Roald Dahl by Michael Rosen: 'Amazing, shocking, timeless'
Here is a routine I’m very used to: I get into a London cab. I look up at the mirror and can see that the cabbie is sneaking little looks at me. After a bit, he asks me if I’m that bloke who used to write children’s books.
I say that I’m still that bloke who writes children’s books. He says, don’t tell me your name. Then he says, tell me your name. I tell him my name and then he says, I love Roald Dahl!
There are variations to this story. Sometimes the cabbie will tell me that I’m Howard Jacobson. Or Jonathan Miller. Or Quentin Blake. Or, on one occasion, Roald Dahl.
I take from all this that Roald Dahl is immensely popular, but from this sample alone I can only make the guess that he’s particularly popular amongst London men who are cabbies. However, I also know from my conversations with teachers, children, people who used to be children, my students and my own children that he’s immensely popular way, way beyond London cabbies.
I’m too old to have read him as a child, so all my encounters with his books and him have been as a parent. I can remember that time when the word went round that a new Roald Dahl book was on its way.
Part of the excitement of that time was that our children would have no idea what it might be about. We wouldn’t know if the main character was a boy or a girl, whether it would be set in a school, at home or in some kind of unreal place – or all three.
What they and we parents and teachers knew is that the book would be full of Dahl-stuff. What is that? What was it that we could expect, even if we had no idea what the book would be about?
We knew it would be funny and outrageous. There would be people or moments which were so extraordinary or odd that we would perhaps wonder how he had got away with putting it in a book for children.
We could be pretty sure that the book would be full of schemes and plots and cunning plans. We could be pretty sure that there would be some kind of authority figure and that some kind of underdog would have to be wily and clever to overcome the authority figure, and though the way would be full of pitfalls the underdog would triumph.
Oh yes, there would be one other element we could be sure of: the book would make children laugh. They wouldn’t just laugh once. They would laugh over and over again. We grown-ups might laugh. We might also flinch. Just sometimes, we would think something along the lines of – blimey, that bad character didn’t get better!
Yes, in the world of Dahl’s children’s books, amazingly and unconventionally, the bad people are often not reformed. They either stay bad or, like George’s Granny in George’s Marvellous Medicine, they stay in some kind of hellish limbo, transformed into something grotesque and kept like that.
Where did this array of characters, scenes and plots come from? I think that the ingredients that made Dahl into such a varied, original and hilarious children’s writer are these: his origins were in Norwegian culture transmitted to him primarily by his mother, who filled his mind with the wonderfully robust and grotesque world of Norse giants and gods; he suffered being sent away from home to the muscular, sadistic world of a 1930s private boarding school; he experienced at first-hand the horrors of war and the loss of many co-pilots; he learned how to enjoy the mild risk of prying on high society when he was a spy for the British in war-time USA.
He was for most of his life an avid collector. As a boy he loved birds’ eggs and stamps. Later, he got to treasure fine art and music. He collected people – that’s to say, his notebooks are full of observations of odd things that people had said or done or that he imagined they might do.
And throughout his life, he liked to collect odd things. The table in his writing hut is covered with odd touchy-feely things that intrigued him: a ball made of the silver wrapping paper from all the bars of chocolate he had eaten, the ball-joint from the top of his thigh-bone which had been replaced in a hip op, and so on.
Ultimately, of course, we can never be absolutely sure what makes someone into a writer. I figure that at crucial points in your life, you come to appreciate your own enjoyment of reading in such a way that you want to reproduce that fun for other people.
In his letters home, Dahl expresses particular relish for the stories and performances that one of his teachers puts on. At other times, you find that you enjoy experimenting with a potential audience: you try out jokes or anecdotes and discover that people are amused.
This Dahl did in his weekly letters home to his mother, and which survive in the Roald Dahl archive. And yet more times, one or two people you respect and like encourage you to have a go and another go – and another go! – at writing.
Dahl was lucky to experience all these, and as a father with a good deal of hands-on parenting to be done, he found himself engaging very closely with children’s viewpoints and angles on the world – including the experiences of bereavement, illness and injury.
He wasn’t a perfect bloke. Adult critics and commentators can easily find out things about him that are odd or unpleasant. If I had known him better, I wouldn’t mind guessing that he and I would have clashed over some political things he said or wrote, but he’s not alive to argue with me about these – or to listen to what I might say.
But his books – and the interpretations of his books appearing in film and on stage – are vivid, larger-than-life tales which continue to intrigue, amaze and shock young people and their parents and teachers.
I celebrate and enjoy that in bucketloads.
Fantastic Mr Dahl by Michael Rosen, published by Puffin, is out now. To celebrate Roald Dahl Day, Rosen will be taking part in a live interactive webcast in conversation with Quentin Blake on September 24. Register at puffinvirtuallylive.co.uk