December: ‘This, as you know is the month when two good things happen. The term ends and Christmas comes.’
In the last year of his life Roald Dahl wrote a diary of the changing seasons around his home in Great Missenden, intertwined with memories from his youth and spiky observations of the world around him. My Year is a fine testament to an amazing literary life. Illustrated with some of Quentin Blake’s most evocative watercolours, it stands as one of my favourite works from their partnership. I’m not sure why it’s not better known.
Dahl begins by praising children who send him their own hand made cards and chiding parents who issue a ‘colour photograph of the senders standing proudly somewhere or other surrounded by their offspring. You can be half blinded by the self satisfaction shining out of their faces.’
We then get a guide to the birds in Dahl’s garden, which like everything in his world appear brighter and more impressive than in your world. ‘We have a cotoneaster shrub on the walls of our house which is always covered with brilliant red berries in December, and is a special favourite of a bird called the waxwing. You may swear you have never seen a waxwing and have never even heard the name, but odds are you have seen one…’ It’s a classic Dahl device, he’s saying, there’s marvellous stuff out there, you just have to look. Really look.
We are taken back to one of Dahl’s favourite Christmases – the year he got a Meccano set and devised a dastardly plan.
‘I would stretch a wire all the way from the high roof of our house to the old garage on the other side of the footpath. Then I would construct from my Meccano a machine that would run down the wire at great speed dropping bombs on the unwary walkers underneath.’ This is the sort of thing every child dreams up, but rarely pulls off. Our hero fulfils our wishes and succeeds in drenching two tweedy ladies and a revolting Pekinese Dog.
‘For days afterwards I experienced the pleasant warm glow that comes to all of us when we have pulled off a major triumph.’
And so Dahl signs off a brilliant career from his writing shed adding a final piece of Cadbury’s chocolate tin foil to the ball he had been building all the years he’s been writing for children in his shed.