June Hopper Swain
2017 sees the fortieth anniversary of The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar and Six More (1977), a collection of short stories, varied in mood and content and often with a twist in the tail, by Roald Dahl whose centenary was celebrated in 2016. Some of these stories give us vivid glimpses into Dahl’s very eventful life, while others are excellent examples of a highly creative imagination. Either first person or autobiographical narratives, all are stamped with Dahl’s fluid writing style. He had already published the highly successful and much loved storybook for children, Danny, the Champion of the World (1975), while the picture book The Enormous Crocodile (1978), the first picture book that Quentin Blake illustrated, would follow a year later.
And so it is with the first story in the collection, ‘The Boy who Talked with Animals’, which is set on a remote island in Jamaica. The narrator, who is spending a few days there, finds that, despite the natural beauty of the place, there is a ‘sinister’ atmosphere at his hotel and around the island generally. Moreover, he has been told that there are people living in the mountains who still practise voodoo. Against this uneasy backdrop, the story unfolds about a young English boy, David, also staying at the hotel with his parents, who is passionate about animals. When a huge turtle, caught by local fisherman, is hauled, upturned, onto the beach to be slaughtered for food and for its shell, David pleads with his father to save it. To everyone’s amazement, for the turtle has huge claws and strong jaws, David puts his arms around its neck and calms its obvious distress with soothing words. The turtle is spared and it returns to the sea. This would have been a happy ending to a story that has a strong ecological message. But this is a Dahl story, and the narrator tells us that he has ‘an uneasy feeling’ that this is not quite the end of the matter. Sure enough, the next morning David is missing and there are subsequent reported sightings of a young boy, far out to sea, riding on the back of a huge turtle. This is an unexpected and, indeed, memorable turn of events, and that haunting image and the narrator’s description of the island’s ‘weird and sinister’ atmosphere generally can leave the reader wondering what, exactly, has actually happened.
In a complete change of mood, the next story in the collection, ‘The Hitch-Hiker’, is a humorous narrative about a man who, in his smart new BMW car, gives a lift to a hitch-hiker whom he discovers is a pickpocket, or ‘fingersmith’ as he prefers to be called, and how he gets the narrator into and, ingeniously, out of trouble with the police. Dahl’s description of this light-fingered character creates a vivid and colourful picture: he was ‘a small ratty-faced man with grey teeth’, his eyes ‘dark and quick and clever, like a rat’s eyes’ and he had long slim fingers and a jacket with huge pockets as befitted his profession.
The story of ‘The Mildenhall Treasure’, earlier versions of which were first published in the American magazine The Saturday Evening Post in 1946, is Dahl’s dramatised account of the discovery in Suffolk in 1942 of a hoard of Roman silver. The man who found the hoard was ploughman Gordon Butcher who was ultimately cheated out of his rightful 100% of the treasure trove’s value by a ‘small-time agricultural engineer’ called Ford. The accompanying double-spread black-and-white photograph shows the enormity of the find, while Dahl precedes this story with a note about how he came to interview this publicity-shy ploughman prior to his writing the piece. This true story, which Dahl had originally read about in a newspaper, is brought vividly to life by his descriptions of the fen country with its icy ‘nor-easter’ wind ‘sweeping over the flat Norfolk fields’ and by his fleshing out of the two main protagonists, the honest, hardworking ploughman with his ‘steady blue eyes’ and Mr Ford, the villain of the piece with his ‘foxy-face’ and thin, sour mouth, whom Dahl had met briefly.
Anthony Horowitz, in his perceptive introduction to the 2013 edition of Dahl’s The Complete Short Stories Volume Two 1954–1988, which includes ‘The Swan’, and is, interestingly, classified as adult fiction, admits to being ‘not quite sure what to make of “The Swan”’ and finds it ‘one of the strangest and with one of the most poetical endings you’ll ever come across’. Indeed, I found the ending, and it was with a terrific sense of relief especially in view of what had gone before, incredibly moving.
Dahl was a very convincing storyteller and it can be difficult sometimes to decide whether or not a story of his is true. In the title story, ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’, however, which is the longest in the collection and full of colourful imagery, Dahl’s key character, Imhrat Khan, was inspired by real-life Pakistani mystic Kuda Bux.
