Can pheasants be seduced by raisins, soaked in brandy and spliced with a horse’s hair? It doesn’t matter if they can or cannot.
What matters is that millions of children – including Danny, alleged Champion of the World – have been enthralled by this country lore, gaining new-found if dubious respect for those shrivelled somethings in their spotted dick.
This kind of ponderous ignorance entertains me greatly. I love the ease with which it is so easily defeated. All you have to do is ask the right question of the right person and what you’re left with is a world that is enriched twice over – one person learns something, the other grows in stature as someone who can share, help, and teach.
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, he 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 also understood the complexities of children: 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 men and women who weren’t really cut out for having children but could definitely teach the little buggers a lesson or two.
Of all the erudite adults around me, it must be said that his family probably knew the least about poaching techniques. This says an awful lot for my mother, through whom my kinship with advocates of free-range dinners has never been an issue. Rum lot, my family.
Anyway. I’d not long finished Kezia, a folly of a book with a rag-a-tag feral gipsy struggling to understand the adult world. The pages of Flambards were still warm and the association in my mind between fighter pilots, the country life, and GOOD STORIES had never been stronger. I’d never shown an interest then, or since, in horses - dangerous at both ends and shifty in the middle - but my father was a great lateral thinker and recommender of The Right Book Next. Dahl’s Danny was a shoe-in.
However. My suspicions as to the veracity of those poaching techniques were briskly 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: Can pheasants really be seduced by brandy-soaked raisins spliced with a horse’s hair? “Danny’s pheasants can.”
And that was that – except, I’d realised you must listen carefully to my father when he was in 'I-know-this' mode. His sense of humour was such – is such, still – that several entire generations of Norfolk schoolchildren learned about the Leaning Tower of Pizza. I kid you not. My own fetish for intentionally building linguistic nuances into a text is derived, largely, from an admiration of my father’s innate ability to speak one thing out loud and yet to 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’s where the likeness ends. But, by listening to my father so attentively, I did realise what Dahl’s children’s books have taught us all: the delicacy of the truth is such that it can be whatever you want it to be when it’s written on a page.
Danny’s world involved sixty brace of pheasants being delivered in a pram that was built for the purpose. Grobes were invented to scare the White House but vermicious Knids are real and, by Jove, they know how to spell the word SCRAM. The hero of every good story will always stroll onto the page, well-equipped with an apposite McGuffin of resources – whether that’s a legacy; a lottery; or a golden ticket wrapped around a chocolate bar.
Because we are human, we need to find out for ourselves what that delicate tipping point is: the balance between knowing that something is entirely made of fiction, and the firm conviction that a story is or could be real. We find out what the tipping point is at an early age, and it’s mostly thanks to masters of the delicate art like Dahl.
Danny is still on my bookshelves. Whenever I need to suspend reality, I can read again and believe in the stories told about one of my earliest and youngest literary friends. Mind you, I’ve never shaken my doubts about those raisins.
Thank you for working your way to the end of this page.
If you enjoyed this post, then you may enjoy my dervish on Arthur Ransome too.