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.
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