A Life in Literature: Early Years

Richard Bateman 25 April 2014

I am 28 years old. Outside Cambridge this makes me fairly youthful. Inside Cambridge this makes me ancient. Sufficiently so to be asked to refract my whole life through the prism of books-wot-I’ve-read in a manner reminiscent of Desert Island Discs but less easy to whistle along to. This I have done, and my column is the result.

Early Years: Roald Dahl

Where were you when you heard the news on November 23rd 1990? Oh, you weren’t born. No matter, I was, and I do remember. I was by the door in Mum and Dad’s bedroom in our house in Manchester, about to cry. Because said parents had just told me he was dead. ‘Farewell then, Roald Dahl’, I would have thought if my five-year old self had possessed my current vocabulary and the emotional range of a trout. ‘Hello, irrationally inconsolable child’, my parents soon did think.

Five days after Dahl’s death, Margaret Thatcher resigned. This I have no memory of, and certainly didn’t cry about. So why did Dahl’s end matter?  Maybe it was because I immediately understood that, by dying without my permission, Dahl would never write any more books. And this was simply not on. I’d read almost all of them by then, blessed refuge that they had been from the pre-glint-in-the-milkman’s-eye standard stuff we were given in the first year at school.

Such glorious worlds, such glorious power in the hands of the child, be it Matilda, Sophie, Charlie, George, or, er, Trunky the Elephant. So funny, too. Newt on your lap, Miss Trunchbull? Mega Lolz. Teachers, spoilt brats, farmers, nasty parents, fat boys, and many more, all dispatched, usually gruesomely, with gay abandon. Po-faced types now criticise this. Rubbish. 24 years on I’ve yet to hear of any copycat killings involving home-owners being compressed to death by their own weight after being glued to their living room ceiling.

That said, I can now see that The Twits did have some real, lasting influence in that it has taken me until this year to overcome my loathing of beards. Fantastic Mr Fox was also great for my espionage skills: Mrs Dicken knew nothing about the chicken-and-cider parties we were having under our desks in reception, and that’s how it’s going to stay.

Real life, even then, was a bit dull, grey and damp (in Manchester ‘tis ever thus) but Dahl’s worlds weren’t. They lived. And on that November day I was confronted with the horrible fact that their guiding spirit no longer did. Bugger.