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Is it time to cancel Roald Dahl – or to celebrate him?

We should treat Roald Dahl as a naïve and unworldly man who never entirely left the realm of make-believe

Artillery Row

Last month marked the 30th anniversary of the author Roald Dahl’s death, at the age of 84. I still remember where I was when I learnt of his demise. My English teacher announced his passing to the class, virtually in tears, which made me wonder if he had known Dahl personally. He then marked the occasion by reading out loud one of his most twisted and enjoyable short stories, “Parson’s Pleasure”, about the come-uppance of a crooked antiques dealer at the hands of some yokels.

As I had, by that stage, only been treated to the likes of The Twits and The BFG, this was a fascinatingly new horizon. I regret to say that virtually every creative endeavour I produced for years was unimaginatively in thrall to Dahl, complete with ever-more hackneyed twists and reversals. I stopped when I realised that I had accidentally pastiched Jeffrey Archer instead.

Dahl’s reputation has remained consistently high since his death, and deeply lucrative; his estate reportedly made £27 million last year alone, from both the continued sales of his books and from various high-profile licences for film adaptations. Robert Zemeckis’s film adaptation of The Witches, denied a cinematic release for the usual reasons, appeared on various streaming sites legal and illegal last month, to mediocre reviews, and Netflix are apparently planning a big-budget adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory next year.

The writer himself is now thought to be worth featuring in dramas, too. He appears as a young boy in Sky’s family festive offering (words to chill the soul, there) Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse, which tells the tale (or tail, if you will) of a meeting between the 6-year old Dahl and the redoubtable Beatrix Potter. And the more adult-oriented To Olivia will star Hugh Bonneville as the author and Keeley Hawes as his wife, the actress Patricia Neal, and concentrate on their relationship after the loss of their daughter Olivia. It is said to be “inspiring and heart-warming”, concentrating on themes of “redemption and strength”.

We should neither cancel Roald Dahl, nor celebrate him unreservedly

Something that has, alas, been rather less “inspiring and heart-warming” as a means of marking three decades since Dahl’s death is an apology that has appeared on his official website, without fanfare. Entitled Apology for anti-Semitic comments made by Roald Dahl, the note apologises for “the lasting and understandable hurt caused by some of Roald Dahl’s statements.” It continues, more in sorrow than in anger, to say that “Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations”, before concluding, hopefully, that “just as he did at his best, at his absolute worst, Roald Dahl can help remind us of the lasting impact of words.”

While issues of children’s writers being forced into making apologies, or refusing to make them, for controversial statements of theirs have been much in the news this year, there had been surprisingly little attention paid to some of Dahl’s more inflammatory and ill-considered remarks in recent times. Yet the re-emergence of especially foolish comments that he made in interviews did his reputation little credit. Shortly before his death, he declared to TheIndependent, apparently without any shame, that “I am certainly anti-Israel, and have become anti-Semitic”, and in 1983 decided that it would be a cathartic action to tell a no doubt incredulous New Statesman that “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere.” In the spirit of being hung for a sheep as a lamb, he chose to comment “Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason”.

If any writer made such comments in an interview today about any minority group, they would be both literally and metaphorically cancelled the same day. Yet in the last seven years of Dahl’s career, he published many of his most beloved children’s books, including Matilda and The Twits, as well as his acclaimed volumes of autobiography Boy and Going Solo. Although he was never knighted nor awarded any significant distinctions by the government, turning down an OBE in 1986 as insufficiently impressive, he was by far the most popular children’s writer of his generation, and continues to be totemic for both readers and authors. It is debatable how much of a career David Walliams would have if his books didn’t overtly pay homage to Dahl’s, even down to hiring his regular illustrator Quentin Blake for some of them. What on earth is the secret to Dahl’s escape from opprobrium?

