Chocolate flakes and paperweights: the mesmerizing voice of Roald Dahl

Listening to Roald Dahl: In His Own Words was like hearing the writer's whole ouvre compressed into one short monologue.

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September 2016 being the centenary of his birth, one hears a lot of Roald Dahl on the radio this summer. Not just his work, but himself. An edition of Archive on 4 (2 July, 8pm) used extracts from interviews with him, including a sweet tour of his writing hut in Great Missenden. He hadn’t cleaned up for as long as he could remember. “The only thing I did remove about two years ago – we had a goat that got in and there were some goat droppings on the floor and I thought, ‘Well, I’d better get a dustpan and sweep those up, and I did.’”

He pointed out the various objects on his desk, including the head of one of his own femurs, lopped off during a hip replacement (“I’ve had them both done”), and a container of shavings from an operation on his spine, which he now used as a paperweight. Was this not a little macabre, the interviewer suggested? “It’s not macabre to me at all!” Dahl shot back, fiercely. “No. No. It’s not. If you see it all the time, it doesn’t worry you.”

Why hide the bleak things? Seek to find them cheering. It reminded me of the Fantastic Mr Fox getting his tail blown off and, after gloomily licking the stump for a while, deeply comprehending: “Well, I suppose I’m lucky to be alive at all.” Or in James and the Giant Peach, when the child James, forced by his appalling aunts to chop wood all day, gazes his fate in the eye. “Today and tomorrow and the next day and all the other days as well would be nothing but punishment and pain, unhappiness and despair.” He has articulated the worst. There is nothing left to fear. At this moment, a peach on a high branch in the garden begins to grow, like a heart swelling in sympathy.

If only such things did happen . . . though, as you listened to Dahl speak (that super-light Norwegian inflection), time and again you heard him argue that they did. Take the Cadbury’s Flake. Such a miracle ought to be projected on the moon! “1921! . . . Everyone should know these dates. Who wants to know when the kings of England were born? It’s when the chocolate was invented. Kit Kats, 1935, all that sort of thing.” It spilled from him in a wry, life-brimming, convinced exhalation that sounded like his entire oeuvre (his memoir Boy included), compressed into one short monologue. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers

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