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Boy: Tales of Childhood Paperback – January 22, 2009
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About the Author
After establishing himself as a writer for adults, Roald Dahl began writing children’s stories in 1960 while living in England with his family. His first stories were written as entertainment for his own children, to whom many of his books are dedicated.
Roald Dahl is now considered one of the most beloved storytellers of our time. Although he passed away in 1990, his popularity continues to increase as his fantastic novels, including James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The BFG, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, delight an ever-growing legion of fans.
Learn more about Roald Dahl on the official Roald Dahl Web site: www.roalddahl.com
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The great and daring mouse plot
I kept to the rear of the group, and when I saw Mrs. Pratchett turn her head away for a couple of seconds to fish a Sherbet Sucker out of the box, I lifted the heavy glass lid of the Gobstopper jar and dropped the mouse in. Then I replaced the lid as silently as possible. My heart was thumping like mad and my hands had gone all sweaty.
“And one Bootlace, please,” I heard Thwaites saying. When I turned around, I saw Mrs. Pratchett holding out the Bootlace in her filthy fingers.
“I don’t want all the lot of you troopin’ in ’ere if only one of you is buyin’,” she screamed at us. “Now beat it! Go on, get out!”
As soon as we were outside, we broke into a run. “Did you do it?” they shouted at me.
“Of course I did!” I said.
“Well done you!” they cried. “What a super show!”
I felt like a hero. I was a hero. It was marvelous to be so popular.
Puffin Books by Roald Dahl
Boy: Tales of Childhood
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
Danny the Champion of the World
The Enormous Crocodile
Fantastic Mr. Fox
George’s Marvelous Medicine
The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me
James and the Giant Peach
The Magic Finger
The Missing Golden Ticket
and Other Splendiferous Secrets
Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar
Tales of Childhood
An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life and it is usually full of all sorts of boring details.
This is not an autobiography. I would never write a history of myself. On the other hand, throughout my young days at school and just afterwards a number of things happened to me that I have never forgotten.
None of these things is important, but each of them made such a tremendous impression on me that I have never been able to get them out of my mind. Each of them, even after a lapse of fifty and sometimes sixty years, has remained seared on my memory.
I didn’t have to search for any of them. All I had to do was skim them off the top of my consciousness and write them down.
Some are funny. Some are painful. Some are unpleasant. I suppose that is why I have always remembered them so vividly. All are true.
THERE’S MORE TO ROALD DAHL THAN GREAT STORIES . . .
Did you know that 10% of author royalties* from this book go to help the work of the Roald Dahl charities?
Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity exists to make life better for seriously ill children because it believes that every child has the right to a marvellous life.
This marvellous charity helps thousands of children each year living with serious conditions of the blood and the brain – causes important to Roald Dahl in his lifetime – whether by providing nurses, equipment or toys for today’s children in the UK, or helping tomorrow’s children everywhere through pioneering research.
Can you do something marvellous to help others?
Find out how at www.marvellouschildrenscharity.org
The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, based in Great Missenden just outside London, is in the Buckinghamshire village where Roald Dahl lived and wrote. At the heart of the Museum, created to inspire a love of reading and writing, is his unique archive of letters and manuscripts. As well as two fun-packed biographical galleries, the Museum boasts an interactive Story Centre. It is a place for the family, teachers and their pupils to explore the exciting world of creativity and literacy.
Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity is a registered charity no. 1137409
The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre is a registered charity no. 1085853
The Roald Dahl Charitable Trust is a registered charity that supports the work of RDMCC and RDMSC
Papa and Mama
My father, Harald Dahl, was a Norwegian who came from a small town near Oslo, called Sarpsborg. His own father, my grandfather, was a fairly prosperous merchant who owned a store in Sarpsborg and traded in just about everything from cheese to chicken-wire.
I am writing these words in 1984, but this grandfather of mine was born, believe it or not, in 1820, shortly after Wellington had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. If my grandfather had been alive today he would have been one hundred and sixty-four years old. My father would have been one hundred and twenty-one. Both my father and my grandfather were late starters so far as children were concerned.
When my father was fourteen, which is still more than one hundred years ago, he was up on the roof of the family house replacing some loose tiles when he slipped and fell. He broke his left arm below the elbow. Somebody ran to fetch the doctor, and half an hour later this gentleman made a majestic and drunken arrival in his horse-drawn buggy. He was so drunk that he mistook the fractured elbow for a dislocated shoulder.
