Sugaring the pill

Dahl, Llandaff
Roald with his sisters Else and Alfhild, at Llandaff

Roald Dahl Boy: Tales of Childhood Puffin Books 1986 (1984)

Boy is less an autobiography than a patchy memoir of Roald Dahl’s youth, up to the point in his early twenties when a world war rudely interrupted everybody’s planned trajectories. But that’s not to say his life had been uneventful before then — this account is full of memories of home, family, school, acquaintances and holidays, many of which were to supply material for his published fiction. As he says of the incidents he recounts, some are funny, some painful, some unpleasant, but “all are true”.

Many are very vivid, perhaps too vivid, especially the things he witnessed or experienced at his schools. Though I am of a generation three decades adrift from Roald Dahl my experience of a boys school was uncomfortably close to what he describes, first at Llandaff Cathedral School near Cardiff, then at St Peter’s boarding school in Weston-Super-Mare, and finally at Repton, the Derbyshire public school. What comes through is the utter savagery the boys were subject to from staff and prefects, not to mention all-pervasive sadistic cultures and primitive conditions. Beatings were barbaric and frequently arbitrary, and while the young Dahl soon learned strategies to manage much of the bullying — by not putting his head too much above the parapet or, eventually, becoming good at sports — his education seems to largely consist of a catalogue of unpleasant treatments meted out to his hapless contemporaries, not excluding a memorable lancing of a boil and similar.

Away from school family life seems to have largely been a haven of relative peace and happiness, with idyllic summer holidays in Norway countering the horrors of term time. Not even home was immune from tragedy and pain — deaths in the family mingle with the incidents of Roald’s adenoids and nose (not both at the same time, luckily). The future author at least tries to sugar the pill with anecdotes such as the amusing incident of the goat’s tobacco and the occasions when the Repton boys were asked to trial new chocolate bars invented by Cadbury’s, the latter of course being the kernel that later led to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Roald Dahl in 1925
Roald Dahl in 1925

What comes through loud and clear is that however tough his upbringing was (and it can’t have been much different from what many of his middleclass contemporaries suffered) he transmuted the lead of those childhood realities into gold for his children’s fiction. The young and often innocent protagonists who people his books may face uncaring or cruel adults but they almost invariably come through to the other side, mostly unscathed. However unpleasant and painful his own boyhood was he wanted to give hope to other youngsters; only this memoir, because true, shows that some adults often figuratively get away with murder. Some even get to become Archbishop of Canterbury …

Now, his adult fiction, that’s another matter.

Boy, I should mention, is laced through with old black-and-white photos, some Quentin Blake illustrations and extracts from the numerous letters he wrote home to his widowed mother in which he invariably signed himself ‘Boy’. The centenary of his birth is being commemorated by a string of events celebrating his achievements, but I shall always remember that poor waif of a lad in the sweet shop in Llandaff, in the dormitory in Weston-Super-Mare and dressed in outsize clothes for his first day at Repton.

Author alphabet: D

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17 thoughts on “Sugaring the pill

  1. Christine

    Lovely review of a very peculiar book, I hope you’ll write about its sequel someday. Sometimes it’s hard to read autobiographical works without wondering if there have been too many distortions or embellishments, but the thought didn’t really occur to me when reading Boy. It’s really a very genuine and touching set of childhood memories, and much crueler than Grahame’s Dream Days. But it was nice to read parts of it my father, as he had a rather similar if somewhat less awful experience at his school, and he seemed to enjoy reminiscing over things he hadn’t thought of in years.

    1. It’s interesting, isn’t it, Christine, how over a decade’s experience of attending school not only makes us all kind of experts but also leads us to compare and contrast that with that of others. It’s why schooldays figure so strongly in fiction and films, from Harry Potter to any number of teen movies set in high school. I inevitably thought of my own memories in Bristol in the late 50s, just as your father was encouraged to reminisce. A peculiar book indeed!

