:

Going Solo, his second volume of autobiography. I don't think I had read the whole thing before, but I must have read some of it, otherwise how would I have known the Swahili word for cook? I must confess, the story of a young man working for Shell and then piloting planes in East Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean did not fill me with any great enthusiasm beforehand, but in the event I liked it quite a lot. Its success lies primarily, I suspect, in the fact that Dahl has good stories to tell and is a great storyteller, whatever else one may say about him. It's quite violent for a children's book - there is one episode where a man gets shot in the face - but the tender moments abide after reading it. A couple in particular I expect to remain in the memory - the part where Dahl delivers a secret package to a soldier who is about to go underground, and suddenly realises this man will almost certainly die; and the part where, quite some time into the war, Dahl comes across a group of Jewish refugees and suddenly discovers about the Holocaust, having been conscious until that time that he was fighting against Hitler's Nazis but still unaware of the full horror of what was being perpetrated.

George's Marvellous Medicine is a fun book, but I wonder if familiarity has dulled its power over me. I rather expect the same to happen with The BFG, which is one of the handful I have left to read. I had both of those books on story tapes when I was a child and as a consequence know them back to front (or frack to bunt, as the BFG says). As I read this one I could hear the every cadence of Richard Griffiths' voice in my head. Still enjoyable, but I think it might have had more effect if I hadn't known exactly what was going to happen on every page.

Danny, the Champion of the World, on the other hand, I didn't remember well, and hadn't read it since I was 9 and my class read it together. I'd forgotten - or perhaps never realised, given that the characters are not as grotesque or comic as usual and the book as a result is less assuming - how delightful it is. The villain, Victor Hazell, is a marvellously dislikeable man, and his eventual comeuppance is exhilarating. Dahl's love of nature comes through very strongly, and I can quite imagine the success Gul had, reported earlier in the thread, when reading it to his family on holiday. It's difficult to resist a book of such warmth.

The Witches is the book I expect to have most to write about in my dissertation. It may be Dahl's most gruesome. Tremendous fun, anyway. I couldn't help thinking of Nic Roeg's enjoyable film version. I can think of very few cinematic grandmothers more enchanting than Mai Zetterling in that film. It ends disagreeably, though, with Luke (who is an unnamed narrator in the book) being transformed back from his murine incarnation into a boy by renegade witch Jane Horrocks. I much prefer Dahl's sweet but morbid conclusion, that the boy as a mouse, with his shortened lifespan, has the same amount of time left to live as his grandmother, and they will live out their final few years in each other's company.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a book I know better through its filmic manifestations than through the book, and very fine both films are, if flawed. It may be sacrilege, but despite Gene Wilder and those lovely songs I think I prefer Tim Burton's vision of the book. The book, when first published in 1964, described the Oompa-Loompas as being not from Loompaland but from darkest Africa. One of the children (I suspect Charlie, though I don't have the original version to hand at the moment) suggests they may even be made of chocolate. Understandably the Oompa-Loompas in the film were made orange and green and the book was swiftly revised. The first film was released under the title Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory because of Charlie being a common slang term for a black man. I'm not sure the new title is much better. There is a horribly saccharine moment at the end which Dahl detested. It's certainly deeply un-Dahl-like:

Wonka: But Charlie, don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he he always wanted.
Charlie: What happened?
Wonka: He lived happily ever after.

Never mind Charlie Bucket, a sick bucket's what's required. Anyway, I'm neglecting the book, which is quite rightly considered a classic. It's a morality tale, I suppose, about the good being rewarded and the bad punished. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the chocolate factories. Veruca Salt is a particularly objectionable creation, and one feels quite heartened by her eventual assault by squirrels and subsequent journey down the garbage chute. Wonka's a lovely character, jokey and capricious. My memories of the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, are of it being a massive letdown. I'll have to see whether they are accurate or not.

I didn't think Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator could be as disagreeable as I remembered it. In fact it is so, so much worse. One of its greatest flaws is that it's simply deadly dull. There are interminably tedious scenes set in the White House and featuring the President and his various aides that I cannot imagine could possible hold the slightest appeal to even the oddest of children. Dahl's plotting is atrocious judged by his normally very high standards, and the limp punning jokes that appear throughout fall abysmally flat. The cumulative effect of all the things wrong with this book is to produce a kind of sub-Lewis Carroll mush. I cannot conceive of a single reason for this book to have been written, it's so devoid of ideas, other than for the sake of having a money-spinning sequel to the fantastically successful Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As it is I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. Fortunately all the books left to read I already know to be good.

A rather better haul to report since getting the last one out of the way:

The Vicar of Nibbleswicke is a lovely little story that Dahl wrote shortly before his death for the Dyslexia Institute, who received its proceeds. It's about a priest whose latent dyslexia is triggered by the stress of taking a vicar's job in a country town. It manifests itself in his pronouncing important words as if they are spelt backwards. It all begins innocently enough with him saying "Good god" as he pats dogs and so on. When he tells a member of his confirmation class in response to a question about communion etiquette that she should "pis gently" eyebrows are raised, and when he announces to his congregation that they are not to "krap" all along the side of the church there is uproar. Fortunately a kindly doctor diagnoses the problem and it is remedied by the installation of a rear-view mirror. All very sweet and good-natured stuff.