‘We’ll soon put this back into place!’ he cried out, and two men were called off the street to help with the pulling. They were instructed to hold my father by the waist while the doctor grabbed him by the wrist of the broken arm and shouted, ‘Pull men, pull! Pull as hard as you can!’
The pain must have been excruciating. The victim screamed, and his mother, who was watching the performance in horror, shouted ‘Stop!’ But by then the pullers had done so much damage that a splinter of bone was sticking out through the skin of the forearm.
This was in 1877 and orthopaedic surgery was not what it is today. So they simply amputated the arm at the elbow, and for the rest of his life my father had to manage with one arm. Fortunately, it was the left arm that he lost and gradually, over the years, he taught himself to do more or less anything he wanted with just the four fingers and thumb of his right hand. He could tie a shoelace as quickly as you or me, and for cutting up the food on his plate, he sharpened the bottom edge of a fork so that it served as both knife and fork all in one. He kept his ingenious instrument in a slim leather case and carried it in his pocket wherever he went. The loss of an arm, he used to say, caused him only one serious inconvenience. He found it impossible to cut the top off a boiled egg.
My father was a year or so older than his brother Oscar, but they were exceptionally close, and soon after they left school, they went for a long walk together to plan their future. They decided that a small town like Sarpsborg in a small country like Norway was no place in which to make a fortune. So what they must do, they agreed, was go away to one of the big countries, either to England or France, where opportunities to make good would be boundless.
Their own father, an amiable giant nearly seven foot tall, lacked the drive and ambition of his sons, and he refused to support this tomfool idea. When he forbade them to go, they ran away from home, and somehow or other the two of them managed to work their way to France on a cargo ship.
From Calais they went to Paris, and in Paris they agreed to separate because each of them wished to be independent of the other. Uncle Oscar, for some reason, headed west for La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast, while my father remained in Paris for the time being.
The story of how these two brothers each started a totally separate business in different countries and how each of them made a fortune is interesting, but there is no time to tell it here except in the briefest manner.
Take my Uncle Oscar first. La Rochelle was then, and still is, a fishing port. By the time he was forty he had become the wealthiest man in town. He owned a fleet of trawlers called ‘Pêcheurs d’Atlantique’ and a large canning factory to can the sardines his trawlers brought in. He acquired a wife from a good family and a magnificent town house as well as a large château in the country. He became a collector of Louis XV furniture, good pictures and rare books, and all these beautiful things together with the two properties are still in the family. I have not seen the château in the country, but I was in the La Rochelle house a couple of years ago and it really is something. The furniture alone should be in a museum.
While Uncle Oscar was bustling around in La Rochelle, his onearmed brother Harald (my own father) was not sitting on his rump doing nothing. He had met in Paris another young Norwegian called Aadnesen and the two of them now decided to form a partnership and become shipbrokers. A shipbroker is a person who supplies a ship with everything it needs when it comes into port – fuel and food, ropes and paint, soap and towels, hammers and nails, and thousands of other tiddly little items. A shipbroker is a kind of enormous shopkeeper for ships, and by far the most important item he supplies to them is the fuel on which the ship’s engines run. In those days fuel meant only one thing. It meant coal. There were no oil-burning motorships on the high seas at that time. All ships were steamships and these old steamers would take on hundreds and often thousands of tons of coal in one go. To the shipbrokers, coal was black gold.
My father and his new-found friend, Mr Aadnesen, understood all this very well. It made sense they told each other, to set up their shipbroking business in one of the great coaling ports of Europe. Which was it to be? The answer was simple. The greatest coaling port in the world at that time was Cardiff, in South Wales. So off to Cardiff they went, these two ambitious young men, carrying with them little or no luggage. But my father had something more delightful than luggage. He had a wife, a young French girl called Marie whom he had recently married in Paris.
In Cardiff, the shipbroking firm of ‘Aadnesen & Dahl’ was set up and a single room in Bute Street was rented as an office. From then on, we have what sounds like one of those exaggerated fairy-stories of success, but in reality it was the result of tremendous hard and brainy work by those two friends. Very soon ‘Aadnesen & Dahl’ had more business than the partners could handle alone. Larger office space was acquired and more staff were engaged. The real money then began rolling in. Within a few years, my father was able to buy a fine house in the village of Llandaff, just outside Cardiff, and there his wife Marie bore him two children, a girl and a boy. But tragically, she died after giving birth to the second child.
