A child's pleasure in making flesh creep

Literary Notes: Cedric Cullingford

THERE IS no doubting the popularity of Roald Dahl. The reason for this might be obvious at first. He writes with unselfconscious exuberance, his stories move at a manic pace and are full of a mixture of exaggerations and simple jokes: "China's so full of Wings and Wongs everytime you wing you get a wong number."

At the same time Dahl relishes the disgusting. He makes great play of a child's pleasure in making the flesh creep. Thus we are cajoled into reacting against sentimentality:

It is only when the parents begin telling us about the brilliance of their revolting offspring that we start shouting "Bring us a basin! We're going to be sick!"

There is palpable pleasure in such an exaggerated feeling. The Twits' revolting habits are described in lurid detail. The idea of crunching the bones of young children returns as a theme again and again:

I'm off to find a yummy child for lunch. Keep listening and you'll hear the bones go crunch.

He cannot resist reiterating, with glee, the pleasures of the revolting.

I'll bet if you saw a fat juicy little child paddling in the water over there at this very moment you'd gulp him up in one gollop.

When the Enormous Crocodile at last meets his match it ends up being swung round and round and being thrown into the sun - "And he was sizzled up like a sausage!"

All harmless fun? One of the pervasive features of Dahl's books is the sense of manic drive coupled with a delight in the nastiness of human beings. The books are, in fact, driven by half- disguised anger. This might seem like a righteous anger at injustice but is a deeper seated outcry at the human condition.

The parents of James (of The Giant Peach) are quickly disposed of:

Their troubles were over in a jiffy. They were dead and gone in 35 seconds flat.

This leaves others to deal with unhappiness as best they can; in the shape of a world full of men "as nasty and mean . . . as any you could meet". Dahl talks of the life of a writer as "absolute hell", where he lives in "a world of fear". This is not just the fear of running out of ideas but of a deep sense of injustice and anger.

Behind the humour the books convey great conflict. They are about overcoming authority, with rebellion emerging out of a sophisticated conspiracy. The themes depend on "us" against "them".

"Them" is both no one in particular and everyone. The hatred derives from a sense of revenge and punishment:

punishing one or both of them each time they were beastly to her made her life more or less bearable.

Dahl himself is aware of this fascination with pain, even if it is of an exaggerated kind. In his autobiography Boy he writes

you will be wondering why I lay so much emphasis upon school beatings in these pages. The answer is that I cannot help it . . . I have never got over it.

The abiding sense of anger and shame and the grievance against Dr Coggan, later the Archbishop of Canterbury, for relishing inflicting pain on pupils, is palpable. The whole book, however, is full of pain, of boils and scalpels, and canings and humiliations, either suffered or directed against others.

At first sight the manic energy of Dahl seems quite simple and unselfconscious. But it is driven by something deeper . . . When we recognise that children enjoy all the relish of exaggeration we should not forget why this should be so. The pain that Dahl expresses is recognised by his readers because they also share it. Whereas Enid Blyton seeks escape from trauma by creating a perfect, safe and ordered world, Dahl rushes into a wild alternative set of images that use anger as a means of overcoming suffering.

Cedric Cullingford is the author of `Children's Literature and Its Effects' (Cassell, pounds 45/pounds 15.99)

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