Last call with Roald Dahl: Do children enjoy the books their parents give them? Jenny Gilbert asks two nieces of Roald Dahl
Wednesday 13 April 1994
Amy: Mold (the children's nickname for their uncle) used to read to us a bit, usually his books, often before they were published. I remember The Witches, which was scary as I was quite small. He did the Grand High Witch in a really scary voice, and the children, when they'd been turned into mice, he did in a funny squeaky voice, and the grandmother was a very kind voice. He wouldn't read the whole book, because usually we were only there for the afternoon, but he'd read the best bits.
When I was older it always made me want to read them myself, and now I've read them all. My favourite is Boy, about when he was little, and Matilda. That was about a small girl who liked books and played tricks on her family. I don't think he could have been writing about me or my sister, though he was always asking us what we liked.
Of other books, I like mostly horse books. And I loved a book I read called The Boggart by Susan Cooper. It's about this poltergeist who lives in a castle in Scotland and a family from Canada inherit it. They take the furniture back to Canada without knowing that he's sleeping in the furniture. Then he gets into their computer, and the children send him back in a disc to Scotland. He eventually gets back to his castle.
Another of my favourite books is the The Diddikoi by Rumer Godden, about a half-gypsy girl who has her own caravan and a pony to pull it. My sister had read it and recommended it to me. I read a lot of books that way.
Phoebe: Mold loved chocolate, and he gave us lots of it, too. He was always trying out new chocolate bars, but the only one he liked was Dimebar, which had hard toffee in the middle. When we had some after dinner he wouldn't let us just eat it, we always had to chop bits off to make it more exciting, just like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
I can remember him asking me what I thought of bits of his books, and what I thought should happen. He did that with Matilda when I was six or seven. My favourites are Boy and Going Solo, the two factual ones, and the BFG, though perhaps I'm a bit old for that one now. He recommended me lots of other people's books, too.
He always took me to films and plays of his books, but he hardly ever liked them. He didn't really get cross, he just thought his version was better. In The Witches the film changes the mouse back into a boy, which isn't the story at all. He doesn't give you happy endings or sad ones - they're whatever you don't expect.
Veronica Barran: We had two children already when my sister, Liccy, met Roald. They must have been about seven and nine, just the right age for his children's stories, and were frightfully excited about having him as their uncle. They'd come to his books independently - my eldest daughter, Perdita, was already a voracious reader - and I don't think they could quite believe Roald was the same person as the writer of the books.
I remember him reading them the first chapter of The Witches, before it was published. We adults weren't allowed in the room - he wanted their opinion, not ours. There was a big discussion about whether the mouse should turn back into a boy at the end. They decided not.
Roald was very good at listening and had a special rapport with children. He'd looked after his own when they were small, long before the New Man. All the children in the family called him Mold, sometimes Moldy, which he liked. None of them could pronounce Ru-o-ald.
I know some people object to the books for various reasons, but you've got to set them in the context of his adult work, which was quite spooky, and also in the context of Norse tradition and its sagas.
Although he was brought up in England, he had this Nordic side to him. It made his stories northern and different, rather in the way Hans Andersen was. And his writing has great directness and simplicity. Did you know he never uses a colon or semi-colon? He was told that by Ernest Hemingway. And I remember Roald telling Phoebe, very forcefully: 'Write simply.'
I read a lot to the girls when they were little, but now my husband does, usually at bedtime. He tends to choose books they might not get into if left to themselves. Recently they've had White Fang and Call of the Wild by Jack London.
The hardest thing is to hit exactly the right age for a particular book. Even nine months can make a big difference. Amy saw The Borrowers on telly, thought she'd like to read it, tried and gave up. She started again recently and really enjoyed it.
Roald died about three years ago and the girls were very sad and shocked. He was 73, but behaved much, much younger. He never lost his boyish enthusiasm and sense of fun. There's a wonderful dark climbing tree at the end of their garden called the Witch's Tree and the girls would be sent up it. And he'd take them to his cellar and threaten to leave them there with the rats. I'm sure it horrifies some people to hear that, but the girls loved it - I can see them grinning even now. He knew what made them tick, and what made them unhappy. He hated them being unhappy.
He was a difficult man in many ways. 'Cut the crap' was one of his phrases. He was warm and generous and magical, which came across particularly to the children. None of that's come out in the recent biography. As family, we were probably on the receiving end of the best side of him.
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