This year I’m blogging once a month about my current quest, to read everything Roald Dahl wrote. I’ll be looking at Dahl’s more obscure titles, like “The Sword” from an old issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and ones I’ve simply overlooked, like Rhyme Stew.
Full disclosure: I’m not a Dahl scholar, just a humble fan of his work. This is a lay endeavor, perhaps not even all that fascinating to others. We’ll see. Anyways, I’ll also watch and write about the films and TV episodes he wrote, as I’ve never seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or 36 Hours. By the end, I hope to be able to say “I’ve read everything written by Roald Dahl!” or at least “I’ve read everything Roald Dahl wrote save for that one play I can’t seem to find a script for.” Something like that.
I was really looking forward to reading this book. Going Solo is billed right on the cover (of my copy, at least) as “continuing the story begun in Boy, and Boy is my favorite of Dahl’s books for children. I can’t remember who I was talking to recently when I made this statement, but their puzzled “really???” reaction puzzled me in turn. True, Matilda is awesome as an ultimate wish-fulfillment/validation fantasy for smart kids frustrated by the slow pace of classroom learning. And The Witches is just so much fun, what with the awesome messages about not trusting adults and hard lessons about how one’s actions as a child might result in consequences that last a lifetime (I always thought it was bogus how in the movie version the kid is turned back into a kid). But Boy… Boy got under my skin as a child. Not only did it begin my lifelong interest in the British education system, it showed me an amazing world that was entirely real, but just as alien as a fantasy-land full of dragons and wizards compared to the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.
I was a good kid, who never really got into trouble, so it really blew me away, reading about the exploits of a young man who literally put a dead mouse in a candy jar to prank a wicked shopkeeper, or who shredded up goat’s droppings into his sister’s fiancée’s pipe to punish him for being extremely annoying. Not only that, but the descriptions of Dahl’s time at school were so fascinatingly personal they bewitched me more than any of his more fantastical writings. His experience of breaking a nib in study hall while writing an essay, for example, was fascinating, as was his apologia for writing so much about caning:
“By now I am sure you will be wondering why I lay so much emphasis upon school beatings in these pages. The answer is that I cannot help it. All through my school life I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely… [it] was quite enough to leave a lasting impression of horror upon me. It left another more physical impression of horror upon me. It left another more physical impression upon me as well. Even today, whenever I have to sit for any length of time on a hard bench or chair, I being to feel my heart beating along the old lines that the cane made on my bottom some fifty-five years ago.”
You know… for kids.
Anyways. It is that personal touch that makes Going Solo equally compelling reading. It’s funny, I vaguely remember avoiding Going Solo as a kid, as I knew somehow it was about him flying in the RAF. Then as now, I did not find WWII an immediately gripping period in history—meaning, knowing something was set during WWII has never made me run out and read something. Not like, say, an historical setting like the Restoration, or American Reconstruction.
Well, I was a fool—or maybe not, because who knows, I might not have appreciated Going Solo as a child. It’s an altogether weirder book than Boy, and more about things I find fascinating now, as an adult, such as colonialism, occupier narratives, and the incompetence of military leadership in times of war.
What struck me immediately about Going Solo was its ambivalence toward colonialism—or, as Dahl calls it, “empire building.” He, after all, was a part of this, as an employee of Shell who was supposed to sell oil to foreign sisal planters and diamond miners. And yet, as he describes traveling by ship to Dar es Salaam, he sets himself apart from “empire builders,” who he calls a “rare species” now “totally extinct.” He also calls them “sinewy sunburnt gophers and their bright bony little wives” who were all “slightly dotty.” Good times.
See, to Dahl, an empire builder was not a lowly oil salesman like himself, but rather a man or woman who spends their life working in distant corners of British territory. “More English than the English, more Scottish than the Scots, they were the craziest bunch of humans I shall ever meet” is how Dahl puts it, and the stories he tells about their “bizarre habits” is some of the funniest reading in the book. I shan’t ruin it for interested readers, but I must say, the episode where he was socially cut by a man who every morning ran naked about the ship is particularly entertaining.
