From Fantastic Mr Fox to James and the Giant Peach everything Roald Dahl wrote was 24 carat gold. Raise a glass to him today...
Some people grew up with MTV, some people grew up with Andy Peters, and even as you read this some people are growing up with nothing but the concept of gypsy weddings and Katy Perry’s impossible tits to shape and guide the impressionable mush that sits between their ears.
I despair for them, because I got to grow up with Roald Dahl.
On September 13th, the world celebrates the birthday of the Welsh fighter pilot turned children’s author who, almost 21 years after his death, still sparks the imagination of halflings who’ve been torn away from their Playstations, and 24 year old journalists who’ve been asked to write a fitting piece on him, in equal measure.
Whilst endless hot air and column inches decide the fate of both the humble book, and the things that fill them, my shelf at home is still packed with the badly kept, dog-eared copies of Fantastic Mr. Fox, George’s Marvellous Medicine, Matilda, The Twits, Esio Trot and The Witches that were handed down to me by cousins and picked up at car boot sales. They were, and probably still are, the most important objects I’ve ever possessed.
That’s because they were more than just books for me. In all the years since I’ve seen my coffee table adorned with wizards, hobbits, spies, samurais, politicians, footballers, artists, writers, journalists, “journalists”, poets, spacemen, philosophers and gobshites. While they’ve all expanded my horizons for better or for worse, nothing has, and dare I presume will, spin the cogs in my head quite like Dahl.
I’d like to raise a glass to the man who invented the valve that released the pressure on the skull of a very confused young boy; who turned my dreary estate in the North of England into a chocolate factory, a big glass elevator and a giant fucking peach
Strangely, I was never even big into books as a child. The problem I had then, and I suppose still do now, is that most children’s books read exactly like what they are, an adult attempting to dumb things down for the benefit of their audience. Case in point, I recently babysat for some relatives and, once the bairns had run out of things to set fire to, I attempted to read them a story. I can’t remember what book it was, or who wrote it, but it was so insipidly pointless and unimaginative it felt like showing a lava lamp to a cat. “This happened and it looked like this, and then this happened and it did one of these, and then this happened and it made the flowers sad”. There was no imagination required on the part of the kids, it was just a script tired parents could read out to distract them into sleeping.
Which is fine, don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not advocating thrusting Tolstoy into the hands of eight-year-olds and telling them to stop crying and just get on with it, but the whole reason why Dahl stood out to me in my youth was that none of his books ever felt like they were talking down to me.
Instead, and I think it’s the most important facet of his literature, he wrote things from a child’s perspective. Rather than having to backwards engineer every idea, he, long after his own childhood had passed, still viewed the world of grown ups with the same curious bewilderment I did at 7 years old. The actions of all the “big people” in his books seem strange, elongated and baffling, frequently to the point of satire. It was this kaleidoscope of naivety and innocence, which he viewed the entire world through, that made his scrawlings so distinctive. He never wrote for children, he wrote as them.
Which also explains why reading his books was so much fun. Even stylistically he lent himself to the very nature of juvenility, with the roomiest of descriptive prose. Dahl’s skills came not from an ability to paint a vivid image in your mind, but from a peerless talent to weave narrative with the sort of tone and direction I would, in my later years, come to associate more with cheap acid. So, without a clear image to go on, a lot of the mental conception of the story was yours to do with as you pleased. It’s was your landscape, but populated with his creations, which meant his books were to be played with as much as they were to be read.
But most of all though, his works gave me my first real taste of escapism. Long before I could distract myself with loud music and vacant members of the opposite sex, I still had to while away the hours of my youth with no siblings, a single-parent who worked all hours and what felt like a cycling pilgrimage to the houses of anybody who would have let me in. So, confined to my room, seemingly until the age of about 15, I had Dahl. At least until I got a Playstaion anyway.
So, on a day that would have seen 95 candles on his cake, I’d like to raise a glass to the man who invented the valve that released the pressure on the skull of a very confused young boy; who turned my dreary estate in the North of England into a chocolate factory, a big glass elevator and a giant fucking peach; and who more or less let me survive reality for long enough to learn how to deal with it. For all that, and the books, I am truly indebted. Happy Birthday Mr Dahl.
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