Excuses can and will be made. Dahl’s publisher Tom Maschler, who died recently, was a notoriously difficult and egocentric man, as well as being Jewish, and it could be argued, somewhat tendentiously, that many of Dahl’s attacks on Jews could be interpreted as necessarily veiled expressions of his venting his frustration with Maschler. More persuasive is his friend Isaiah Berlin’s comment that, “I thought he might say anything. Could have been pro-Arab or pro-Jew. There was no consistent line. He was a man who followed whims, which meant he would blow up in one direction, so to speak”.

Dahl was a peculiar man whose richness of imagination went along with deep personal eccentricity. This was both tolerated and facilitated by those around him. Although JK Rowling raised eyebrows with her first post-Harry Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, containing swearing and sex scenes, it seems extremely unlikely that she would have interrupted her career as one of Britain’s most successful ever writers to produce an erotic novel aimed at adults, as Dahl did with his (excellent and deeply un-PC) 1979 book My Uncle Oswald.

We should not castigate Dahl as yet another privately educated racist

Likewise, the macabre violence visited upon children in books such as The Witches and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory suggests an ambivalence towards his readership that may have been borne out by one of the more eyebrow-raising anecdotes in Kingsley Amis’s Memoirs. Upon meeting Dahl at a party and being asked if he has any ideas for children’s books (“that’s where the money is today, believe me”), Amis regretfully replied that he did not, saying “I don’t think I enjoyed children’s books much when I was a child myself. I’ve got no feeling for that kind of thing.” To his surprise, Dahl replied “Never mind, the little bastards’d swallow it.”

Yet, just as Berlin suggested that the writer would switch from one persona to another on a whim, Dahl later collared Amis again at the party, and, apparently sincerely, informed him:

If you do decide to have a crack, let me give you one warning. Unless you put everything you’ve got into it, unless you write it from the heart, the kids’ll have no use for it. They’ll see you’re having them on. And just let me tell you from experience that there’s nothing kids hate more than that. They won’t give you a second chance either. You’ll have had it for good as far as they’re concerned. Just you bear that in mind as a word of friendly advice.

Amis records Dahl walking off “with a stiff nod and an air of having asserted his integrity by rejecting some particularly outrageous and repulsive suggestion”. What he hints at, but does not explicitly state, is that Dahl was perfectly sincere in both statements, switching with no apparent contradiction in his own mind between the personae of cynical exploiter of the young and heartfelt creator of magical stories. This ability to snap between attitudes and personae might be described as sociopathic, and indeed much of Dahl’s life and career does hint at an unbalanced and inconsistent mind, both when it comes to attitudes that most people would find repellent and in the richness and immersive nature of the characters and worlds he created.

Like his great hero Lewis Carroll, another visionary eccentric, the wonder of Dahl’s writing is that he believed wholeheartedly in a fantastical universe, and the books represent that universe committed to paper. They are less a creative feat, and more a marvel of reportage, from the most vivid of imaginations.

None of which excuses his anti-Semitism, which richly merits a public apology, even if it has felt overdue and strangely mealy-mouthed. Certainly, Dahl’s recent public reputation has been chequered enough for the Royal Mint not to issue a coin commemorating his centenary, as they described him as not being “an author of the highest reputation” – an excellent piece of bureaucratic double-speak.

We should treat Roald Dahl’s life and work with the careful consideration that it deserves

While it is possible to suggest that anti-Semitism is still somehow regarded as a “lesser” offence than other forms of racism, and that Dahl’s posthumous standing would have been entirely negated had he been anti-black (his racially dubious portrayal of the Oompah-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory notwithstanding), it is nonetheless the case that we should regard Dahl’s often provocative and thoughtless public statements in context with his imaginative genius. Rather than castigate him as yet another privately educated racist, we should instead treat him, like so many of his characters and peers, as a naïve and unworldly man who never entirely left the realm of make-believe.

We should neither cancel Roald Dahl, nor celebrate him unreservedly, but instead treat his life and work with the careful consideration that it deserves, never forgetting the joy that it has given many millions over the decades. Including, it should be said, this writer.

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