What can we learn from Roald Dahl's The Witches?

Thirty years on from the publication of Roald Dahl's <em>The Witches</em>, Jemma Crew looks back to her childhood reading and recalls how the author reimagined the reality of adulthood for a whole generation of children.

 

Who didn’t, upon reading The Witches, momentarily fix the nearest adult female with a beady eye, making a mental note to check for cavernous nostrils and blue spittle? Such was Roald Dahl’s ability to tap into the imagination of young people. But it is precisely because of his vivid and unforgettable depictions of women/witches in the book that it has been deemed misogynistic and sexist, causing it to be placed at number 22 on the American Library Association's list of most challenged books.

Despite this, Dahl was voted teachers’ favourite author in 2012, even as a recent Renaissance Learning survey suggested that Dahl is falling in popularity with children. That Dahl exists as both nation’s darling and the author of works deemed politically incorrect, macabre and sexist is testament to the way his stories have split opinion. Such conflicting views of the childhood author suggest a depth that prior responses to The Witches have overlooked. While children might be passing him over for Twilight, The Witches might just make Dahl the unlikely source of inspiration for feminists today.

What Dahl did best was to show up, ridicule, and then bring crashing down the rules that adults live by through a drastic re-imagining of reality. In this particular re-imagining witches masquerade as women in an attempt to rid the world of children. Hints of Rose West abound in these motherly killers, provoking horror and fascination in equal measure. Dahl’s message is not that all women are disturbed and inherently untrustworthy, but that "some people can appear other than they are". It is a message that he has used stereotypes, humour and hyperbole to convey, a message that demands a second glance at things that seem self-evident.

Such a closer look is forced upon Dahl’s young, nameless narrator when he accidentally becomes trapped in a room of around 200 witches. The boy does nothing to disguise his horror:

I simply cannot tell you how awful they were, and somehow the whole sight was made more grotesque because underneath those frightful scabby bald heads, the bodies were dressed in fashionable and rather pretty clothes. It was monstrous. It was unnatural.

As a hyperbolic example of the way history has feared women, this description hits the nail on the hairless head. The most dangerous part of these witches is their powers of deception. They are feared because they are more than they seem to be. These witches are women who have successfully hoodwinked the world in order to further their murderous agendas. The contrast between their clothed bodies and exposed heads only heightens the grotesque effect.  What’s monstrous and unnatural for the child is not merely the witches’ scalps but the colossal gap between appearance and reality. This is what troubles the child, whose shock is that things are not how they seem.

But the queen of false appearances is the Grand High Witch, whose pretty face is revealed to be a mask, hiding a "fearsome and ghastly sight":

There was something terribly wrong with it, something foul and putrid and decayed. It seemed quite literally to be rotting away at the edges, and in the middle of the face, around the mouth and cheeks, I could see the skin all cankered and worm-eaten, as though maggots were working away in there.

This is a face of death, but what exactly has been destroyed? For women today, it is the possibility of existing outside of the expectations placed on how we present our bodies - without judgement or shame. Most shocking of all is the emptiness behind the mask – the nothing that we are led to believe we will amount to without the acceptable degree of beautifying camouflage. We are as pruned, plucked and perfect as Dahl’s witches, but underneath our plastic smiles we too have sores that will not heal. Scared to appear without our masks, we are taught that the world’s reaction will be one of abject horror. Women will see in us what they desperately try to conceal; men will be repulsed by what we are told we should protect them from. 

The transformative power assigned to women has historically been understood as evil and deceptive, yet this is precisely what is being demanded of women the world over under the name of beauty. The hypocrisy is breathtaking. Of course, a kind of double-edged irony emerges in the gap between illusion and reality, in the way that expectations levelled toward women’s bodies undermine the female body in its unaltered, unimproved state.

Defenders of the beauty industry say choosing to wear makeup is a feminist decision. It makes me feel better about myself, they say. I wear it for me. But nobody questions why it is that many women feel  inadequate, cosmetically or otherwise, in the first place. Or why self-worth in these cases is always linked with aesthetic improvement.  What’s the big deal, we are asked, in women choosing to remove their pubic hair? The practice has become so widespread that the non-waxed vagina is beginning to emerge as a fetish. Botox? It’s cosmetic self-empowerment: try it, you’ll feel great - especially if the new motion-emotion hype is to be believed.  