When the shock and sorrow of her death had begun to subside a little, my father suddenly realized that his two small children ought at the very least to have a stepmother to care for them. What is more, he felt terribly lonely. It was quite obvious that he must try to find himself another wife. But this was easier said than done for a Norwegian living in South Wales who didn’t know very many people. So he decided to take a holiday and travel back to his own country, Norway, and who knows, he might if he was lucky find himself a lovely new bride in his own country.
Over in Norway, during the summer of 1911, while taking a trip in a small coastal steamer in the Oslofjord, he met a young lady called Sofie Magdalene Hesselberg. Being a fellow who knew a good thing when he saw one, he proposed to her within a week and married her soon after that.
Harald Dahl took his Norwegian wife on a honeymoon in Paris, and after that back to the house in Llandaff. The two of them were deeply in love and blissfully happy, and during the next six years she bore him four children, a girl, another girl, a boy (me) and a third girl. There were now six children in the family, two by my father’s first wife and four by his second. A larger and grander house was needed and the money was there to buy it.
So in 1918, when I was two, we all moved into an imposing country mansion beside the village of Radyr, about eight miles west of Cardiff. I remember it as a mighty house with turrets on its roof and with majestic lawns and terraces all around it. There were many acres of farm and woodland, and a number of cottages for the staff. Very soon, the meadows were full of milking cows and the sties were full of pigs and the chicken-run was full of chickens. There were several massive shire-horses for pulling the ploughs and the hay-wagons, and there was a ploughman and a cowman and a couple of gardeners and all manner of servants in the house itself. Like his brother Oscar in La Rochelle, Harald Dahl had made it in no uncertain manner.
But what interests me most of all about these two brothers, Harald and Oscar, is this. Although they came from a simple unsophisticated small-town family, both of them, quite independently of one another, developed a powerful interest in beautiful things. As soon as they could afford it, they began to fill their houses with lovely paintings and fine furniture. In addition to that, my father became an expert gardener and above all a collector of alpine plants. My mother used to tell me how the two of them would go on expeditions up into the mountains of Norway and how he would frighten her to death by climbing one-handed up steep cliff-faces to reach small alpine plants growing high up on some rocky ledge. He was also an accomplished wood-carver, and most of the mirror-frames in the house were his own work. So indeed was the entire mantelpiece around the fireplace in the living-room, a splendid design of fruit and foliage and intertwining branches carved in oak.
He was a tremendous diary-writer. I still have one of his many notebooks from the Great War of 1914–18. Every single day during those five war years he would write several pages of comment and observation about the events of the time. He wrote with a pen and although Norwegian was his mother-tongue, he always wrote his diaries in perfect English.
He harboured a curious theory about how to develop a sense of beauty in the minds of his children. Every time my mother became pregnant, he would wait until the last three months of her pregnancy and then he would announce to her that ‘the glorious walks’ must begin. These glorious walks consisted of him taking her to places of great beauty in the countryside and walking with her for about an hour each day so that she could absorb the splendour of the surroundings. His theory was that if the eye of a pregnant woman was constantly observing the beauty of nature, this beauty would somehow become transmitted to the mind of the unborn baby within her womb and that baby would grow up to be a lover of beautiful things. This was the treatment that all of his children received before they were born.
Kindergarten, 1922–3 (age 6–7)
In 1920, when I was still only three, my mother’s eldest child, my own sister Astri, died from appendicitis. She was seven years old when she died, which was also the age of my own eldest daughter, Olivia, when she died from measles forty-two years later.
Astri was far and away my father’s favourite. He adored her beyond measure and her sudden death left him literally speechless for days afterwards. He was so overwhelmed with grief that when he himself went down with pneumonia a month or so afterwards, he did not much care whether he lived or died.
If they had had penicillin in those days, neither appendicitis nor pneumonia would have been so much of a threat, but with no penicillin or any other magical antibiotic cures, pneumonia in particular was a very dangerous illness indeed. The pneumonia patient, on about the fourth or fifth day, would invariably reach what was known as ‘the crisis’. The temperature soared and the pulse became rapid. The patient had to fight to survive. My father refused to fight. He was thinking, I am quite sure, of his beloved daughter, and he was wanting to join her in heaven. So he died. He was fifty-seven years old.
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"Every weekday evening the whole school would sit for one hour in the Main Hall, between six and seven o'clock, to do Prep. The Master on duty for the week would be in charge of Prep, which meant that he sat high up on a dais at the top end of the hall and kept order ... The rules of Prep were simple but strict. You were forbidden to look up from your work, and you were forbidden to talk ..."
