The close of Roald Dahl’s childhood memoir Boy saw him setting off for Africa in 1938 to work for Shell, ecstatic at the thought of the freedom and adventure that lay ahead. ‘What a prospect that was! I was off to the land of palm-trees and coconuts and coral reefs and lions and elephants and deadly snakes . . . I couldn’t wait.’
Africa certainly didn’t disappoint. Going Solo finds Dahl travelling the dirt roads of Tanganyika in an old station wagon visiting distant and often eccentric Shell customers, the people who quite literally kept the machinery of Empire running. It was a headily independent life and full of incident – the wife of a District Officer’s cook was carried off by a lion but survived unharmed and the Shell garden boy was very nearly dispatched by a lethal black mamba. When war broke out Dahl’s manservant Mdisho, who came from a warrior tribe, beheaded an unpopular German sisal-owner with Dahl’s antique sword.
But did he really? We shall never know, but Going Solo is largely based on the letters Dahl sent to his adored mother Sofie, which were no doubt written to entertain. The second half of the book opens with Dahl’s 600-mile drive to Nairobi in his little Ford Prefect to enlist in the RAF. Since he was 6ft 6in, training as a fighter pilot was excruciating – his knees were near his nose – but he approached it with his usual can-do enthusiasm. Flying solo in 1941 to join his new squadron, and misinformed about its whereabouts, he crashed in the Western Desert and suffered horrendous injuries, but five months later he was up and off again to join the tiny British force attempting to defend Greece. Dahl was clearly a brilliant pilot, and his account of what it was like to confront the enemy from the cramped cockpit of a Hurricane, with minimal training in how to fly it, is stomach-churning.
Going Solo is a marvellous read. As well as being a story of extraordinary courage, it’s also a haunting evocation of the unspoiled beauty of East Africa in the 1930s and its now extinct breed of expatriates, ‘the craziest bunch of humans I shall ever meet’.
‘Very nearly as grotesque as his fiction. The same compulsive blend of wide-eyed innocence and fascination with danger and horror’ Evening Standard
‘A non-stop demonstration of expert raconteurship’ The New York Times Book Review
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