Thursday, 14 May 2009

An old master

I like buying books in odd places – strange little charity shops, murky junk shops, car boot sales - and one of my favourites is buying old library books when the local council facility is having a sale. There's just something very appealing (to me) about a well-used book with a chequered history. For me a book like that is far more interesting than a pristine, author-signed, special edition (and read into that what you will...I like my possessions well-used, I guess...I don't own that many new or expensive clothes either).

Why am I telling you this? Because I've been reading a book I picked up in our local library in a sale a while back - Roald Dahl's "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar – and six more”. It looks like this:

The one I picked up is a big old hardback - published by Jonathan Cape in 1977 (price inside reads £4.95). A quick surf tells me there have been many different covers for this book over the years but mine has a wobbly cartoon cover by a Susan Shields. It's not immediately obvious on this copy whether the book is aimed at either children or adults (or both), though more modern editions are put out under the banner of teenage fiction (from what I can see online). The book's dedication would help a browsing reader out anyway though - “This book is dedicated with affection and sympathy to all young people (including my own son and three daughters) who are going through that long and difficult metamorphosis when they are no longer children and have not yet become adults.”

What a great dedication – one of the best I've read in a while – and one that struck many chords with me just now seeing as Our Girl, at 9, is just about at the beginning of that metamorphosis whilst her old mother (me!) may just about be getting to its end (late I know...I took in a lot of scenery along the way...). Some of the stories in here would be OK for a nine year old ('The Boy who talked with Animals' is charming and dreamy) but some absolutely would not (not for our innocent, head-in-clouds 9 year old anyway). On Sunday morning I sat in a friend's bed (we were staying over, kids sleepover, they were in a tent...) and I read a story from this book called 'The Swan'. It's quite a piece of writing and it had me covering a good part of the friend's bed in tears (and it's been a while since I cried that hard whilst reading anything other than a newspaper). 'The Swan' is about children bullying other children and it captures the real brutality of bullying (physical and oral) in an extremely vivid and moving way. Anyone else read it? Anyone ever read it with or to a child or young reader?

Also in the book is the very marvellous 'Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar' (which is about meditation really...and wealth...and everything) as well as Dahl's account of how he became a writer 'Lucky Break' (and that's well worth a read too – his is a fascinating life story). Dahl's is one of those names that has been with me ever since I can remember so it's hard not to be interested in him somehow. I read and loved 'Fantastic Mr Fox' as a child (always confused me of course...especially as my Mr Fox had gone...). I also loved 'James and the Giant Peach' and 'The Magic Finger' though I somehow managed to completely miss all the chocolate factory business (don't quite know how that happened). Then of course when I was a little older I watched the TV show that started (in the UK at least) like this:

Roald Dahl's 'Tales of the Unexpected' (he didn't write everything in the series but he did write the first episodes). A little while ago one of my favourite Irishmen Ken Armstrong was writing about the TV themes we remember from childhood and I can't believe I didn't mention this one in the comments somewhere (the music was by Ron Grainer apparently). It was such a powerful series for a young viewer and I still remember some of the individual tales really clearly...particularly the one with the frozen leg of lamb ('Lamb to the slaughter') starring '70s favourite Susan George. Slightly less clear but still in there somewhere are the one about the guest house and the one about the eyes. They'd probably look very wooden now but at the time (1979/early1980s mainly) they were really exciting drama experiences. Apparently they are in book form too – anyone read them?

For a while after the 'Tales' I didn't really come across Dahl very much. He is most famous as a children's writer and I think we do tend to think we grow out of him (and that's probably a mistake). Then one day somewhere deep in the 1990s I ended up watching the film about his first wife Patricia Neal – 'The Patricia Neal Story' starring Glenda Jackson (and Dirk Bogarde as Dahl). I can't remember much about the film apart from a very clear memory of Bogarde heading off to a shed at the bottom of the garden in the film (to write). How lovely it looked – the life of heading off to the shed to sit and write all day. That made quite an impression...I think of it quite often and whilst I don't write in a shed I do write every day. Sometimes quite a lot.

