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Hands off the Handlebars

Walking home one afternoon from Llandaff Cathedral School at the age of 7, Roald Dahl was stopped in his tracks by the most tremendous sight. With his hands casually folded across his chest, a senior boy of 12 was hurtling downhill on his bike.

I promise you that if somebody had caught me by the shoulder at that moment and said to me, ‘What is your greatest ambition in life, little boy?’. . . I would have answered without hesitation that my only ambition, my hope, my longing was to have a bike like that and go whizzing down the hill with no hands on the handlebars. It would be fabulous. It made me tremble just to think about it.

By the time Dahl came to write Boy (1984), he was 68. Behind him was a life not without its thrilling aspects: magnificent wartime activity with the RAF in North Africa and Greece, secret intelligence work thereafter, and a famously shut-away writing life which had long since made him one of the greatest and best-loved children’s authors of the twentieth century. Now he sat down to record his own childhood.

‘An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life, and it is usually full of all sorts of boring details . . .’ Thus he prefaces this utterly engaging recollection of schooldays and holidays. It is, of course, full of mesmerizing details, often relating to adult whiskers, moustaches and bosoms, not to mention exploits, adventures and fun. The tone is confiding, the prose springy. And a glorious great gust of Get-up-and-get-on-with-it blows through the book, not unlike the wind in the ears of that bold young cyclist, speeding so confidently and inspiringly downhill. This spirit – and the child Dahl was nothing if not spirited – is, however, interlaced with stories of sadism, pure and simple.

Throughout his work – James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), Fantastic Mr Fox (1970), Danny, The Champion of the World (1975), The Twits (1980), The BFG (1982) and more – Dahl is firmly on the side of the child, whose world is generally populated by adult grotesques, full of cruelty, unkindness and absurd demands. In Boy, we can see where these creatures come from.

At Llandaff Cathedral School the boys called frequently at the local sweet shop – ‘the very centre of our lives’ – on the way home. A sweet shop should be presided over by a large, jolly person, but herein stands the evil Mrs Pratchett, ‘a small skinny hag with a moustache on her upper lip and a mouth as sour as a green gooseberry’. Unsmiling, unwelcoming, with filthy old fingers delving into the Humbugs or Treacle Toffees, she is loathed by all her customers, and it is Dahl who hits on the idea of revenge with the Great Mouse Plot.

A wickedly splendid idea (think mouse, think sweet jar), it ends in terror and a brutal caning. It is Dahl’s mother, appalled at the sight of her son’s bruised bottom at bath-time, who marches off to the school to confront the headmaster. ‘They don’t beat small children like that where I come from,’ she told him, and was told that she was a foreigner, who didn’t understand how British schools were run.

Roald Dahl, born and brought up in Wales, was the son of Norwegian parents, and it is Norway, his family, his home life and above all his formidable and marvellous mother which in Boy provide the great contrasts with cruelty, the anchors of happiness and love.

Sofie Magdalene was the second wife of Harald Dahl, who had lost an arm in an accident and made nothing whatsoever of this disability. An entrepreneur, a lover of good things, he had set sail from Norway to Cardiff in the 1890s and founded a hugely successful shipbroking business. His first wife had died, leaving two children; Sofie Magdalene bore him five more: Roald, in 1916, and four flaxen-haired daughters, one of whom died of peritonitis at the age of 7. This broke Harald’s heart, and he himself died of pneumonia not long afterwards.

Thus Sofie, at the age of 35, found herself a widow with six children to bring up and (through a trust fund) support. She made a magnificent job of it.

Dear Mama, A man called Mr Mitchell gave us a fine lecture last knight on birds . . .

Dear Mama, The wart on my thum has come off beautifly . . .

The letters home began when in 1925 the 9-year-old Dahl was left with his brand-new trunk and brand-new tuck-box on the vast gravelled drive of St Peter’s, Weston-super-Mare, his next school, and was flashed a shark-like grin by the headmaster. Unsurprisingly, he began to cry. In the long homesick years that followed, the letters, even though censored, were a lifeline. He was to go on writing to his mother for the rest of her life, and she kept every single one of those scrawly pages.

