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...
5 hours ago