Anyone who has read Matilda, Witches, or the BFG knows Roald Dahl’s (1916 – 1990) novelistic magic sits betwixt an absolutely loveable, charming and an unbelievable sinister element. A landowner that wants to kill a family of foxes, giants that eat humans, headmistresses and masters that bully the very children they are intended to protect.
Dahl’s villains are never multi-dimensional, never sympathetic. They were born evil and remain evil and are only made palatable by the fact that they are appropriately punished.1
It is thus not surprising that those same charming and sinister elements course through Going Solo, Dahl’s memoirs that pick up where Boy: Tales of Childhood left off: Dahl leaving England at age 22 to work in East Africa for Shell Company.
The ship that was carrying me away from England to Africa in the autumn of 1938 was called the SS Mantola. She was an old paint-peeling tub of 9,000 tons with a single tall funnel and a vibrating engine that rattled the tea-cups in their sauces on the dining-room table.
The voyage from the Port of London to Mombasa would take two weeks and on the way we were to call in at Marseilles, Malta, Port Said, Suez, Port Sudan and Aden. Nowadays you can fly to Mombasa in a few hours and you stop nowhere and nothing is fabulous any more, but in 1938 a journey like that was full of stepping-stones and East Africa was a long way from home, especially if your contract with Shell company said that you were to stay out there for three years at a stretch. I was twenty-two when I left. I would be twenty-five before I saw my family again.
In this distant land, unbelievable things happen to the young Dahl (snakes, Nazis, plane crashes) and yet, he has this unstoppable, uncanny mirth.
On the voyage to Dar es Salaam, knowing he would not see his family again for years:
The whole of that amazing tropical scene through the port-hole has been photographed on my mind ever since. To me it was all wonderful, beautiful and exciting, And so it remained for the rest of my time in Tanganyika. I loved it all. There were no furled umbrellas, no bowler hats, no sombre grey suits and I never once had to get on a train or bus.
When a lion grabs a local woman in his jaws and runs off (she survived) or a green mamba snake sneaks into the living room of a young family (they survived), Dahl waves his pen and delivers the drama with an open heart and easy words.
These anecdotes could be collected and filed under “amusing travel adventures” like those of Gerald Durrell, Laurie Lee, or Peter Mayle, but when Great Britain enters the Second World War, the sinister heightens and Dahl struggles to make light of complicated circumstances. His conversation with Mdisho, Dahl’s servant and main companion, is one of the most darkly distressing of the book:
‘When is this enormous war going to begin?’ Mdisho asked me.
‘They say quite soon,’ I told him, ‘because over in Europe, which is ten times as far away as from here to Kilimanjaro, the Germans have a leader called Bwana Hitler who wishes to conquer the world. The Germans think this Bwana Hitler is a wonderful fellow. But he is actually a raving mad maniac. As soon as the war begins, the Germani will try to kill us all, and then, of course, as shall have to try to kill them before they can kill us.’
Mdisho, being a true child of his tribe, understood the principle of war very well.
‘Why don’t we strike first?’ he said, excitedly. ‘Why don’t we take them by surprise, these Germani out here, bwana? Why don’t we kill all of them before the war begins? That is always the best way, bwana. My ancestors always used to strike first.’
‘I am afraid we have very strict rules about war.’ I said. ‘With us, nobody is allowed to kill anyone until the whistle blows and the game is officially started.’
‘But that is ridiculous, bwana!’ he cried. In a way there are no rules! Winning is all that counts!’
When War breaks out and fighting is officially sanctioned, the Englishmen in Dar were ordered to leave their jobs and become temporary army officers.
I was summoned to the Army barracks in Dar es Salaam where a British Captain in the KAR gave me my orders. He was seated at a wooden table with his hat on in a sweltering hot tin hut, and he had a little clipped brown moustache that kept jumping about when he spoke. ‘As soon as war is declared,’ he said, ‘all male Germans must be rounded up at the point of a gun and put into the prison camp.’
Dahl’s job, as an untrained volunteer officer, was to collect all German citizens and escort them (by any means necessary) to the makeshift prison camps. Mdisho hears of this duty and takes it up upon himself to kill one of the German citizens, proud of his role in the war. Dahl, appalled but compassionate, tells Mdisho to never tell anyone what he did, explaining the different means of death and killing and again, the “rules of war.”
Dahl does not dwindle on the muddled nature of morality in war, and his blithe state of mind becomes even more clear in this timely letter to his mother:
I’m very sorry I haven’t written to you for such ages but you can guess that things have been humming a bit here. Now all the Germans in the Territory, and its a pretty big place in which to try to catch them, have been safely put inside an internment camp. And we army officers were the people who had to collect them. …
What Dahl does not tell his Mother but does tell us is that upon rounding up the Germans, one resists and is shot.
Two months later, Dahl drives 600 miles to Nairobi to join the RAF and scrunch his six foot seven frame into a tiny plane and fight Germans. And yet again, finds charm in the pending calamity.
When one is quite alone on a lengthy and slightly hazardous journey like this, every sensation of pleasure and fear is enormously intensified, and several incidents from that stage two-day safari up through central Africa in my little black Ford have remained clear in my memory.
A frequent and always wonderful sight was the astonishing number of giraffe that I passed on the first day. They were usually in groups of three or four, often with a baby alongside, and that never ceased to enthral me. They were surprisingly tame…
All my inhibitions would disappear and I would shout, ‘Hello, giraffes! Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello! How are you today?’
And the giraffes would incline their heads very slightly and stare down at me with languorous demure expressions, but they never ran away. I found it exhilarating to be able to walk freely among such huge graceful wild creatures and talk to them as I wished.
Dahl’s experience involved preciously little training, a furiously uncomfortable plane, and an injury that settled him in a field hospital for months.
I sent you a telegram yesterday saying that I’d got up for 2 hours and had a bath – so you’ll see I’m making good progress. I arrived here about 8 1/2 weeks ago, and was lying on my back for 7 weeks doing nothing, then sat up gradually, and now I’m walking a bit. When I came in I was a bit of a mess. My eyes didn’t open (although I was always quite conscious). They thought I had a fractured base (skull, but I think the Xray showed I didn’t. My nose was bashed in, but they got the most marvellous Harley Street specialists out here who’ve joined up for the war as Majors.
These moments of deep, deep drama are continually wrapped up in a sort of glee with only bits of darkness peeking through.
I cleared the top of the mountain range with 500 feet to spare, and as I went over it I saw a single solitary goat, brown and white, wandering on the bare rock. ‘Hello goat,’ I said aloud into my oxygen mask, “I’ll bet you don’t know the Germans are going to have you for supper before you’re very much older.’
To which, as I realized as soon as I’d said it, the goat might very well have answered, ‘And the same to you, my boy. You’re not better off than I am.”
The last lines of the book Dahl returns to his childhood home and runs into the arms of his waiting mother, a force of home he carried the entire time away.
Although Going Solo was published in 1988, it contains the same child-like wonder that Dahl first felt. It is easy to understand how Dahl compartmentalized the unspeakable moral quandaries into these one-dimensional villains and in doing so, created characters that affect us deeply.
Compliment this complex collection of stories with the machinations of Jorge Luis Borges, Charlie Mackesy, A. A. Milne and this wonderful ensemble of Japanese folklore, all odes to the creative, inspired human spirit.