Fantastic Mr Fox is quite as enjoyable as I recalled. The three farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean, are angered by Mr Fox appropriating their livestock and arable produce to feed his starving family, and set out to catch him, but while they are tracking him down he and his subterranean chums are burrowing into their secret storerooms and divesting them of more food and drink. It's a splendidly fun story, superbly executed. The descriptions of food, as is habitual with Dahl, are quite mouthwatering.

My favourite Roald Dahl book was Danny Champion of the World (which made my number 8 of favourite childhood books on the other thread).  I loved the close affection shared between Danny and his father, the characture that was Victor Hazell and as I said in my sum up of the book on the other thread, my abiding memory of it is crying with laughter at the scene near the end where the drugged pheasants are starting to awaken.

I now only have two Dahl children's books left to go before I start concentrating on the literature written about them. The most recently read ones are:

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, his only short story collection for children. A mixed bag, this. The title story is great, about a man who is motivated by greed to learn, through meditation and concentration, how to see through playing cards. There are other fun stories like "The Mildenhall Treasure", a fictionalisation of the discovery of a hoard of Roman silver in Mildenhall, Suffolk in 1946. Other stories are less good. The last two, which focus on his schooldays and young adulthood, retread ground I have recently become overly familiar with. One story, "The Swan", I found more upsetting than anything else by Dahl I have read. It is a bleak account of the unmitigated cruelty that children perpetrate on each other that, despite a whimsical and poetic ending, pulls no punches. There's no suggestion that Dahl condones any of the violence, of course - the violence (primarily corporal punishment) he suffered as a child clearly affected him deeply and permeates his books - but even so it leaves a very bitter taste. That may be to its credit.

The Twits is a rather nasty little book, if fun. The first half consists entirely of the gruesome Twits playing cruel practical jokes on each other; the second focuses on the revenge enacted on them by the animals they terrorise. I'd forgotten quite how damning of men with beards Dahl is, in spite of Himadri's occasional references to it on these pages. Perhaps he felt somewhat defensive because of being bald as a coot. Quentin Blake's illustrations for this book are among his finest. His picture demonstrating Mrs Twit's glass eye is astoundingly good. Her gaze is not unlike Nick Griffin's.

I have written about The BFG, which I read on Saturday, on another thread. And so today I have finally come to the end of my Dahl-reading project. It's felt a little bit titanic. Now the work must begin in earnest. I'm thankfully not feeling entirely disillusioned and resentful about it yet, but that time may come. The more I read, the more daunted I feel and the more I realise there is much I have not yet taken into account, which is a probably a sign that I should start writing fairly soon despite not having a detailed plan. I will attempt to refrain from boring you too much with how the writing is going, but expect it to consume me for the next couple of months.

Though it's not in my list of 20 children's books, I suspect I may have saved the best book of all for last. It's Matilda. I first read it about five years ago, I think. It was published when I was about 6 and already a fan of Dahl's books, but I didn't read it as a child - why, I'm not exactly sure. Perhaps I found the size of the hardback edition we had at home offputting, being used to small paperbacks. I also had a notion it was a bit darker than his other books and not so much intended for children of my age, which I now see as an inaccurate assumption. It's no darker than The Witches, certainly, of which I was a devotee. I expect the story is familiar to many - prodigious Matilda, clever beyond her years, living with her monstrous parents; meek and lovely teacher Miss Honey, who takes Matilda under her wing; headmistress and ogress Miss Trunchbull, who makes Miss Honey's life a misery; magic and comeuppance. Trunchbull is a fun villainess, and Blake's illustration of her swinging a poor girl round and round by her pigtails and releasing her like a hammer is marvellously kinetic. I find the revenge enacted on Miss Trunchbull tremendous chiefly for its lack of violence. Her physical torture is avenged by Matilda's penetration of her mind. The early scenes where Matilda learns to read in the library under the guidance of kindly Mrs Phelps, as remarked upon in a recent edition of A Good Read on Radio 4, are special. They communicate the joy of discovering books in the same way as Alan Bennett does in The Uncommon Reader, which I think was a comparison made by Sue MacGregor on the programme. Quite, quite delightful.

I do wish you all the best with your dissertation, Gareth. I think few people can not have affectionate feelings for Dahl's books, even if they only knew them as an adult. I think my favourite is George's Marvellous Medicine but he was such an original thinker most of the books  have their own charm and I could be persuded to change my mind.
I expect you have told us the title of your thesis but remind me of it again. Is it entirely about Dahl's children's books or are you writing about his life too?

My provisional title is "Censorship and criticism of the children's books of Roald Dahl", but I suspect they may accept cosmetic alterations if I change my mind. Not much about Dahl's life, I suspect, though some of his occasionally unsavoury views slip through into the books from time to time.

Odd how the memory plays tricks. I was sure I'd detested Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator when I read it as a child, but documentary evidence, to wit, my class reading book, has been found to suggest otherwise. I started reading it on 8th May 1989, when I would have been five. I asked my mother the meaning of two words in chapter 1: 'continent' and 'piffle'. By the time I had got three chapters in, my teacher, Miss Loveridge, had written, "Gareth seems to be enjoying the humour." Mind you, three chapters isn't much to judge a book by, and the narrative is not sustained at all well over the course of the rest of the book. I'm not sure what I thought of it by the end, but perhaps my previous assumption was inaccurate.

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