Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Roald Dahl: Slutty Cinderellas, Ugly Twits, Filthy Little Maggots and a Splattering of Controversy

Last week, on the 13th September, it was Roald Dahl Day. I, along with many other Twitter users, was slightly surprised and aggravated by the lack of a Google Doodle to mark the occasion. It irritated me because – from my perspective, at least – it seemed like a fairly simple task to undertake. Roald Dahl left behind his imagination: vivid descriptions, brilliant neologisms and characters that remain with us long after we’ve closed the book – not to mention the perfectly apt illustrations of Quentin Blake. Yet Google said, NO! And as a consequence, the geeky part of my persona was left disappointed.

Yes, Google did honour Dahl in 2007 with a Doodle (which can be found here) to mark what would have been the author’s 91st birthday. However, this year – which marked both his 95th birthday and 50 years since the publication of James and the Giant Peach – there was nothing more than the ever-so-familiar Google logo.

It was also last week (and on the same day) that Dahl’s Granddaughter, Sophie Dahl, featured on the Today Programme and spoke about the £500,000 needed to preserve / move Roald Dahl’s writing shed. The appeal caused uproar among Radio 4 listeners, and quickly spread to Twitter where one annoyed tweeter wrote: “Have I got this wrong? The international model and TV star Sophie Dahl is asking us for money to restore a shed.” Even Times columnist Janice Turner felt she needed to throw in her shrapnel bit (and a few typos), writing: “Roald Dahl’s shed needs £250K to be renovated. Sophie Dahl could earn that on a single advertising modelling job., the Big Stingy Giant.”

I, however, did not find myself bitter or angry. I realise that we are in difficult economic times. I – like many others – have undergraduate debts. I have a cleaning job to cover living expenses and MA fees. But, if the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre wanted a donation from myself, I would gladly give what I could afford. Because to me, culture and heritage have a great importance; they’re the things that cannot be replaced once you’ve lost them. You can’t find them on Amazon or inside the mammoth Argos catalogue, because their worth derives, in part, from their singularity. Dahl’s shed is how he left it: the wastepaper bin has not been emptied, his last Marlboro rests on the edge of a full ashtray, letters and photographs still adorn the polystyrene tiled walls (complete with nicotine stains). And to lose a piece of literary history, such as this, would be like erasing the Ommpa Loompas from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or replacing Matilda’s love of literature with a PS3. Unthinkable, mindboggling, unimaginable, absurd, inconceivable and unbelievable.

As you are probably aware, Dahl’s work – rather than the preservation of his writing shed - also received much criticism. The portrayal of adults, his use of language, and themes that have been classified as anti-authoritarian, anti-sentimental, misogynistic and racist have caused great debate amongst literary critics, parents, teachers, librarians. Two of his books, at one time or another, were even seen as so “dangerous” that they were banned in parts of America. But children kept reading, and continued to be fascinated by Dahl’s imagination.

I won’t go into a discussion about censorship within children’s literature (a blog post does not afford me the space), but I will say this: I stumbled across a copy of Matilda in the local library when I was 6 years old. I read the first two chapters before I left the library. I finished the book before going to sleep that night. I continued to read Roald Dahl’s books throughout my childhood. And, as far as I can see, they did me no harm – other than equipping me with a love of literature (which can be expensive).

So, even after his death, it would seem that Dahl cannot escape controversy – his writing (or his shed) will continue to divide and prompt debate.

Thank you for reading,



Ashley R Lister said...

It occurs to me, that in our culture of spray on tans that come in shades ranging from satsuma, through to tangerine and Florida orange, the Ommpa Loompas could be perceived as racist.

Great post.


Lindsay said...

2 comments eaten so far darn it.

I agree that it should be preserved definately, but I don't agree that it should be moved. It's location was as much a part of it's magic as the interior. It was his retreat from the world, and if you put his shed in a museum it takes away that most important part. As long as it's preserved I am happy to look at photo's, it doesn't need to be behind glass for me to appreciate it in some building somewhere far from the garden he worked in :(

Roald is helping me teach my 6 year old son that books are not boring using Revolting Rhymes. He loves them, and I remember feeling almost naughty when reading them and it was delightful. Dahl is often immitated but a genius can't be copied well.

I loved this post Lara, great take on the theme in a way which I bloody love, thanks :)

Lara Clayton said...

Ash: In the first version published the Oompa Loompas were originally a tribe of black pygmies. But after an attacking review by Eleanor Cameron, it was decided by Dahl's publishers that the Oompa Loompas should be rewritten. In the revised edition (1972 - I think) the Oompa Loompas became dwarfish hippies with long 'golden-brown hair' and 'rosy white skin'.

Lindsay: I agree with your comments. The location of the shed is of importance, however, if the museum has already made plans, my only hope is that they are carried out well - keeping Dahl's magic alive. It is certainly a subject that leaves you a little torn, and to which there seems no simply (or easy) solution.
Really glad you enjoyed reading my thoughts, though - every Tuesday I'm left feeling very humbled :)

MoonJumpingCow said...

*adds "neologisms" to the ever expanding list of great words I'll never find an excuse to use.*

Dahl might have been onto something there. It'd work out cheaper to put myself in a shed than to put the parrots in an aviary. #a-room-of-ones-own

Lara Clayton said...

I've told Shaun that I would really like a writing shed :) Oh, and a garden to place it in.

vicky ellis said...

The blog lost my comment again it seems.

Interesting post Lara. I don't think you can undervalue the work of Dahl. Personally I don't mind about preserving the haunts of writers as I don't inhabit the physical world unless it's forced upon me. I'm happy enough with his humour being preserved in book form. I do, however, appreciate that there aren't many such places preserved and that readers and writers need places of worship :)

Ste said...

I completely agree (goddam it, I'm really going to have to disagree one of these days just for the hell of it!) Dahl's writing shed would be much more of a Mecca to me that Diana's water feature or Windsor Castle and yet we spent millions on them. Yes you can level accusations (with a lot of basis) of racism (as far as anti-authoritarian is concerned good on him though) but Dahl (along with all of us) was a creature of his time and I am another who owes a vast debt to his sheer joy and playfulness with language. Thanks for the post Lara