But makeup and the like is becoming less a tool of self-expression, and more a mask under which we disguise a face that we feel uncomfortable presenting.  Each day we stringently guard the worst kept secret of society: the materiality of female flesh. Vilified as castrators, we now castrate ourselves by rejecting our material selves and – most insidiously – claim our choices are feminist. Having internalised countless patriarchal obligations, women quietly continue the sexist’s dirty work from within, and all the while voices misguidedly assert that equality has been reached and feminism has no use as a political movement.

Why should we be concerned about this? Because as Andrea Dworkin has argued, a woman’s beauty practices "define precisely the dimensions of her physical freedom". The witches are permitted to remove their disguises only when they are hidden from the outside world by chained and bolted doors. Their freedom is curtailed by the imperative to cover up their deformities. While we may not be deformed in the sense of having feet without toes and fingers with claws, derivations from the common beauty standard elicit similar responses of disgust and a compelling need to conceal these flaws from external view.  

30 years on, who are the witches? We might not be on a mission to turn all of England’s children into mice, but the way we habitually exercise power over our bodies is certainly destructive. We are now more than ever Greer’s eunuchs - like the hairless, toeless witches, there is some crucial part of us that we continue to cut off and disown. But unlike Dahl’s creations, we aren’t motivated to modify our looks to achieve some devastating aim. There’s something more sinister in our debilitating lack of agency coupled with an external pressure to conform. We might want to learn from the narrator’s Grandmamma, whose unfeminine aspects – her thumb-less hand and penchant for cigars – make her refreshingly real.  

The Witches was written for an intermediate audience, readers poised before the brink of adulthood and self-realisation. Many women currently occupy a similar stage in our development: we freeze our bodies into ageless unreal images of desirability and in doing so lock ourselves out of growth. We aspire towards eternal girlhood – hairless, odourless, increasingly thankless - yet our bodies betray us.   Maturation takes a woman beyond her best. Development is stalled in order that we continue to appeal. 

While feminist critics have not responded well to The Witches,nbsp;the story rebels against these aesthetic rules imposed on women. As adults, complicit in our literal self-effacement, we could do well to read this book and be reminded that the way we present ourselves is anything but revealing.   

A detail from Quentin Blake's cover illustration for The Witches.
ADAM DEAN/EYEVINE
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The marine, and human costs, of illegal fishing

Two new books take us inside the least regulated industry on the planet.

How big the sea is, how big. How poor a description that is, too, but the ocean usually resists description and words, no matter how many of its plains are named after Herodotus or how many fracture zones are called Charlie-Gibbs. It is rare to find good writing about the sea: that’s why everyone who tries quotes Conrad and Melville. It is rarer still to find good writing about the people of the sea, those strange creatures – strange to us, on our supposed maritime island, from where the ocean as a place of industry has long retreated – who set out to sea in boats and ships to make a living from it. These two, very different books try to bring them alive, although both really are about death.

Fishers and Plunderers is dense and dry, but within it are riches and horror. Seafaring is the second most dangerous job in the world, but deep-sea fishing is worse. In the UK, between 1996 and 2005, the rate of fatal accidents in the fishing industry was 115 times higher than that for the overall workforce.

The dizzying facts and stats come, and come again, like tides. We start with the ocean, and the fish in it – or the fish that used to be in it, before human beings learned to build vessels that could scrape the seabed, that could entangle dolphins, sharks and other unlucky passers-by. How wrong indeed was T H Huxley, the eminent biologist and chairman of a royal commission on sea fisheries, giving the inaugural address at the Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, when he said: “I believe . . . that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”

He did not account for our greed. There are 16.5 million fishers catching 90 million tonnes of fish a year in four million fishing vessels. Pelagic long-lines, stretching dozens of kilometres, to hook tuna. Super-trawlers that can retrieve the equivalent weight of 20 busloads of fish a day, using nets 600 metres long. A biomass of predatory fish that has decreased by two-thirds in a hundred years. One-third of fish stocks fished unsustainably. Thousands of tonnes of “bycatch”, a benign word for a horrible thing: fish that are caught and discarded. An indictment of us.

