For a couple of weeks now I’ve been squinting at my dad’s old stamp collection, working away on a strange book project that may go nowhere but is fascinating just the same. These are stamps he collected as a boy in Holland, and I can picture him matching up the images and placing them just so in the postzegelalbum that is now faded and worn soft. One of my favourites is an old 1920s lyre bird stamp from Australia. I don’t know how he got it. Most of the stamps are from the Netherlands, Germany, and France, but there are others from far-flung places like Japan and India, and it’s funny to think that nowadays he sails to such places on the boat that is his home. Those dreams of world travel began long ago, and eventually became reality.
So I was squinting at those stamps when an email came in from Niranjana Iyer, sending news of Royal Mail’s new series of stamps celebrating Roald Dahl’s work. The series features Quentin Blake’s wonderful illustrations: Charlie with his golden ticket, the BFG with Sophie on his palm, a Witch with her wig suspended above her scabby scalp. And I thought, how nice that this would come to me just now, like a special delivery.
We’re nearly done Roald Dahl’s 1975 novel Danny the Champion of the World, but we got off to a difficult start. Danny is four months old when his mother dies, so he’s raised by his father, who owns a filling station, and they live together in a gypsy caravan. Danny adores his father, a marvelous story-teller and an “eye-smiler” (like my own dad). “I’ve learned that a real mouth-smile always has an eye-smile to go with it,” Danny tells us. “So watch out, I say, when someone smiles at you with his mouth but his eyes stay the same. It’s sure to be phony.”
Danny’s father takes wonderful care of them both and teaches Danny to become an expert mechanic by the age of 7. But late one night, Danny wakes to discover his father is gone, and that “no father is perfect. Grown-ups are complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets. Some have quirkier quirks and deeper secrets than others, but all of them, including one’s own parents, have two or three private habits hidden up their sleeves that would probably make you gasp if you knew about them.”
"Pheasants are beautiful birds, aren't they Mom?"
When Danny wakes up alone in the dark, he grows sick with worry. He waits and waits until finally his father returns. “I’m so sorry,” he says, and by way of apology, he lets Danny in on “the deepest, darkest secret of my whole life.” It turns out that Danny’s lovely, gentle, funny, kind father is a poacher. He hasn’t poached since his wife died, but that night, he was driven by an insatiable longing. At first, Danny is horrified by the idea that his father is a thief. And then he finds out that he comes from a long line of “magnificent and splendiferous” poachers. Every decent man in town loves to creep into the wealthy, villainous Mr. Hazell’s woods and steal his overfed pheasants. “Only the very rich can afford to rear pheasants just for the fun of shooting them down when they grow up,” Danny’s father tells him. Before the conversation is done, Danny himself has caught the poaching fever and hangs on his father’s every word about the most ingenious ways to catch pheasants, whose greatest weakness is that they are crazy about raisins:
The 1975 Jonathan Cape release of Danny was illustrated by Jill Bennett
The Horsehair Stopper is a “brilliant method” because it’s completely silent. You stab a plumped-up raisin with a single stiff horsehair so it sticks out on either end. The horsehair makes the raisin stick in the pheasant’s throat, and the feeling of it tickling there, like a crumb, renders the pheasant unable to move. “He becomes absolutely rooted to the spot, and there he stands pumping his silly neck up and down just like a piston, and all you’ve got to do is nip out quickly from the place where you’re hiding and pick him up.” The image of the bird’s neck vibrating gave me the shivers, and I glanced at N, but couldn’t gauge her response, so I continued reading.
Method number two, The Sticky Hat, involves a trail of plump raisins leading to a tiny cone of paper smeared with glue. The last delectable raisins sit inside the cone. “Now, the old pheasant comes pecking along the trail, and when he gets to the hole he pops his head inside to gobble up the raisins and the next thing he knows he’s got a paper hat stuck over his eyes, and he can’t see a thing…. No bird in the world is going to run away once you cover up his eyes.”
At which point N said, very quietly, “Pheasants are beautiful birds, aren’t they Mom?” And then she added, “At least they aren’t killing them with guns. That would be really mean.” But if you’re a good shot, it would also be quick and unexpected. In those early pages, both N and I couldn’t help hoping the girl from The Magic Finger would appear and “see red,” just as she did in that book, when she turned the hunting Gregg family into ducks and the ducks they hunted into hunters.
"'The Magic Finger' is something I have been able to do all my life. I can't tell you just how I do it, because I don't even know myself. But it always happens when I get cross, when I see red..."
“Please don’t shoot!” cried Mr. Gregg.
“Why not?” said one of the ducks. “You are always shooting at us.”
“Oh, but that’s not the same! We are allowed to shoot ducks!”
“Who allows you?” asked the duck.
“We allow each other,” said Mr. Gregg.
“Very nice,” said the duck. “And now we are going to allow each other to shoot you.”
Alas, we are very near the end of Danny and the girl with the magic finger hasn’t arrived. But what has undeniably come, in spite of the cruel tricks and dead pheasants, is an incredibly touching story about a father and son. This novel isn’t as funny as most of Dahl’s other books — it sometimes has quite a melancholy tone — but it’s rich and moving and complex. The love and admiration Danny feels for his father is there on every page: “I loved the way he moved. He had that long, loping stride all countrymen have who are used to covering great distances on foot. He was wearing an old navy-blue sweater and an even older cap on his head. He turned and waved to me. I waved back. Then he disappeared around a bend in the road.” The chapter closes, and we know, we just know, something bad is about to happen to Danny’s beloved father.
This 1959 edition of The New Yorker carried the seed of Dahl's 1975 novel, Danny the Champion of the World
The more I read of Dahl’s books, the more intrigued I become about the man himself. I’ve mentioned his short stories before, written for adults, and his main focus before switching to children’s literature when his own kids were young. So it was fun to discover that Danny was originally one of these short stories, albeit Danny-less, and first published in The New Yorker in 1959 under the title “The Champion of the World.” How interesting to think that the father-son relationship was not part of the original story, yet forms the very core of the later novel. As a writer, I love it when one project grows into another, or when a story emerges fully formed, but a little bit of it stays inside me, one day becoming a whole new creation. I remember being floored when an agent once tried to dissuade me from writing a story that had come from an earlier story. To me it was fascinating to see how different the story could become by changing the focus. She said, rather bluntly, “People will think you have no imagination.” And I remember quietly deciding that anyone who’d think that mustn’t have much themselves.
I’m sure Dahl must have felt the same way. Bits of his stories pop up in new form again and again. N and I were thrilled to find our favourite Dahl character, the “nice and jumbly” Big Friendly Giant, peering out at us from the pages of Danny, catching dreams and blowing them into children’s bedroom windows. I can just see Dahl, scribbling away on his Danny manuscript, and tucking this magnificent giant into a corner of his mind reserved for stories yet to come.
By the way, since our last post, we’ve also read The Minpins and George’s Marvellous Medicine, so our list is now like this:
James and the Giant Peach
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The Magic Finger
Fantastic Mr Fox
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
Danny, the Champion of the World
The Enormous Crocodile
George’s Marvellous Medicine
The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke
And now … back to my stamps.