And every summer she took all the children and Nanny over to Norway to see their grandparents, Bestepapa and Bestemama. These were idyllic holidays: the lunch of freshly caught fish; the clinking of glasses of liqueur with everyone at the table; the long hot days sailing over a glassy fjord to their island retreat where they fished and swam and grew strong and fit. ‘I tell you, my friends, those were the days.’

Once these summers were over, what else made his time at St Peter’s bearable? The tuck-box. Ah, the tuck-box. I can remember my own mother stuffing my brother’s (D.W. GEE , E16, black-painted on side and top) with flapjacks and date crunchies as he set off each term in the 1950s for his own version of prep-school hell. Like Dahl, he was hungry for years: ‘an average tuck-box would probably contain, at almost any time, half a home-made currant cake, a packet of squashed fly biscuits, a couple of oranges . . .’ As in Ratty’s picnic in The Wind in the Willows, the list goes on and on, itemizing not only food but the boys’ essentials of magnet, compass, pocket knife and stink bombs – ‘and I remember one boy called Arkle who drilled an airhole in the lid . . . and kept a pet frog in there which he fed on slugs’.

It is also the loyalty and friendship between the boys themselves, truly up against it, which enable them to survive this school. You might think that Matron would be a beneficent presence in such a place, and certainly my Aunt Alice, who briefly had this role before the war, adored her charges. Not so at St Peter’s: ‘Her age was probably no more than twenty-eight but it made no difference whether she was twenty-eight or sixty-eight because to us a grown-up was a grown-up and all grown-ups were dangerous creatures at this school.’

Dangers included the savage canings meted out for misdemeanours such as whispering in prep to your neighbour that you needed a new pen nib, and anything at all involving illness or medicine. In the 1920s, anaesthetic was not exactly unheard of, but nor was it widely used. Time in the San was time to be dreaded, and the account of little Ellis and his lanced boil is unlikely to be forgotten.

When Dahl was 13, he was sent to Repton. Here, where you wore a uniform to rival Eton’s, danger came not only from the masters (more caning) but from the prefects, or Boazers (yet more). He had entered the world of fagging, where you spent icy winter mornings warming up your own particular Boazer’s lavatory seat before he deposited his own rear end upon it. Dahl got through this by reading Dickens.

And he got through the whole of his time at Repton by excelling at sport, particularly squash, football and fives; because of this his life there ‘was not totally without pleasure’. Though normally such an athlete would automatically have been made a Boazer, he was relieved not to be considered the right material: ‘I would have let down the whole principle of Boazerdom by refusing to beat the Fags.’ He also discovered photography, befriended by a quietly civilized arts master, and through days in the dark room became proficient. And in his last term he discovered something else: the joy of the motorbike, a Christmas present from his mother in 1932.

I kept it secretly in a garage . . . about two miles away. On Sundays I used to walk to the garage and disguise myself in helmet, goggles, old raincoat and rubber waders and ride all over Derbyshire. It was fun to go roaring through Repton itself with nobody knowing who you were, swishing past the masters . . . and the dangerous supercilious School Boazers out for their Sunday strolls.

On the last day of his last term at Repton, he mounted his motor-bike and ‘zoomed joyfully away and left school for ever and ever. I was not quite eighteen.’

The spirited boy had become a terrific young man: after a spell in Newfoundland with the Public Schools’ Explorers, Dahl was ‘hard and fit and ready for anything’. And would he, his mother now asked him, prefer to go to Oxford or Cambridge? The answer was neither: life and adventure were the thing. To find them he joined Shell, and after two years of commuting to Head Office in London, and selling kerosene to nice old ladies in sleepy Somerset, he set off for his first posting. ‘I was twenty years old. I was off to East Africa where I would walk about in khaki shorts every day and wear a topi on my head! I was ecstatic.’

Life without handlebars had begun.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 63 © Sue Gee 2019
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 48: Boy

About the contributor

Sue Gee is at work on The Wellspring of Their Art, essay-portraits of eleven writers in different genres, to be published by Seren next year.

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