Not long after seeing that film Our Girl was born and before too long Roald Dahl was back in my life regularly (via her reading this time). She loves Dahl's books passionately (as so many children do) and of course she has access to more of them because some of his best came after my time as a junior reader (the truly marvellous 'Matilda' is her favourite and that was only published in 1988 - I was 21 by then). She likes all his books and his poems for children but she has read 'Matilda' heaps of times (and watched the very good 1996 film of it – starring and directed by Danny DeVito – more times than I can tell you). Of course she doesn't really believe that grown-ups can be as mean as Matilda's evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull...but read anything about Dahl's schooldays and you'll quickly see where she came from. Dahl knew a lot about cruelty and the darker side of life and his books don't shy away from that (that's partly why children love them of course). In 'The Swan' you will find some of the clearest writing about cruelty you are likely to encounter (child on child cruelty in that story) and much as Our Girl knows children can be cruel I don't think she's ready for that story quite yet. It is really very horrible (though masterfully put together) but it has more than its fair share of beauty and wonder in amongst everything else too.

If nothing else the story/mini-autobiography 'Lucky Break' in 'Henry Sugar' would interest most of you readers, I think. It recounts Dahl's schooldays, his career, his wartime stories...but it also contains excerpts from some of his school reports (“indolent and illiterate”) and his views on university (“unless one was going to become a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist, an engineer or some other kind of professional person, I saw little point in wasting three or four years at Oxford or Cambridge, and I still hold this view”). It also lists Dahl's views on “some of the qualities you should possess or should try to acquire if you wish to become a fiction writer:

1.You should have a lively imagination.

2.You should be able to write well. By that I mean you should be able to make a scene come alive in the reader's mind. Not everybody has this ability. It is a gift, and you either have it or you don't.

3.You must have stamina. In other words, you must be able to stick to what you are doing and never give up, for hour after hour, day after day, week after week and month after month.

4.You must be a perfectionist. That means you must never be satisfied with what you have written until you have re-written it again and again, making it as good as you possibly can.

5.You must have strong self-discipline. You are working alone. No one is employing you. No one is around to give you the sack if you don't turn up for work, or to tick you off if you start slacking.

6.It helps a lot if you have a keen sense of humour. This is not essential when writing for grown-ups, but for children, it's vital.

7.You must have a degree of humility. The writer who thinks that his work is marvellous is heading for trouble.”

What a list. I may come back to some of these (especially 2 and 6) but in the meantime...self-discipline, self-discipline! Back to your work (and sheds) now everybody. And watch out for ghosts in the comments box...



Poetikat said...

Nice post. That is absolutely my favourite way to spend time--hunting for books. I'm with you as well on the library clear-outs. I have a selection of Shakespeare editions from 1908 that came from a library. I too, love their "chequered" past, including the hand written white Dewey numbers on the spine.


hope said...

It's apparent that those of us who have a love affair with words find their original printings heartwarming.

Our Library has an annual sale as well. I was delighted to purchase a book on family genealogy that I'd checked out so many times that it all but jumped off the shelf at me when I passed by. :)

It makes me wonder...what DO people who profess they can't stand to read do with their time?

Thanks for another title to add to my ever growing list.

Red Bird said...

Very interesting indeed- I have to admit to never reading Dahl and have only the most cursory experience of him through the Willy Wonka films- shame on me, I know.
But I do love his tips for being a fiction writer... common sense for the most part but how true...

Sorlil said...

I remember reading Dahl's The Twits in primary school, it disturbed me greatly!

Sorlil said...

oh and The Witches disturbed me even more!

Rachel Fox said...

Kat - yes, library clear-outs...what a great way to spend time (and a little bit of money).

Hope - I sometimes wonder what I could do with all that reading time instead of reading. And then I see another book that looks interesting...

RB - yes, I loved those tips too. So simple and yet...

And Sorlil - the Witches came a bit late for me (the child) as the book was 1983 and the film 1990. Our Girl has listened to it on a story CD but it's one of those that I'm not sure she has ever listened to right to the end. It is terrifying! She is desperate to read the book I have just read (the Henry Sugar)...but she has a stack of books to get through first and that should distract her. Her room looks like a very messy bookshop most of the time and her favourite saying just now is 'why do we have to do so much PE?' I don't know why I don't just take her our of school now and leave her in her room with a computer and the books...eell, I do know...but sometimes I wonder.


Rachel Fox said...

I missed your Twits comment Sorlil. Yes it is a horrible book in many ways (shades of Harry Enfield's slobs in there!). Our Girl's Grandma refuses to read it to her but the schools here all read it in Scots (it's the Eejits - have you seen it?).

Rachel Fox said...

And that should have been 'well' up there!