      The Kenneth Grahame now I don’t know about but sounds as if need to seek it out!

  2. How can we expect or even hope for our “civilised” society to move forward while we keep putting people into government who have spent their formative years in such a barbarous education system?

    1. It clearly didn’t do them a lot of harm — after all, look where it got them — but it’s worrying that they’re concerned to turn heads and principals into mini-dictators of their own fiefdoms; here they’ll suffer little accountability to ordinary citizens (sorry, clients or maybe customers) whose only recourse would be to swap from service provider to another — if they can. What a shower we’re saddled with, doing untold harm for yet still more years.

    1. Do try it, Stephen, but don’t expect just desserts for the mean perpetrators that one would find in his fiction — I felt really angry after reading this, ready to spit bile in fact!

        1. I agree, Stephen, real life violence is of a different order to that in fiction, and you have to have a particular mental attitude to stomach it with equanimity which neither you nor I have. Still, I’m glad I read this, and righteous anger is a better response than helpless despair at man’s inhumanity to man and especially to child.

  3. earthbalm

    Another interesting post and on the day I read that the government intends turning state school in England into academies. My own experience of secondary education was of going to a ‘comprehensive’ school in the first year it had become ‘comprehensive’. Previously it had been a ‘grammar’ school – the one that Neil Pinnock attended. Most of the teaching staff appeared unable to cope with the change. I was lucky enough / unlucky enough to be in the top stream and the old staff kept telling us we were the ‘creme de la creme’, a demotivating incentive if ever there was one.

    1. With a few years interlude I went from attending an all-boys grammar to teaching in a co-ed comprehensive, and for all its faults (corporal punishment was still allowed) it was an eye-opener, and its generally liberal approach made for a much more caring and enabling atmosphere. What a change awaited in the late 80s when the industrial sausage-machine business model became de rigeur, and our own century when the academy template meant a rose-spectacled back-to-the-past good-old-days vision blotted out any notions of individuality, let alone genuine eccentricity. I fear for the future, Dale, I really do, just as I did in the dark days of Thatcher.

      1. earthbalm

        Apologies, I forgot to say that my secondary school was and still remains one of a very small number of all boy state secondaries in south Wales. It wasn’t a healthy mix.

        1. The rationale for segregating girls and boys in education is riddled with conflicting evidence, affecting boys and girls in different ways with regard to learning outcomes, socialising and making them fit for an integrated and balanced society, as far as I can tell from the various studies that have reported over the years. One size can never fit all, I suspect.

      2. earthbalm

        I’d like to add that just a few short years ago, the Welsh Assembly Government wanted desperately to promote creativity in the primary sector. To help them achieve this… they began work on a skills ladder of levels of creativity!

        1. Yeah, like that would ever work! The point about about creativity is that it is infinitely variable, and to straitjacket it in a systematised fashion is the surest way to stifle it! What happens to late bloomers, those who think outside the box, the innate rebels, the introverts, the geniuses, how can they be contained let alone channeled in the average primary school? There’s enough layers and types of differentiation that teachers have to be applying, and when will they themselves be allowed to teach creatively within increasingly hidebound regulations?

          1. earthbalm

            And that’s us just getting warmed up. I wonder how many artists, craftspersons, scientists etc. would have scored “Level 6 in creativity”? Perhaps real creativity is unrecognisable / unidentifiable or is probably deemed ‘outlandish’ until the rest of existence catches up with it. Slight aside: It always tickles me when I see adults who were thought of as ‘behind’ in school but are making a great life for themselves are as financially well-off as us teachers what taught ’em and have nowhere near the same stress.

    1. The starkly cruel world of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall was still firmly in place when Dahl was a child, Juhi, and to a only slightly lesser extent when I went to prep school aged 10. Times were a-changing in the state sector though, and even in the halfway house that was the grammar school. I can’t speak for independents and so-called public schools where old traditions die hard. The British school system has long been a mess, and it’s going to get worse with the current meddling of our rightwing government.

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