Here we are, at the end of December. This will be the final installation of my Roald Dahl series, as I have completed my mission. I’ve now read everything he wrote (that can be found—never got a hit on his play). It’s hard for me to believe it’s been a year since I first wrote about “The Sword,” and “Smoked Cheese,” but there it is. Before I wrap things up with Roald Dahl’s Guide To Railway Safety, however, I think it would be a good thing to look over the past year and take stock. There have been ups… and there have been downs. But it’s been a thrilling ride.
I’d read quite a lot of Dahl’s writing before this year, of course—but delving into his more obscure titles has given me so much of a deeper sense of him as a writer. His more obscure short stories gave me insight into his weirder, more experimental side. Going Solo showed me how Dahl wrote about himself as a man, not a boy—and how many more of his stories than I realized were drawn from his life experiences. His flying stories made me aware of just how much he loved flying, his cookbook how much he loved food—not just chocolate, which he is naturally most famous for adoring.
During the last year, I’ve seen Dahl at his worst (...gremlins...), but I’m happy to say that over the course of this project, I’ve also seen him at his best. To that end, let me say I’m ever so thankful that I decided to save Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety for last, instead of Two Fables. Two Fables… well, I made my opinions clear last month. I have no mixed feelings about the Guide.
Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety
Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety (1991) is a slender booklet, and the inside front cover tells us that “British Railways Board asked Roald Dahl to write the text of this book, and Quentin Blake to illustrate it, to help young people enjoy using the railways safely.” It was published by the British Railways Board. But the Guide… it is so much more than a booklet to help young people not get run over by trains. Yes, it contains advice such as “NEVER NEVER NEVER STICK YOUR HEAD OUT OF THE WINDOW OF A MOVING TRAIN” and “NEVER GO ONTO A RAILWAY LINE. NEVER NEVER NEVER” with appropriately gruesome illustrations by Quentin Blake. But more excitingly to me, it begins with a series of philosophical musings on the nature of writing, reading, and travel.
“I have a VERY DIFFICULT job here,” the Guide begins.
Why is that, Mr. Dahl??
Young people are fed up with being told by grownups WHAT TO DO and WHAT NOT TO DO. They get that all through their young lives. And now I am going to have to tell you WHAT TO DO and WHAT NOT TO DO, but this time it’s a bit different because the DOs and DON’Ts that I am going to give you may easily SAVE YOUR LIFE. That is the only reason I agreed to write this message to you.
Dahl goes on to state that the reason he was able to write such wonderful books for children is that he remembered what it was like to be a child. Unlike most other grownups (he alleges) he recalls what it is like to be a child—to be physically shorter than adults, and always be bossed around. He states plainly that it kind of sucks to be a child, as you are constantly surrounded by “giants” who tell you how to live your life.
Dahl was a parent, however, and he does make excuses for adults—“When you are born you are an uncivilised little savage with bad habits and no manners and it is the job of the GIANTS (your parents and your teachers) to train you and discipline you.” (Never let it be said that Dahl wouldn’t tell it how it is.) But he also allows that at least subconsciously, for children, this makes adults into “the enemy,” and he understood this. That is why he often makes adults so irredeemably hateful in his novels. He specifically cites Matilda as allowing—even "inviting"—children to hate the adults in the novel. Neither Matilda’s parents nor Miss Trunchbull turn out to be lovely people secretly working in Matilda’s best interest. No indeed—they thwart her, are awful, and then they are punished, or disappear.
I found this aside completely charming. No one would ever accuse Dahl of being a moralist—anyone who has ever read one of his books for children knows that the lessons learned are not typical. George in George’s Marvelous Medicine poisons his own grandmother to improve his (and his parents’ life). The boy in The Witches is a hero for facilitating the deaths of all the witches in England, and then decides to move forward with exterminating the world’s witches. Esio Trot is about hoodwinking people into loving you. But to state a hatred of moralizing as a raison d'être for writing children’s fiction—it’s beautiful. It shows Dahl did have a profound understanding of children’s minds, and I believe that is why his fiction remains enduringly popular.
(I would also like to note that Dahl cites Matilda as “far and away the most popular” book of his, stating that half a million copies sold in Britain within the first six months of its publication. While he does not discuss this matter, I choose to point out that Matilda is about a girl whose story is a kind of superhero arc, and passes the Bechdel test many times over. I know for a fact not only girls read Matilda and love it, sympathizing with her and appreciating the wish-fulfillment fantasy of being brilliant and telekinetic. Publishing…. Hollywood… please take note. Matilda was first published in 1988. Let's learn a lesson from this.)
The final aside Dahl incorporates into the beginning of the Guide (“one more excuse to put off the preaching” as he puts it) is about his love of trains. Roald Dahl adored trains, apparently, and hated cars. This surprised me, as there are many cars lovingly described in My Uncle Oswald, and he himself fondly recalls various cars during Going Solo and other works. But, in the Guide, he describes cars as “a tragedy for nature and for the environment and our health,” and “horrible noisy machines made of steel that kill hundreds of thousands of people every year.”
Well, he’s not wrong.
So. Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety. Who knew it was so charming? Heck—who knew it even existed? I certainly didn’t, until last January. But I’m ever so glad I discovered it.
I’ve been sitting here, staring at my laptop screen for some time, trying to come up with some amazing conclusion to this project—something that will encapsulate my experience perfectly. Unfortunately, I’ve come up with nothing, save for a sense of happiness over having done this, gratitude toward Roald Dahl for writing such wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) books and stories, and appreciation of Jared and Anne at Pornokitch for allowing me to blog about this all year long. I’ve never done a blog series before—not that I’ve followed through with, at least. Ha!
I suppose I’ll end with the thought that I’m overall very happy to have delved so deeply into the works of one of my favorite writers, inspite of those aforementioned ups and downs. I’ve idolized Dahl for so long, for the distinctive style and natural, unpretentious prose in his “great works,” for his devil-may-care attitude toward crafting story, his raspberry-blowing toward traditional moral endings, and so on. But reading his lesser titles (and juvenilia) showed me another side of a writer I’ve loved nearly all my life. Roald Dahl wasn’t always brilliant, insightful, misanthropic, hilarious. He was, at times, dull, unfunny, racist, and creepy. He wrote a complete dud of a novel. He wrote less than sparkling short fiction.
He was human, in other words. As are we all.
Next month: A new blog series! Pygmalion stories, plus another treat… ooh, what could it be??