This simple descriptive passage took me immediatley back to St Joe's Seminary in Grand Rapids when I was just 13 or so, and sat at my study hall desk right next to my friend Tom Cassleman. We often skirted these strict rules by raising the tops of our desks, ostensibly to get a book or pen, so we could whisper to each other or pass notes, smirking and huffing silently to each other, immensely pleased with ourselves at fooling the priest "master" up on the dais in the center of the hall. Ah, yes, Mr Dahl got it right, even though he himself was a fearful little boy of only nine in his tale, which took place in an English school over thirty years before. I could relate, as could any St Joe's student from those years in the 1950s. As for the canings, they were gone by the 50s in American schools, but we could be sent to see the dreaded Dean of Discipline, Fr Leo, if we were caught for any infractions of the rules. And I did hear rumors of a certain perhaps predatory short Monsignor who invited the smaller boys into his rooms to "counsel" them. Thankfully, since I was already over six feet tall, I never got the call. Another passage in Dahl's story which I immediately felt a kinship with was the one where he talked of the propensity of doctors and dentists in his day who never bothered with anesthetic when operating on children.
"Pain was something we were expected to endure. Anaesthetics and pain-killing injections were not much used in those days. Dentists, in particular, never bothered with them ..."
Yup, I had an old-school dentist, even in the 50s, who didn't believe in "wasting" novocaine on kids. The prevailing theory was that kids didn't really feel pain. I remember crying every time I got a filling, and I got a lot of them back in those pre-fluoride days. Dr Brown would frown and tell me to "stop being such a baby." Bastard! Once again, Dahl understood and got it right. If it isn't obvious yet, I loved this book. On to its sequel now, GOING SOLO. Watch for my review of that soon. - Tim Bazzett, author of the Reed City Boy trilogy.
Top international reviews
Much of the book details his schooldays, including unhappy years as a boarder at a repressive prep school in Weston super Mare and subsequent time at Repton, where he eventually became a respected sports team ‘captain of fives’ and the squash team and the only-ever sports team captain not made a prefect due to his rebellious, anti-establishment nature.
Spliced in-between the schoolday stories are tales of the family’s annual summer holiday expeditions to Norway to live on remote idyllic islands for weeks at a time, a hair-raising first experience in a motor car driven by his elder sister who crashed and injured young Roald so badly that his nose was almost severed, and having his adenoids removed with a sharp knife and without anaesthetic by a local doctor, after which he walked home (!) with his mother.
Dahl is such an excellent writer that he makes everything interesting. He deploys great economy of language and has an engaging, conversational writing style. The book is basically highlights of the author’s first 20 years, including some highly traumatic incidents, always recounted with humour and great self-awareness and decorated with Dahl’s own distinctive cartoon-sketches of some of the episodes. It’s an easy read and you can finish the book in a few hours.
You will also likely want to read the follow-up book ‘Going Solo’ which details the author’s time working in Tanzania in the late 1930s, training as a fighter pilot in the RAF and experience of combat in a Hurricane in the Mediterranean theatre facing the numerically superior forces of the Luftwaffe.
I have been a fan of Roald Dahl all my life, I Love his stories and feel I shall be revisiting many of my old favourites Very soon indeed, as well as exploring some that I haven't yet read.
What a Wonderful autobiography of a Wonderful man, with such a Loving family background and so intrigued by the world around him, coupled by some extracts of letters written to his Mother throughout his life make for a compelling read. Learning of his lust to travel and experience new countries from such a young age, alongside his photography skills to capture what he finds along the way are truly inspirational.
I would highly recommend this book to everyone, fan of his or not, there will be something in here to capture your interest and imagination.
I love Dahl and this tale of his childhood reminds me of why. I can also see where he got his ideas from. Cadbury sending chocolate testing boxes, to his school..... : )
Just a footnote, In Scandinavia Roald is pronounced Roo’ald.
This is my first book ever of Roald Dahl; and what an introduction. He has a way of writing, which creates vivid pictures in your mind. Reading the 'great mouse plot' was hilarious. There is something charming about reading this book and it reminds me of my childhood days and brings a smile to my face.
I am now reading the short stories book (completely unexpected tales) of Roald Dahl and am amazed with the macabre stories there.
From simple childhood stories to dark mysterious stories, no doubt Roald is a brilliant writer.
I don't know exactly what it is, but Roald Dahl has always held a certain kind of magic for me, and as my own children grow up I hope that they find that magic too.