But the sorry heart of this book lies with the fishers. There are the natural dangers that face them – ice, water and weather – such as the ones that overcame the crew of a British trawler near Iceland in the first half of the 20th century. They couldn’t beat the ice, so the skipper got everyone in the radio room, from where they phoned home. The crew “said goodbye, and eventually were just turned over and were lost”.

In every British fishing port, you will find a memorial to those lost at sea. There will not be a memorial to the fact that, in 2008, 75 per cent of those who died on UK boats were from eastern Europe or the Philippines. Fishing is the most unregulated industry on the planet, infected with abuse, slavery and worse. Some West African states lose 40 per cent of their catch to foreign vessels that come and steal from their waters, such as the bottom trawler Apsari-3, found fishing less than two nautical miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. The boat and officers were Korean, the crew from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They had no contracts and no salaries, but were paid in packets of “trash fish” to sell ashore. They shared wooden and cardboard bunks in the hold. It was not an isolated case. Distant-water fishing nations operate vessels that abound with these ghosts: men trafficked or bonded into appalling conditions or contracts, stuck at sea for months at a time.

Modern shipping, with its “flag of convenience” system, makes slipperiness easy. Pay a fee, and you can fly the flag of any state and are then governed by its law at sea. Unscrupulous owners and operators can switch flag, name or identity almost instantly (hence “convenience”). Escape is easy for the criminals, and for the abused: often they go overboard. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing industry is worth up to $23.5bn each year, and it is extremely difficult to police. Much illegal fish from West Africa passes through Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which has hardly any inspectors. It is repackaged, presented as legal catch and sold in western Europe. Some subheadings in the chapter on “Abuses and Slavery at Sea”: Abduction; Abuse; General; Beatings; Children; Death; Exploitation; Imprisonment; Murder.

Fishing has never been an easy life. It’s not that it was better then than it is now, but that now the abuse is industrialised, organised. The authors are a sober lot, and include Father Bruno Ciceri, who chairs the International Christian Maritime Association. The port priests are often the ones who save and soothe the fishers, though they can only do so much. I’m glad they do that. And I’m glad I don’t eat fish.

Julia Blackburn’s Threads is what you should read after finishing Fishers and Plunderers. Read it as an antidote to rigorous investigation, because this is a gorgeous, dreamy quest, for a man named John Craske, who was “a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid”. He also became an extraordinary artist, but one whose legacy is scattered and maligned.

Craske was born in Norfolk in 1881 and went to sea, like the rest of his family. At the age of 36 he fell ill with a mysterious illness, and never recovered. There were months of stupor and disability (Blackburn concludes that it was diabetes), of becoming, as his valiant wife, Laura, wrote, “very quiet. Sudden turns. Must get outside.” He did go back to sea, when his brothers took him on their fishing boat, lashing him to the mast in rough weather. He stayed for three months, rolling about in the hold or on deck until, somehow, he realised “it was not his home” and he came back to land.

Craske began to paint. They had no money, so he painted on what he had, which was the surfaces in his house. On the mantelpiece. On bits of cardboard. “On the seat of the chair he did a frigate in a storm.” His love of the sea and knowledge of it were clear, as a fisherman whom Blackburn interviews tells her. “You can’t put that energy out unless you’ve been there.”

This “quest” is meandering: don’t expect great events. The revelations are of emotion: sadness throughout for Craske’s life, though he may have been happy. Grief for Blackburn, who suffers a great loss while she is writing the book, so that from then on “grief is prowling close”. And joy, for being exposed to the embroidery of Craske, who took up the needle as he lay abed, finding a vocation. His little fishermen in their boats, sewn in careful stitches; his giant portrait of Dunkirk, with sweeping seas and tiny figures: they are amazing, yet were scorned by the museums and odd places where his work ended up, turned to the wall, ignored.

A doctor once told Craske’s wife that “he must go to sea. Only the sea will save him.” And it did, but not for long enough. We should thank Julia Blackburn for bringing back this quiet fisher and man of the sea; and Bruno Ciceri and his co-authors for exposing an unforgiving and cruel industry, where men die and the seas are depleted for the sake of our fish supper, out of sight beyond our horizon.

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle