‘This is not an autobiography. I would never write a history of myself. On the other hand, throughout my young days at school and just afterwards a number of things happened to me that I have never forgotten,’ writes Roald Dahl in his Preface to this childhood memoir.
No one who reads it is likely to forget them either – the revenge of the filthy-fingernailed sweetshop owner Mrs Pratchett on five small boys (think mouse, think sweet jar); Roald’s stay in the San and the lancing of little Ellis’s boil by the school doctor; the fearful beatings administered with relish by the headmaster of Repton. It’s easy to see where the ogres who people Dahl’s fiction come from.
But there’s another, far more cheerful side to the story in the person of Dahl’s much-loved mother. Sofie was the second wife of the Norwegian entrepreneur Harald Dahl, who had founded a hugely successful shipbroking business in Wales in the 1890s. Widowed at 35 and left with six children to care for, this stalwart and optimistic woman was undaunted. Her relationship with Dahl was possibly the closest of his life, and some of his happiest childhood memories were of the idyllic summers when she took the whole family to visit her parents among the fjords of her native Norway.
Like many individualists, Dahl never fitted in at school. He longed for adventure and exotic climes and when the time came for him to leave Repton he applied to work for Shell, though his housemaster told him derisively that he hadn’t a chance. ‘All I can say is I’m damned glad I don’t have any shares in Shell,’ he muttered when Dahl came to tell him he’d succeeded. But nothing could dampen Dahl’s spirits, he was ecstatic. The last we see of him he’s setting off for East Africa with the same infectious bounce and enthusiasm that permeate this irresistible little book.
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