Roald Dahl, Boy
‘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.
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.
Roald Dahl, Going Solo
The close of Roald Dahl’s childhood memoir Boy sees 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.
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’.
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