I met a boy when I was young, called Charlie. He was shy like I was, and he had a huge, ridiculous family like I did, and neither of us had much money. We just hit it off.
And then one day – and I remember this quite distinctly – he found a golden ticket in a chocolate bar, and inherited a chocolate factory, and rode a glass elevator into space, and that was the end of that.
I spent a childhood in books, enough for three childhoods. I imagined a genie in every sandpit, a door to a secret garden behind every curtain of ivy. It made everything exciting and mysterious. Words were exciting too – the obsession I developed with how to communicate so that the person reading it feels something emotional, how to put exactly the right words in the right order to make something beautiful – that came from reading books.
And no one, not anyone, did it better for me than Mr Dahl.
There are two Roald Dahls in my head. One is the boy in his autobiographies, which I read until they were ragged. I remember the boy who put a dead mouse in a loathsome old lady’s jar of sweets and spent summers floating in Norwegian fjords, the teenager bombing around the countryside on a secret motorcycle, the young RAF pilot shot down in the desert. The other is the voice behind Matilda and Danny and Charlie and James, who put bright and indelible images in my head: a plate of worm spaghetti, a peach soaring up in the air tied to five hundred seagulls, a conference room full of witches taking off their wigs (‘you may rrrrrremove your gloves!’), a little starving boy sniffing the air outside a chocolate factory.
His children are children, and terrible things could happen to them: they are neglected by cruel parents, often lonely, sometimes bereaved, and in at least one case turned into a mouse for the rest of his life. But they fight back. They discover inner worlds of enormous strength. In Roald Dahl’s world, there was always a chance – no, a certainty – that someone mysterious would come around the corner and marvellous things would begin to happen.
There are some things every child needs to know, and Roald Dahl knew all of them. Sometimes life can go terribly wrong. A bar of chocolate is the most wonderful thing on the planet. Risk anything for a little adventure. Some grown-ups really are out to get you. A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You don’t have to be anything except kind and decent. And always, always, keep going: there are marvellous things just about to happen.
For this, and so much more, I thank you, Mr Dahl. Happy birthday. Hope the worm spaghetti in heaven is just to your liking.