Dahl’s time in Tanganyika is told through a colorful series of episodes describing his encounters with black and green mambas, the process of learning Swahili, seeing the wife of his friend’s cook be carried off by a lion (she survived, unharmed by the beast), and driving past giraffes “nibbling green leaves from the tops of acacia trees by the side of the road” among other things. It’s fabulous stuff, told in Dahl’s easy, unaffected, “let’s have a pint and I’ll tell you all about it” style. But there are moments—nay, entire chapters—of uncomfortable reading. As I discussed in my January entry, Dahl’s stories about living in Africa necessarily involve him, well, living in Africa, and doing what Englishmen who lived in Africa did.
For example, this is what Dahl has to say on the subject of keeping a “boy”:
Your boy was really a kind of valet and jack of all trades. He was an expert at sewing and mending and washing and ironing and polishing and making sure there weren’t scorpions in your mosquito boots before you put them on, and he became your friend. He looked after nobody else but you and there was nothing he did not know about your life and your habits. In return, you looked after him and his wives (never less than two) and his children who lived in their own quarters at the back of the house.
My boy was called Mdisho. He was a Mwanumwezi tribesman, which meant a lot out there because the Mwanumwezi was the only tribe who had ever defeated the gigantic Masai in battle. Mdisho was tall and graceful and soft-spoken, and his loyalty to me, his young white English master, was absolute. I hope, and I believe, that I was equally loyal to him.
So very much to unpack in two short paragraphs! I have no idea if I am up to the task. Where to start? Perhaps the disconnect in one breath calling a grown man of nineteen a “boy” (when you yourself are perhaps twenty-one) and in the next describing him as one’s friend? In referring to one’s self as someone’s “young white master” but insisting your loyalty to that person was absolute? What does one even say about this in 2014?
As someone who writes Lovecraftian horror, I am familiar with the go-to excuse when a modern person wants to divert criticism away from his or her literary heroes: “He was a man of his time.” This doesn’t work well with Lovecraft, who was far more racist than his colleagues… but I’m also uncomfortable applying it to Dahl, though he might actually fit that description. There’s simply a weirdness in being a white person saying, “he was just a man of his time!” about another white person who obvously takes pleasure in describing his boy’s “superb black body… literally dripping with sweat” and his “beautiful pure white absolutely even teeth.” It excuses attitudes or behaviors that were never excusable, and so I don’t feel I can just leave off discussing this tension in Going Solo by typing “Dahl was a man of his time” and washing my hands of the matter.
No, what I shall say, instead, is this: Dahl himself seems uncomfortable writing about white-black relations in Dar es Salaam while he lived there. The negotiation with his own cognitive dissonance is constant. Like the above paragraphs, where he is clearly wrestling with the disconnect between being a “white master” of people he knew little about but respected in many ways, the episodes he relates of his time in Dar es Salaam are bizarre, uneasy, but often touching. To wit: he relates how he taught Mdisho to read and write, but without any condescension or sense of it being “white man’s burden.” Instead, he presents it as something he did because Mdisho wanted to learn, and they were friends. And when he goes off to war, Dahl gives Mdisho a sword as a going away present—the sword from “The Sword,” actually—which had cost him 500 shillings and was likely a relic from the 18th century that, in Dahl’s own words, belonged in a museum.
I will make no attempt to excuse Dahl and what problematic things he says about his time in Africa and his dealings with the people there. It makes for interesting reading because Dahl was a wonderful writer. And in the end, it seems he wasn’t a total asshole when it came using the power he had as a white man working for a major company in Africa in the 1930s, and that, maybe, is… something.
Halfway through Going Solo Dahl enlists as a pilot in the RAF. One of the first things he writes about is discovering that being six feet six inches tall means he shall be quite cramped in the cockpit. But Dahl perseveres through the discomfort to learn to fly and seems to have enjoyed it immensely.
