Could pheasants ever be seduced by raisins soaked in brandy and spliced with a horse’s hair? It is a delicate question. It has an important answer.
Millions of children — including Danny, alleged Champion of the World — have been enthralled by this piece country lore; gaining new-found if dubious respect for those small, shrivelled specks in their bowls of spotted dick.
This kind of ponderous yet blissful ignorance entertains me greatly.
I love the ease with which a misconception is so easily overturned. All you have to do is ask the right question of the right person, and what you’re left with is a world enriched twice over — one person learns something, the other grows in stature as someone who has shared their own knowledge.
It’s true, Danny was an excellent and willing student. But then, Roald Dahl would have been a very good children’s teacher.
As a diplomat in later life, Dahl demonstrated a flair for the patience that’s needed to move things forward at the right pace. Dahl also understood both the drawbacks and the benefits of discipline: he was on the receiving end of corporal punishment in his own education but lived the rank and order life of regulation as a pilot — he became a Squadron Leader as a result.
Roald Dahl understood children’s complexities: their innocent fascination with the macabre, their intolerance of mawkish behaviour among adults.
My teacher, for very many years, was my father. An insistent man, drawn from a long line of erudite men and women who weren’t cut out for having children but could definitely teach the little buggers a lesson or two.
Of the many adults around me, it must be said my father’s family probably knew the least about poaching techniques. This says a lot for my mother. Rum lot, my family.
Anyway. At the same time I was developing an appreciation for free-range dinners, I was reading Kezia: a folly of a book with a rag-a-tag feral gipsy struggling to understand the adult world. Christina was also a good friend: the pages of Flambards were still warm and subliminal associations between fighter pilots, rural life, and “this must be a good story” were strong.
No interest in horses, you note — dangerous at both ends and shifty in the middle — but my father was a lateral thinker and a great recommender of Which Book to Read Next. Danny, Champion of the World was a shoe-in.
However. My suspicions as to the veracity of Mr Dahl’s poaching techniques were soon aroused by a foray into our pantry armed with a pair of nail scissors and a piece of sewing thread. Hence the narrow-eyed interrogation:
“Dad, can pheasants really be caught with raisins?”
“Danny’s pheasants can,” said my father. And that was that — except, even at this age, I had already realised the importance of listening very carefully to my father when he was in ‘This-is-so’ mode. His sense of humour was such — is such, still — that many generations of young Norfolk schoolchildren learned about the Leaning Tower of Pizza, and one or two older individuals believe three of a kind beats a straight flush.
My own fetish for intentionally building delicate, fictitious nuances into a text is derived, largely, from an admiration of my father’s ability to orate a group of specific words and yet, with them, intend something completely different. Just like Dahl.
In a school report, one of Roald’s English teachers lamented: “I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended.” Similar, much?
That is, perhaps, where much of their similarity ends. But by listening to my father attentively, I did realise what Dahl’s children’s books teach us all: the power of language is such that reality will be whatever you want it to be when it is written on a page.
Danny’s world involved sixty brace of pheasants being delivered in a pram that was built for the purpose. Sixty brace: that’s 120 pheasants, in one pram. Grobes were invented to scare the White House but vermicious Knids are real, and they know how to spell a word like S-C-R-A-M. But that’s Knids all over.
Dahl’s heroes always strolled into a story equipped with apposite McGuffins: a legacy; a lottery; a golden ticket wrapped around a chocolate bar. Because we are human, we need to find out for ourselves where the delicate tipping point exists : wondering if his facts are fictitious, wanting to believe a piece of his fiction is — or may be — fact.
It is a delicate balance. We discover the small truths of life far too early. Danny is still on my bookshelves; as is Kezia, as is Christina.
And I know that, if I need to suspend life’s harsh reality for a moment, for any reason, then I can read them —and tip the balance, for a while.
(Mind you, I’ll never shake my doubts about those raisins.)