‘I must now regretfully become one of those unpopular giants who tells you WHAT TO DO and WHAT NOT TO DO. This is something I have never done in any of my books. I have been careful never to preach, never to be moralistic and never to convey any message to the reader.’
I confess that I have broken at least five of the DO’S and DON’TS in Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety. Possibly because I missed out on this witty little leaflet that was handed out to school children all over Britain in 1991. Possibly because I am an idiot. Then again Dahl was no angel when it came to mucking about with train tracks as Donald Sturrock points out in his biography one of his youthful past-times included, ‘putting a penny on a railway line and letting the train flatten it’.
Roald Dahl died in 1990 (not in a railway accident), so I imagine this was one of the last things he wrote. It is, as you might imagine, not your average safety leaflet. Dahl takes the opportunity to give us some illuminating insights into his unique perspective as a children’s writer.
We also get a new piece of Dahl’s memories of boyhood, as he puts off the ‘preaching’ and spends ‘another two minutes telling you why I have always loved trains and railways.’ Actually he spends most of this time preaching about why he hates cars and the modern world in general.
‘It was a lovely world to live in, but now the motor car has ruined it. It has also, to some extent, ruined us. Everyone goes everywhere by car these days, and perhaps in a few hundred years from now our great-great-great grandchildren will be born with hardly any legs at all because they won’t have any use for them.’
That line is vintage Willy Wonka. The old goat still had it.
The safety guide proper is a return to that perennial Dahl device, the ‘cautionary tale‘. Aided and abetted by Quentin Blake at his mischievous best we get decapitations, derailments, electrocutions and something unspeakable flung out of the carriage window.
Funny to think that Dahl’s last written words might have been. ‘If your bike gets stuck, perhaps in the rails, while you are crossing, just leave it and keep going.’
Last words are rarely the best. So instead let’s finish with the return of Miss Trunchbull, one of the villainous adults in Matilda. Dahl explains the popularity of Matilda (and his own writing) like this. ‘The young reader is invited to hate them all and he does. He says to himself, “Thank goodness we have a writer who understands our secret feelings.”