The man who made Matilda
The huge and enduring popularity of Roald Dahl was proved again when he won top place in the BBC's Bookworm poll. A new 'Treasury' shows the full range of his dark, fascinating talents
Sunday 21 September 1997
"Before you read this book, think for a moment about what it might be like to have Roald Dahl for a father..." writes Ophelia Dahl in "About My Father", one of the prefaces to this fat and tempting collection.
She goes on to make him out to have been a loveable, if shambolic, sort of a Dad, whose most important quality was "to make everything seem like an adventure". It's loyal of her. Personally, I think I'd have been terrified to have had Roald Dahl as a father - not only because of the black world of his adult fiction, which is if anything even more haunting than his now more famous work for children - but because even in his cuddlier mood (and he's never, after all, particularly cuddly) Dahl's hallmark is that fierce, dark vein that runs through or under everything.
That's what we have to think about, when assessing Dahl. His storytelling is remarkable, without question; he is fabulously inventive; his work is varied; he can speak to children of all sorts of ages - all that we know. Those things make him a highly successful and enjoyable author. But it is, I think, the darkness that makes Dahl something beyond that, namely a real writer.
What is slightly puzzling, though, is why this particular cocktail of qualities should prove so heady for the nation's children. Most children of my acquaintance are, strictly speaking, addicted to Dahl. The few who have had a glimpse of this new Treasury lunge hungrily towards it. It's quite strange to see, and not entirely comfortable. Dahl has them spellbound, and spells can be scary just as often as they are delightful.
It's a big book: more than 400 large pages with lots of pictures. It is divided into four parts: Animals, Magic, Family, Friends and Foes, and Matters of Importance. To list the titles from which the extracts, poems and pieces are taken would be unwieldy, but it's all there - from Going Solo to Rhyme Stew, Charlie to Revolting Recipes, Boy to BFG. The Twits, the Minpins, the Enormous Crocodile, Willie Wonka: I haven't checked, but I doubt there could be anybody left out. All the best illustrators, too, find their way in: Quentin Blake, it goes without saying, predominates (his Crocodile, from Dirty Beasts, is above), but there is work too by Posy Simmonds, Ralph Steadman, Babette Cole, Patrick Benson and others.
At the front, as well as Ophelia Dahl's mini-memoir of her father, there's an interesting note from publisher Tom Maschler and another short piece, called "The Hut", written and outlandishly illustrated by Ralph Steadman. Dahl's writing hut, at the end of his garden in Buckinghamshire, was a place of veneration to his friends. There the writer indulged in all sorts of rituals, some predictable (pencil-sharpening, and so on) others odder - "A shabby suitcase had been nailed to the floor so that he could press against it to ease the pain in his back". The hut - even Roald Dahl's hut - couldn't have been as Steadmanesque as Steadman makes it, but somehow through this brief sketch the writer comes to life for us.
There is some new material here, too: a number of unpublished poems and letters. Indeed, it is often in the replies to his young fans that we can hear the true note of Dahl's rather complicated relationship with his adoring readers. His is an anarchist spirit: that's what children love about him. That's to state the obvious. They love him because he is childlike, but never childish. But what about the sternness, the tough memories of the autobiographical writing, for instance, which refuse self-pity at the same time as admitting pain.
My teacher loved using the cane
He would thrash us again and again
I'd be raised in the air
By the roots of my hair,
While he shouted "It's good for the brain!"
I used to wear pants extra thick
To lessen the sting from his stick.
When he saw what I'd done,
He yelled, "This is no fun!
Take them off altogether and quick!"
From your letters to me it would seem
That your teacher is clearly a dream.
There's no whacks on the bum
When you can't do a sum,
Instead you get strawberries and cream.
Despite the jokes, it's not really clear in this letter-poem whose side he's on. That's the thing.
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