Darker side to the au­thor of much-loved chil­dren’s books

The West Australian - - WORLD - Jack Ker­ridge

As­so­ci­ated “with anti-Semitism and not re­garded as an au­thor of the high­est rep­u­ta­tion” was the damn­ing ver­dict of Bri­tain’s Royal Mint on Roald Dahl.

As we learnt this week, the com­mit­tee that picks who is to be hon­oured with com­mem­o­ra­tive coins chose not to nom­i­nate Dahl in 2016, the year of his cen­te­nary.

Not the high­est rep­u­ta­tion? It de­pends on how you look at it. His stand­ing as the favourite au­thor of mil­lions of chil­dren, es­tab­lished be­fore his death in 1990, has only in­creased since, as has his sta­tus among crit­ics. But it is as what the BFG would call “a hu­man bean” that his rep­u­ta­tion is prob­lem­atic.

If I think my­self back into the mind of the small boy who read Dahl’s books over and over again, it is the nasty bits that come to mind vividly: Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker crushed to death by the peach in James and the Gi­ant Peach; Mr Twit mak­ing his wife think she is shrink­ing by adding tiny pieces of wood to her walk­ing stick and chair legs ev­ery day.

The mes­sage, dif­fer­ent from other books I had read, was life is mostly cruel, so you might as well find the funny side of that cru­elty and rel­ish it. If Dahl had been a nice man, or a nice all the time, I don’t sup­pose he could have in­flicted such a re­fresh­ingly trans­gres­sive view on young read­ers.

Au­thor Christo­pher Hitchens wrote an es­say ex­am­in­ing the ac­cu­sa­tion Dahl was an adul­terer, bully and anti-Semite. “Of course, it’s bloody well true,” he con­cluded. “How else could Dahl have kept chil­dren en­thralled and agree­ably dis­gusted and plea­sur­ably afraid? By be­ing Enid Bly­ton?”

Yet won­ders how healthy Dahl’s fic­tion re­ally is; not just how far he drew on the dark places in his own soul, but how far some of his more ab­hor­rent views crept into his books.

There is no doubt he was very anti-Semitic. In the 1980s he made sev­eral in­flam­ma­tory state­ments. “Our hearts bled for the Le­banese and Pales­tinian men, women and chil­dren, and we all started hat­ing the Is­raelis” just as “our hearts bled for the Jewish men, women and chil­dren, and we hated the Ger­mans” 40 years pre­vi­ously, he said in an ar­ti­cle he wrote in 1983 on Is­rael’s in­va­sion of Le­banon.

He had sug­gested that Jews were easy to kill en masse dur­ing the Holo­caust be­cause “they were al­ways sub­mis­sive”.

Dahl’s books for chil­dren are not no­tably anti-Semitic, though one won­ders what they would have been like with­out the re­strain­ing hand of his ed­i­tors. They cut racist and misog­y­nist con­tent from Matilda, The BFG, The Witches and Char­lie Bucket books. The de­light­fully naughty Dahl we all en­joy is a di­luted ver­sion.

Dahl has high-pro­file de­fend­ers, even in the Jewish com­mu­nity. Steven Spielberg, who di­rected the film of The BFG, has said “noth­ing in any­thing he’s ever writ­ten has held up a mir­ror to some of his state­ments in 1983. I don’t truly be­lieve some­body with such a big heart, who has given so much joy and epiphany to au­di­ences with his writ­ing, was an anti-Semitic hu­man be­ing.”

But Dahl caused pain along with joy. In April 1990, two San Fran­cisco chil­dren wrote to him: “Dear Mr Dahl, we love your books but you don’t like us be­cause we are Jews. That of­fends us! Can you please change your mind about what you said about Jews.”

Dahl replied it was in­jus­tice he hated, not Jews; per­haps his words were a com­fort to those fans. His chil­dren’s books, purged of his more ex­treme views, will al­ways in­spire de­light in young read­ers, I hope; but one can see why the great and the good are care­ful how they choose to hon­our him.

An im­age of Roald Dahl on the cover of a quiz book about him.

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