If Roald Dahl was still alive he’d be approaching his 100th birthday in September 2016. As it is he died in 1990, but not before leaving an extraordinary legacy of books for adults and, of course, children. In 1984 he published a memoir of his early years, Boy: Tales of a Childhood, and towards the end of this he compares the life of the writer that he became with one of his first jobs, working for Shell. “I began to realize how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours and a fixed salary and very little original thinking to do,” he writes, one suspects with his tongue firmly lodged in his cheek. “The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman.”
How does he justify this? “The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear.”
I’d never thought of an author as someone who sits trembling at their desk, but it must be true if Dahl is to be believed. “Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not.” A bit like a blogger, I suppose, but at least most bloggers don’t rely on their tippy-tapping for an income. “Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For these two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze.”
I picture the strain it must have imposed on this dazed writer in his mid-seventies. He tells us he is driven to drink, declaring that “it is a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whisky than is good for him.” (As an aside, I wonder what women writers drink.) I realise that the reason I’m not a successful writer is that I’m not fond of a tipple or three to give myself, as he puts it, faith, hope and courage.
Dahl’s advice to wouldbe authors is clear. “A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom.” Ah, so no publisher’s advance. Or royalties. Or universal fame. “He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.” Don’t embark on this career fulltime unless you want to be free to express yourself. Perhaps to starve and wither away. Or drown in whisky.
“Absolute hell”? Methinks he doth protest too much. But his musings give me pause. Is this how ‘proper’ writers really feel? Trapped in a hell of their own making, comforted only by the thought that they are masters of their own souls?
I probably lack the soul to be a writer. And the courage …
* Expect a slew of media excitement and Dahl-mania as the year progresses. My contribution will be a review — soon — of that memoir I’ve mentioned, and maybe I’ll even get round to some of his adult fiction and the odd modern children’s classic before the year is out. On a sartorial note, I remember wearing a clash of checked clothing around the 1980s just like Dahl’s, even down to the shirt and sports jacket …