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18 July 2016

How, as a child, I ended up dining with Roald Dahl at a Caribbean golf club

He seemed genuinely delighted to hear that I had, only the other week, electrocuted myself by plunging a rusted knitting needle into a faulty light socket.

By David Cunningham

More than 30 years ago, I had dinner with Roald Dahl in the Caribbean. It sounds like an exotic event, but it wasn’t exactly an epic meeting of the intellects. For one thing, he was 6 foot 6 inches tall and the author of numerous short stories and children’s books, as well as a James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice. I was 4 foot tall and the author of nothing other than a series of mishaps, which included falling out of an Indian almond tree and getting bitten by a pariah dog who I’d tried to adopt.

He was in Tobago with his wife, the actress Patricia Neal, to try out the Mount Irvine Bay Hotel’s golf course. The course had been landscaped from a former coconut plantation, while the hotel itself was a converted sugar-mill. I was there because my father was the winter golf pro at the hotel.

Having received a golf lesson from my father, Dahl invited him and my mother to dinner. They declined at first, being unable to find a babysitter for me, but he waved this aside and invited me along too. That was how I found myself installed on a chair built up with cushions, gazing across the table at Mr and Mrs Dahl.

We dined on the garden terrace of the Sugar Mill restaurant. Blood orange bougainvillaea and ginger lilies luxuriated in the currents of warm air. At dusk, the croak of tree frogs was punctuated by the occasional distant thud of a falling coconut. Dahl looked gauntly sardonic, while his wife was handsome, her slightly askew smile the only sign of the stroke she had endured some years previously.

Dahl’s method of dealing with a child was to both intimidate and flatter you by speaking to you as if you were an adult, in a clipped, inquisitorial tone. Getting straight to the point, he enquired about my recent misadventures and seemed genuinely delighted to hear that I had, only the other week, electrocuted myself by plunging a rusted knitting needle into a faulty light socket. At no point during the meal did I cease to feel overawed by him, but nor did I feel patronised.

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Patricia Neal was much more conventionally indulgent and did most of the talking for both of them. She described in particular how he had “bullied” her back to health. My mother recalls that Dahl was rather self-consciously dismissive of his role in her recovery. Much of the rest of the conversation went over my head, but I do remember him describing how he wrote in a potting shed at the bottom of the garden – a disclosure that made him seem an even more strange and shamanic figure than he already did.

My father’s job at Mount Irvine Bay ended not long after. During my provincial Scottish upbringing, I read Dahl’s children’s books voraciously. As an adolescent, I graduated to his adult short stories, which, with their intimations of the kinky and macabre, allied to a lingering schoolboy-ish gusto, were like a bridge towards more mature reading matter. And there was Tales of the Unexpected on television, its credit sequence featuring a Bond-style silhouetted dancer, swaying to a strange hurdy-gurdy theme tune.

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My father died when I was in my teens. We put the family home on sale just as the property market crashed and for ten years neither my mother nor I could afford to travel outside Scotland. But it was a consolation, in the midst of long, cold winters, to recall a better life – of which my brief encounter with Dahl had been part.

I greeted the news of his death, in 1990, with resigned sadness. A few years later I started writing myself. From the beginning I produced both adult short stories and longer, more imaginative fiction aimed at younger readers. The tone of my output may have been very different from Dahl’s, but the division of labour was the same. Eventually some of the short stories appeared in literary magazines and were broadcast on Radio 4. In 2006, my novel for teenagers, CloudWorld, was published by Faber & Faber.

Paying a tremulous visit to Waterstone’s to see it on sale for the first time, I was surprised, then dazedly pleased, to note that, due to the spelling of my surname, it was shelved right beside Dahl’s many more famous titles. Whatever else had been lost, I was still the same person who had been indulged by that glamorous couple in Tobago so many years ago. Now all I have to do is find a way to make a pilgrimage back.

David McAlpine Cunningham’s short stories have appeared in various magazines and anthologies and have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. He has also written and reviewed for the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, the London Magazine and the British Council. His novel for teenagers readers, CloudWorld, was published by Faber & Faber.

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