When we asked Standard Issue writers for their favourite Roald Dahl creations, ahead of an official day in his honour on Sunday, there was a veritable stampede of Dahl love. Today takes in a couple of children’s classics and some of his adult work.
Danny the Champion of the World
Danny the Champion of the World was always my favourite of my many Roald Dahl books. I had a paperback copy that literally fell apart in the end because it was so well loved. I spent my childhood dreaming of secrets in the forest, yearned to live in a caravan with apples falling on the roof and developed a love of kites and floating lanterns that still lives on.
The book, as with all of Dahl’s books, encouraged a healthy sense of mischief and complete disregard for authority. Danny’s playful father stands in stark contrast to the overbearing teachers in his school and, of course, to the villain of the piece: the pompous, self-important Mr Hazell, whose pheasants are the target of Danny and his father’s schemes.
As an insufferable goody two shoes, I suppose I explored my sense of disobedience through Roald Dahl books. If Danny… is too hipster a Roald Dahl for you, it also gives the first glimpse of another beloved character: the BFG makes a brief appearance in one of Danny’s bedtime stories.
All of Roald Dahl’s books hold a special place in my heart, but Danny… was always my favourite. At least, it was until my parents accidentally bought me a book of his erm, adult poems.
My Uncle Oswald
Roald Dahl writing about sex feels like it should be a bit weird, doesn’t it? Yet in My Uncle Oswald, Dahl’s hilariously smutty musings are an utter joy.
Uncle Oswald had a glimmer of stardom before this 1979 novel, appearing in two of Dahl’s short stories, The Visitor and Bitch (from 1974’s fab Switch Bitch), but here the wonderfully debauched and handsome top-level shagger gets star billing.
The story is far-fetched and farcical but laugh-out-loud funny as Oswald’s nephew explains how he has waited until he felt the public were ready to read this excerpt from the diaries of Oswald, “without doubt the greatest fornicator of all time.”
The nephew hands over to the twinkling Oswald who escorts the reader through an extraordinary tale explaining how he made his riches courtesy of the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world (formed from the powder of a dried out Sudanese Blister Beetle). Oswald immediately uses this discovery to shag his way around Paris, but it soon dawns on him that this powder could make him a lot of cash.
What follows is a joyous romp that finds Oswald and Yasmin travelling the world with one aim: to capture the sperm of the most desirable men on the planet and sell it to women who want their babies. Genius. Yasmin does the wooing and erection avoiding (“Be a good boy while I put your little mackintosh on”), while Oswald preserves the donations.
Each meeting – from Freud to Einstein to Joyce to Picasso – is hilarious with Dahl’s brilliant wordy humour shining through. Smutty, raunchy and hilarious.
If you were a child who loved fairy tales, then you – like me – sat through countless terrifying tales to get your fix of princesses, magic and over-simplified justice. I had the complete collection of Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll and the Grimms. From weird swan wives and jabberwockies to hungry children, I devoured every inch of European folklore I could get my hands on.
When Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes appeared for bedtime stories, I was suspicious. All of my favourite characters but next to Quentin Blake’s scratchy illustrations; Red Riding Hood suddenly looked like a normal child and not a Victorian lithograph of a cherub in a cape.
The story was read. I sat stunned. These were my fairy tales but funny. This was new territory for a genre normally quite happy to have children horrifically die at the end. As the infamous line was read out – “The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers. She whips a pistol from her knickers.” – I was delighted and shocked at the same time. And I laughed. At story time. I laughed. And my dad laughed. And we both laughed.
There were no gingerbread houses for 19th-century moralising to hide in; there was just a sassy six-year-old who believed in the right to bear arms. Dahl made me realise you could have magic without moralising, and it would still be magically hilarious.
Tales of the Unexpected
Dahl’s gleeful wit is what makes him such a joy as a children’s writer and his adult short stories are no less gleeful; they are, however, considerably darker. Compiled from two collections of short stories written in the 1950s, Tales of the Unexpected was published in 1979 to tie in with TV series of the same name.
Each short story is a malevolently glittering gem. There’s the inevitable twist of course, but in every tale Dahl creates a world rich in expert knowledge. Each character has an obsession, whether it’s wine, painting, taxidermy, beekeeping or antiques. His protagonists often look fine on the outside, but beneath the fragile veneer of respectability lurk chancers on the edge of sanity. They love to gamble and it’s the gambler’s reckless disregard for disaster that makes these stories so compelling.
Dahl’s tales are never comfortable. From the start, there’s a nagging doubt that despite the lavish furniture or opulent meal – he sets the scene as intricately as a dramatist – all is not well. And once read, they’re impossible to shake off. The reader is inevitably left with a frisson of doubt and a number of unanswered questions to mull over long after the story is finished.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
When I was seven I used to read and read and reread Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but… I used to stop when he got the golden ticket and then start all over again.
Dahl really ratchets up the tension: Charlie’s family is in terrible poverty, and the situation only worsens for them. They are overcrowded, underfed and cold, and then they start to starve. At the same time the chocolate factory looms like some big, warm, bright, sweet heaven, a chance to get inside offered by five golden tickets hidden in chocolate bars.
Hopes are dashed relatively early when Charlie gets a chocolate bar for his birthday; everyone fervently prays there’ll be a golden ticket inside and it’s super painful when there isn’t. With just one ticket left out there, Charlie, starving, finds money in the snow. He knows he should take this home as the family is destitute, but he’s so hungry and there is a sweet shop right by him… He buys a chocolate bar and there is no ticket inside but he’s so hungry he almost doesn’t care and gulps it down. And then he has some change, so he buys one more bar…
The book is called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory so we have an expectation that AT SOME POINT HE WILL GET IN THERE. Yet rereading this book now with my son, this tension is almost pornographic – the relief when he finally gets the bloody ticket remains extraordinary. The thing that tipped me over as an adult was not delight when he finally gets the ticket but the way the shopkeeper who sells him the chocolate is kind to him and protects him from the onslaught that immediately kicks off. Brilliant, now I’m crying again. To be clear, I used to read this for pleasure! Seven-year-old me was made of steel.
On rereading I discover that masses of other things happen after Charlie finds the golden ticket, many of them surprisingly cruel: people learn lessons, Charlie inherits the chocolate factory. In the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, all hell breaks loose and he goes directly into space. I genuinely recommend going back to the start.
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