When I was in elementary school, I was in a program where three or four grades were taught in one big area. Three open classrooms led by different teachers branched off of a huge open space where we would all meet for assemblies or movies or special projects; there was a science room off to one side, and then we were connected to the rest of the school by a pair of double doors. An outside staircase led to the playground; during fire drills we ran down those concrete stairs to wait in the rain, lined up by grade. Once a week (or perhaps more often, I can't remember), our teachers would read aloud to us as we sat cross-legged on the carpet, spellbound. This is how I discovered Roald Dahl.
I will return to his children's stories another time; I have read them again and again until I know them all by heart. But it is his memoirs that give shape to his stories, the real moments of his childhood that make fiction pale by comparison. I think everything I know about about the British prep-school system came from Boy: Tales of Childhood, although perhaps you don't get caned by your schoolmasters anymore; certainly there is no need to have your toilet-seat warmed by a younger student in these times of indoor plumbing. I think of Dahl whenever I peel back the wrapper of a chocolate bar and take my first bite; I think of the incident with the goat's tobacco whenever I see someone smoking a pipe (which is not often in this day and age). Boy segues into Going Solo, where as a young man Dahl heads off to East Africa and then, as the world explodes around him, off to war.
In our present time it is a shock to read Dahl's description of his experiences during wartime, the futility of his time in Greece where a handful of pilots and planes launched themselves into the air against the German bombers with no expectation that they would return alive. But the part that stops me dead is the part where he lands on a strip of earth some thirty miles from Haifa and finds a settlement of refugees, Jewish orphans, led by a man "who looked like the Prophet Isaiah and spoke like a parody of Hitler." At that time Dahl had been in Africa for a few years and had no idea of what had been taking place in Germany, of the genocide that was ravaging the country. These refugees were on a piece of land owned by a Palestinian farmer who allowed them to live and farm there, among the cornfields and fig trees.
I resented the fact that this man sitting in his fig grove said that I had no problems, writes Dahl. 'I've got problems myself, in just trying to stay alive.' (What with constantly getting shot at every day and having already survived a serious plane crash). That is a very small problem, the man said. Ours is much bigger...It is essential that Hitler be defeated. But that is only a matter of months and years. Historically, it will be a very short battle. Also it happens to be England's battle. It is not mine. My battle is one that has been going on since the time of Christ...We need a homeland...we need a country of our own. Even the Zulus have Zululand. But we have nothing...If you want something badly enough, and if you need something badly enough, you can always get it...You are fighting for freedom. So am I.
That settlement called Ramat David later became an airforce base; a country formed itself out of a desire and a need for itself. I wonder what happened to the original inhabitants of Ramat David.
Dahl, Roald. Going Solo. Puffin, 1986. pp 195-199.