I will be forever grateful to Roald Dahl (13 September 1916 – 23 November 1990) for the deeply grooved etchings of my childhood. The unlikely gentle heroes, the impossibly complete settings, the villains, the love of sweets. Somewhere in his pages, I decided to live in England; in my childhood mind, I was already there.
Roald Dahl’s Boy: Tales of Childhood brings us directly to a childhood that, while embellished, wasn’t imagined. And yet, it is every bit as wondrous as his books.
This is not an autobiography. I would never write a history of myself. On the other hand, throughout my young days at school and just afterwards a number of things happened to me that I have never forgotten. None of these things is important, but each of them made such a tremendous impression on me that I have never been able to get them out of my mind.
New York artist Maira Kalman once wrote from the desire to “empty my mind,” what a lovely launching point. I imagine Dahl was similarly motivated.
Born in 1916 in Wales to Norwegian parents, Dahl remembers his father as inventive, industrial, and whimsical:
He harboured a curious theory about how to develop a sense of beauty in the minds of his children. Every time my mother became pregnant, he would wait until the last three months of her pregnancy and then he would announce to her that ‘the glorious walks’ must begin. These glorious walks consisted of him taking her to places of great beauty to the countryside and walking with her for about an hour each day so that she could absorb the splendor of the surroundings.
His father’s early death left Roald and his four siblings with their young Norwegian mother alone in Wales. “A less courageous woman,” writes Dahl, “would almost certainly have sold the house and packed her bags and headed straight back to Norway.” His mother’s fortitude, conviction in the English school systems, and ability to steward each child to adulthood is one of the brightest lights of Dahl’s life.1
The world should be grateful Mrs. Dahl enrolled young Roald in English schools. From them comes a treasure trove of characters and narratives and, of course, villains.
We called them masters in those days, not teachers, and at St. Peter’s the one I feared most of all … was Captain Hardcastle. This man was slim and wiry and he played football. On the football field he wore white running shorts and white gymshoes and short white socks. His legs were as hard and thin as ram’s legs and the skin around his calves was almost exactly the colour of mutton fat. The hair on his head was not ginger. It was a brilliant dark vermilion, like a ripe orange, and it was plastered back with immense quantities of brilliantine.
There is also, as one would imagine, incredible pain and emotion in these early days. The all-encompassing heaviness that overwhelms a child but which adult Dahl puts to words.
I was homesick during the whole of my first term at St. Peter’s. Homesickness is a bit like seasickness. You don’t know how awful it is till you get it, and when you do, it hits you right in the top of the stomach and you want to die. The only comfort is that both homesickness and seasickness are instantly curable. The first goes away the moment you walk out of the school grounds.
In Dahl’s childhood, adults had power and wielded it viciously.
The Matron was a large fair-haired woman with a bosom. Her age was probably no more than twenty-eight but it made no difference whether she was twenty-eight or sixty-eight because to us a grown-up was a grown-up and all grown-ups were dangerous creatures at this school.
Once you climbed to the top of the stairs and set foot on the dormitory floor, you were in the Matron’s power, and the source of this power was the unseen but frightening figure of the Headmaster lurking down in the depths of the study below. At any time she liked the Matron could send you down in your pyjamas and dressing-gown to report to this merciless giant, and whenever this happened you got caned on the spot.
Compare the stodgy, uniformed, and often violent existence of prep school with the Dahl family summer holidays back to Norway:
The summer holidays! Those magic words! The mere mention of them used to send shivers of joy rippling over my skin. All my summer holidays, from when I was four years old to when I was seventeen (1920 to 1932), were totally idyllic. This, I am certain, was because we always went to the same idyllic place and that place was Norway. In a way … going to Norway every summer was like going home.
There is something in Dahl that forever seeks freedom denied to him during school days and granted in Norway. “A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom.”
Dahl is not cuddly, he’s not avuncular, he’s not even very sweet. And yet, his writing persists. His characters, like those of Dickens, are some of the most memorable in literature. His characters seek freedom, safety, comfort, and joy.
Don’t we all?
Dahl is buried in Great Missenden, a town just west and worlds away from London. On these streets, the BFG blew dreams through windows, and in the library Matilda read piles of books.2
Something about Dahl’s experience sounded familiar, and I realized he went to the same prep school as John Cleese.
These two men have much in common: strong relationships with their mothers (though Cleese’s was negative), commanding height (both hit six feet before they were twelve), and brutal schooling. They also share the ability to perpetuate their imagination and expand that imagination to a massive body of creative work.
What formed these men? What forms any of us?
Who knows what flotsam in our unconscious floats to the top and forms our narrative of self. Dahl wrote “This is not an autobiography” because that would suggest he’d be contained therein. And he’s not.
The pages of Boy: Tales of Childhood are, like all Dahl’s books, full of stories. Beautiful, life-forming stories.3