As I said, WWII has never been an inherently gripping time period to me. But Dahl makes it riveting. It’s difficult to pick an episode to discuss, because there are so many—his first encounter with actual combat, defending an ammunition ship in Greece, getting ground-strafed as he bathes naked with his friend David Coke, who, had he survived the war, would have become the Earl of Leicester… but I think my favorite vignette was Dahl describing flying his Hurricane back to an empty base in enemy territory to deliver a mysterious package to someone who Dahl believed “was going underground. And then he would probably be caught and tortured and shot through the head.”
Before meeting this man, however, Dahl volunteers for the mission. He’s given the package, and has the following encounter with his CO:
“If you are shot down on the way, make sure you burn it,” the Air Commodore said. “You’ve got a match on you, I hope?”
I stared at him. If this was the kind of genius that had been directing our operations, no wonder we were in a mess.
“Burn it,” I said. “Very well, sir.”
Good old David Coke said, “If he’s shot down, sir, I imagine it’ll burn with him.”
“Exactly,” the Air Commodore said.
There’s something vaguely Blackadderish about this exchange: sobering and darkly funny at the same time. And come to think of it, while obviously Blackadder Goes Forth is about WWI, Dahl’s friend David Coke recalls Hugh Laurie’s Lieutenant George (or vice versa, depending on which order one encounters the texts), as the character was a commentary on men like Coke: members of the ruling elite who signed up for war for reasons of their own. While Dahl does not mention Coke being a member of anything so ridiculous as the “Trinity Tiddlers,” both the character and the man come to a similar, tragic end.
And yet, what I found most striking about Going Solo came closer to the end. For whatever reason, when I think of WWII I think of one of two things: the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Jewish holocaust. Going Solo touches but briefly on only the latter of these two, and strangely, as one might expect for Dahl.
While fighting the Vichy French in Palestine in 1941, Dahl was sent to explore a landing field where perhaps the squadron could work from if they were bombed in Haifa. There, he discovers a German Jew caring for a group of forty or fifty Jewish orphans who tells Dahl they are all refugees. Dahl is surprised by this, and says:
I really didn’t know what he was talking about. I had been living in East Africa for the past two years and in those times the British colonies were parochial and isolated. The local newspaper, which was all we got to read, had not mentioned anything about Hitler’s persecution of the Jews in 1938 and 1939. Nor did I have the faintest idea that the greatest mass murder in the history of the world was actually taking place in Germany at that moment.
It seems incredible that someone could join the RAF in 1939, when the war had only been going on for two months, and not only fight for years but spend six months in hospital in Alexandria recovering from injuries and hear nothing about the Holocaust. It also seems incredible, in 2014, to read this innocent-seeming exchange between Dahl and this Jewish refugee about how at that time the Jews had no country of their own:
“You could have Germany,” I said brightly. “When we have beaten Hitler then perhaps England would give you Germany.”
“We don’t want Germany,” the man said.
“Then which country did you have in mind?” I asked him, displaying more ignorance than ever.
“If you want something badly enough,” he said, “and if you need something badly enough, you can always get it.”
Earlier in their conversation this refugee reported that he was living with permission on the land of a Palestinian farmer, who also allowed the man and the orphans he cared for “some fields so we could grow our own food.”
At the end of Boy, Dahl tells his mother he got the job with Shell Oil, and would be going to Africa for three years. He teases the reader, telling them that he was gone for “a good deal longer”, due to WWII breaking out. As he put it, it is “...another story. It has nothing to do with childhood or school or Gobstoppers or dead mice or Boazers or summer holidays among the islands of Norway. It is a different tale altogether, and if all goes well, I may have a shot at telling it one of these days.”
Thank goodness he did.
Molly Tanzer is the author of the British Fantasy and Wonderland Book award-nominated A Pretty Mouth as well as Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations. She lives in Boulder, CO where she mostly writes about fops arguing with each other. She tweets @molly_the_tanz, and blogs - infrequently - at http://mollytanzer.com.