Dahl on travel and civilization

In this excerpt from Roald Dahl's Boy, his mother asks if he wants to go to Oxford or Cambridge.

"No, thank you," I said. "I want to go straight from school to work for a company that will send me to wonderful faraway places like Africa or China."

You must remember that there was virtually no air travel in the early 1930s. Africa was two weeks away from England by boat and it took you about five weeks to get to China. These were distant and magic lands and nobody went to them just for a holiday. You went there to work. Nowadays you can go anywhere in the world in a few hours and nothing is fabulous anymore. But it was a very different matter in 1933.

I love the use of that word fabulous. It saves the passage from sounding like a cranky-old-man reminiscence.

Dahl gets his wish and is posted to Africa, where he will work for three years straight, with no opportunity to visit home or see his family. I admire the detail and compression in this paragraph as he summarizes three years of his life into a paragraph.

...I got my African adventure all right. I got the roasting heat and the crocodiles and the snakes and the long safaris up-country, selling Shell oil to the men who ran the diamond mines and the sisal plantations. I learned about an extraordinary machine called a decorticator (a name I have always loved) which shredded the big leathery sisal leaves into fibre. I learned to speak Swahili and to shake the scorpions out of my mosquito boots in the mornings. I learned what it was like to get malaria and to run a temperature of 105 degrees F for three days, and when the rainy seasons came and the water poured down in solid sheets and flooded the little dirt roads, I learned how to spend nights in the back of a stifling station-wagon with all the windows closed against marauders from the jungle. Above all, I learned how to look after myself in a way that no young person can ever do by staying in civilisation.

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Dahl on the life of businessmen and writers

In the following excerpt from Roald Dahl's Boy, he's left public school at 18 to take a job with Shell Oil company. He is taking their internal training courses and is learning the business.

...[E]very morning, six days a week, Saturdays included, I would dress neatly in a sombre grey suit, have breakfast at seven forty-five and then, with a brown trilby on my head and a furled umbrella in my hand, I would board the eight-fifteen train to London together with a swarm of other equally sombre-suited businessmen. I found it easy to fall into their pattern. We were all very serious and dignified gents taking the train to our offices in the City of London where each of us, so we thought, was engaged in high finance and other enormously important matters. Most of my companions wore hard bowler hats, and a few like me wore soft trilbys, but not one of us on that train in the year of 1934 went bareheaded. It wasn't done. And none of us, even on the sunniest of days, went without his furled umbrella. The umbrella was our badge of office. We felt naked without it. Also it was a sign of respectability. Road-menders and plumbers never went to work with umbrellas. Businessmen did.

I enjoyed it. I really did. I began to realise how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours and a fixed salary and very little original thinking to do. The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn't go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. It happens to be a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whiskey than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope, and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.

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Roald Dahl's "Boy"

A very nice habit we picked up from Liz's parents was her dad reading to her mom. We've adapted that to me reading to Liz before she turns out the light for bed (I'm an owl, we stay up later). After much experimentation, we've decided that memoirs are the best before-bedtime subject matter. Even then, there's an awful lot of variation in memoirs that makes them entertaining enough to read aloud and keep our interest for the weeks it takes to read 10-20 pages a night. Roald Dahl's memoir Boy, published in 1984, is a fine example of the kind of memoir we enjoy. It's well-written, with vivid scenes, conversations, and observations; it doesn't sag, get overly poetic in description, or droningly philosophic in its digressions. It satisfies also what I recall Roger Ebert quoted George C. Scott as saying he wanted to see in movies: show me people I've never seen before, in a place I've never been before, saying things I've never heard before.

Boy covers Dahl's first 18 years, growing up in England, attending public schools, and then his transition to manhood, just before he joined the RAF in WWII. It's a time when boys were brutally caned by headmasters and housemasters for utterly capricious and arbitrary reasons, motor cars attained high speeds of 30 miles an hour, and anesthetic was never used when visiting the dentist or lancing a boil (he describes watching, fascinated, as a clever doctor performs the latter operation on a sick boy). Liz almost screamed several times: "Why aren't they using anesthetic, for God's sake?!?"

But Dahl is describing the past, a foreign country and, as LP Hartley said, "they do things differently there." On the occasions where a serious operation is needed--his sister needs an appendectomy, his nose is sheared off in a motorcar crash and needs to be sewn back on--the doctor comes to their house, lays a clean cloth on the gardening table, soaks cotton in ether to knock the patient out, and gets down to it. Otherwise, Dahl reports, anesthetic was simply not often used in the 1920s and '30s, and one was simply expected to take it.

Liz also had me skip over the numerous passages devoted to boys being whipped, caned, and treated like dirt by the adults and others with power over them; the cruelty Dahl describes is simply too harsh to take. In one episode, he describes the boys perusing someone's caned bottom and admiring the housemaster's technique with the cool attitude and commentary of connoisseurs. Dahl at one point apologizes for telling so many of these stories, but the book is a skimming of the memories that made such a deep impression on him that they were the moments that stood out. Being whipped by a master who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury was enough to convince him that this God business was obviously wrong; and he said that, as an adult, sitting on a hardwood chair for too long awakened the feelings he had as a child sitting down after being caned, and he would have to stand up.

It's an unsentimental look back at his life, funny, gentle, and at times horrific, very well told.

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