Henry Sugar, a wealthy playboy living on inherited money, was vain and idle and intent on increasing his fortune. One weekend at a friend’s house Henry found an exercise book on the library shelf inside which was a handwritten account by a surgeon at Bombay General Hospital of an Indian gentleman, Imhrat Khan, who had been able to see without using his eyes. Khan had related to the surgeon how he had achieved this extraordinary feat by, ultimately, following the guidance of an Indian yogi who taught him body control and how to concentrate his mind. After years of concentrated effort to develop his ‘inner senses’, Khan’s ability to see without his eyes was achieved and he incorporated this feat into his conjuring act. There is a humorous, almost slapstick, scenario in the description of the self-promoting Khan, with eyes that had been copiously bandaged by the bemused surgeon and one other doctor, riding through the busy Bombay thoroughfare on a bicycle to which was attached a placard advertising his magic show. Soon after, and just when the surgeon was beginning to realise that Khan’s gift could be of tremendous value to the medical world in the treatment of the sick, the unexpected happened: Khan died, and the surgeon was left wondering if this was because Khan had used his yogic powers for personal gain. When Henry Sugar, an inveterate gambler, finished reading the surgeon’s story, he was fired with ambition and greed, and decided to train himself to read the value of a playing card from its reverse side, one of the feats that Khan had been able to do, and thus make a lot of money. He succeeded, but the three years of intense yoga exercises and mind training affected him in ways that he hadn’t anticipated. The book’s cover, as mentioned earlier, is by Susan Shields and illustrates just one of the extraordinary things that Henry Sugar was to do: high up from his top floor flat balcony he threw all his winnings from gambling, which amounted to thousands of pounds, in a cascade of banknotes, down to an excited, and very receptive, crowd in the street below.
In ‘Lucky Break’, the penultimate story in Henry Sugar, Dahl relates the wretched time spent at his boarding school in Weston-Super-Mare, on the south-west coast of England, where there were lots of rules that had to be obeyed; any slight deviation from a rule meant the thwack of the cane several times on the backside, which resulted in lacerations, bruising and excruciating pain. The years that followed at Repton public school in Derbyshire, were no less wretched. The headmaster there – who would later become an Archbishop of Canterbury – was just as liberal with the cane, while the fagging system, in which a younger boy acted as a servant to a prefect, resulted in more canings.
Also in ‘Lucky Break’ Dahl relates his experiences travelling in East Africa when he worked for the Shell Oil Company and his exploits in the RAF as a fighter pilot during the Second World War. He was invalided back to England due to a head injury sustained when his airplane had crashed in the Libyan desert some 15 months earlier, and after a month’s leave he was posted to Washington DC as Assistant Air Attaché at the British Embassy. It was a very eventful period of his life and he was still only 26 years old.
Dahl goes on to describe how it was in Washington in 1942 that he met the creator of the Captain Hornblower stories, C.S. Forester, who asked Dahl to give him details of his exploits as a fighter pilot. The idea was that Forester would write a story, based on Dahl’s notes, about the war in Britain that would appear in American newspapers and magazines. Dahl’s ‘notes’, however, were so detailed and complete that Forester sent the story through his agent to the Saturday Evening Post where it was accepted for publication immediately.
The story, which marked the beginning of Dahl’s career as a writer, is called ‘A Piece of Cake’ and it appears at the end of the Henry Sugar collection.
Dahl relates too how he wrote his first children’s story The Gremlins that initially appeared in Cosmopolitan Magazine in the USA in December 1942 and then published in book form in the USA and Great Britain in 1943. This book resulted in his being invited several times by Eleanor Roosevelt, who read the story to her grandchildren at the White House, to stay with her and President Roosevelt at their weekend retreat.
In ‘A Piece of Cake’, written in 1942, Dahl vividly recounts that crash landing in the Libyan desert after being shot down by enemy fire. He was rescued by British soldiers and taken to the hospital in Alexandria where he spent six months. His injuries were serious, and he gives extraordinarily graphic descriptions of the hallucinatory images created by his delirium during his first weeks in hospital. It is not surprising that The Saturday Evening Post snapped up for publication this first-hand account of a British fighter pilot’s experiences.
When Roald Dahl ‘slid in through the back door’ into the world of fiction, he remained there very happily, for his creative energy never waned. He preferred writing fiction to factual accounts, and while ‘The Mildenhall Treasure’, ‘Lucky Break’ and ‘A Piece of Cake’ in this collection are non-fiction, his fluid, natural way with words provides the reader with rattling good stories and colourful images. And the fictional stories that accompany them were begun, as all Dahl’s successful stories were begun, as ‘little scribbles’, little seeds of ideas waiting to germinate and flourish in the hands of this master storyteller.
And there are more colourful episodes from Dahl’s life in Boy (1984) and Going Solo (1986), both of which remain in print.
Dahl, Roald. 1943. The Gremlins. London: Collins
–– 1967. James and the Giant Peach. Illus. Quentin Blake, London: Jonathan Cape.
––1975. Danny, the Champion of the World. Illus. Quentin Blake, London: Jonathan Cape.
–– 1977. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More. London: Jonathan Cape. Reprinted 2000 by Puffin, London with illustrations by Quentin Blake.
–– 1978. The Enormous Crocodile. Illus. Quentin Blake, London: Jonathan Cape.
–– 1982. The BFG. Illus. Quentin Blake, London: Jonathan Cape.
–– 1984. Boy. London: Jonathan Cape.
–– 1986. Going Solo. Jonathan Cape.
–– 2013. The Complete Short Stories Volume Two 1954–1988. London: Penguin.