Sorlil said...

the Eejits - lol
I still have images in my head of poor wee birds glued to trees.

Rachel Fox said...

Gruesome indeed. I read that (in English) to Our Girl and can't say I liked it or ever wanted to read it again! 'Matilda' I could read her over and over though.

Titus said...

'Fraid my two youngest adore "The Twits" and spend a deal of time planning ways to give people the shrinks. They're males, of course. And they love "The Witches", though I mustn't choose it for last story at night. My favourite is "The Giraffe and the Pelly and me". Basically, Dahl is fantastic and I'm lucky enough to have two children at just the right age so I can read and re-read him with impunity!

Rachel Fox said...

Yes we're a bit of girly house here (one male to 3 female humans and a female dog).

That's one of the great things about Dahl though - his range. So many different books and types of stories and writing. It has been a lot of fun exploring him again with the young 'un.


Ken Armstrong said...

I remember the Hitchcock version of Lamb to the slaughter so well... There was an adult Dahl story involving wife-swapping and murder (as one does) which seemed to transcribe utterly into a dire movie called Consenting Adults without once crediting poor Roald. I thought he should have sued.

(Sorry for current intermittent visits, First Communion this weekend, Confirmation in two weeks, then I can be me again) :)

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm afraid I don't have any nice anecdotes about Mr Dahl in fact my own awareness of him only came in adulthood. I knew of him before that but that was about it; I never read him myself nor read him to my daughter.

Wait a sec, maybe this counts as one. I discovered one day that one of my close friends at work had a great affection for Dahl - said she had everything he'd ever written - so I went out that lunch time and bought her a copy of The Eejits which is The Twits translated into Scots; it was reading about that in the paper that prompted the conversation in the first place.

As for Tales of the Unexpected, yes, we watched it more or less faithfully when it first started off but our interest waned down the line. I caught a couple of episodes on SkyArts a few weeks back - a nice one with an old Peter Cushing and one with a very young Derek Jacobi - but they felt dated and the twists were telegraphed.

Rachel Fox said...

Hi're a bit old for first communion aren't you? If you're in the mood for Jesus Dave King has a bit of a shocker on right keep away.

And Jim...yes, the TV show kind of dwindled out. Dahl only wrote for the first few years I think. A lot of TV from that era seems almost babyish now compared to new programmes...the effects are so weedy, the scenery so wobbly, some of the make-up a bit scary...but I have a real affection for a lot of it. Ah, nostalgia...I am getting old. I'm quite enjoying it actually. Bring on that bus pass.


deemikay said...

I think I'll have to steal those 7 points for a future post of my own. :)

I like Roald Dahl... lovely and nasty. I read loads of his books, my favourite being George's Marvellous Medicine. And I remember, when I was about 7, raiding the cupboards when my mother was out to create concoctions in the bathroom sink in imitation.

Ahhh... happy memories!

Rachel Fox said...

I think Our Girl has read that one but I never have. Maybe I'll read it with her when we finish the book we're on now. Book before last (together) we read the David Walliams 'The Boy in the Dress'. A friend of ours gave her that for her birthday and we both really enjoyed it. It's very you might expect. I'm not a huge Little Britain fan but I do really like both its stars somehow. I think I would have loved the show as a kid (I loved Benny Hill, Dick Emery, all that stuff).

Dominic Rivron said...

Did you ever come across Dahl's The Vicar of Nibbleswick? Whenever he talked some of the words came out backwards - like when he asked his congregation not to "krap" outside the church on Sunday mornings because it annoyed the neighbours but to go behind the chuch instead (as I remember it). Kids love it.

Rachel Fox said...

No, I've not read that one. It sounds very Two Ronnies (ie great!). Will hunt it down.

squirrelmama said...

Your view on books, like your view on squirrels, has touched my heart. I too like books that come with history and character.

I made a wonderful find about a month ago at a bookstore that was selling castoffs cheap. The cover of one caught my eye because it was a beautiful artist's illustration of a red squirrel looking very courtly with cloak and sword. The title above said, "The Mistmantle Chronicles," and below the name of an author in the UK, M.I. McAllister. It was the second in the chronicles series and so I sought out the first in the series (bought a used book on and began reading.
True this is a children's book is so much more. I find it to be a cross between "Watership Down" and "Animal Farm," the latter being anything but a children's book.
It is a find for someone such as myself - here in the States, discovering a new author, a children's book author at that - all because of a single red squirrel. Magic happens!