Yesterday was Roald Dahl’s 100th birth anniversary. His estate is celebrating it worldwide with movies, jars with hedgehogs and such and hopefully more reading too.
I came to Dahl’s books much later in life after I moved to England in 2006 – and I wish I had known about his books when I was growing up. I grew up with Enid Blyton’s books. The Magic Faraway tree made me imagine and inspired my first made up oral story. But in many ways they were still not as subversive as Dahl’s books. I wish I could have read the wacky and crazy anti-establishment books like The Twits or Matilda or Fantastic Mr Fox or even The Enormous Crocodile.
As a kid I flew under the radar mostly, unnoticed and invisible, except for a few verbal outbursts and once in a while doing some unexpected things that I must admit my mum let me do and my dad never knew about. Before you go imagining anything wild like crawling under the neighbour’s fence (we had a wall) or exploring ancient caves (we lived in a city), it wasn’t anything like that.
At 6 I switched my choice of 2nd language at school. We had to study at least two Indian languages in school – one main and one like an elective but at Y1. I went into my Y1 class for the first day and switched my languages to opposite of what was filled in my admission form. I wrote a radio song at 8; wrote poems and essays and went on stage along with our neighbours until we were 15. We didn’t know it was anything unusual.
Apart from these approved extra curricular all I did was read and follow rules. I didn’t want to break rules or crockery if I can manage it although I was thin as a blade of grass and clumsy like a clown. Who knew in the future I would be fat and go to clown classes.
But I was a serious kid – worried about orphans in the SOS village, wrote passionate (but bad) poetry, raised money for my mum’s charity, gathered friends to publish a neighbourhood newspaper and didn’t get jokes that people made about me all the time. My coping mechanism was reading and writing. What I read expanded my imagination. I dreamt up elaborate situations in my head and had an entirely new family in my head (Ssh! My real family doesn’t know still). I was shy, easily intimidated and in awe of style and fashion and girls who could be confident. I am still like that – I just have learnt how to hide it better.
So the Enid Blyton books and Nancy Drew stories were all about following rules anyway and my stories were like that – should I say – are like that. I wrote quiet and serious stories and even if I have managed to put some funny bits, my stories are not yet wild and absurd. When I met Andy Stanton a few years ago to join the course he was going to teach at Faber – that’s what I told him – I want to learn to let loose – make my stories jump out of bins and tins, sing loudly at traffic lights and hop around the tube station with a mask. He just smiled. Perhaps he wondered if that could ever be taught or learnt. But he was immensely supportive during the course.
When I read amazingly absurd stories I wonder – would reading Dahl as a kid have helped? I think it would have. It would have made me a different person in the head and in real life too. Since 2006, I have managed to read all of Dahl mostly including his short stories and biography and I wish I could have immersed in his world as a kid. Today with my nephew I am getting the reputation of CRAZY AUNT – he is a serious 4 year old who asks me not to be silly when I dance like a clown and make faces. I am going to put Dahl into his hands as soon as he can read on his own and get him to soak up the crazy wacky subversive world. Life is too serious for us to take it seriously. I’ve changed over the years; I know I can be whatever I want to be. But I wish I could have known that when I was 6 or 7 or 8.
I’ve changed since writing for children and still changing. Every children’s book I read, opens up my imagination and shows me more possibilities and I forget I’m a grownup. I still read children’s books for pleasure and I would rather be inside the pages of a funny Roald Dahl than look up and see President Trump (or our PM for that matter) on the telly. Sometimes I wonder what he would happen if we let some of Dahl’s characters loose on him. That’d make a great movie.
Anyway, Happy Birthday Mr Dahl. Your books are needed for every child to take refuge in, forget whatever the dire situation they are in and revel in the anarchy. Thank you to everyone who edited and published the books, to Quentin Blake who gave us the pictures. I’m off to find a crazy villain for my own stories.