One of his earliest published pieces, The Mildenhall Treasure is a rare example of Roald Dahl as reporter. The author’s preface to the story sets the scene beautifully: One morning in 1946 Dahl is at the breakfast table in his mother’s home reading the newspaper when his eye is caught by the story of Roman silver dug up in a Suffolk field and recently acquired by the British museum.
‘True stories about the finding of really big treasure send shivers of electricity down my legs to the soles of my feet. The moment I read the story I leapt up from my chair without finishing my breakfast and shouted goodbye to my mother and rushed out to my car.’ His instinct takes him not to the wonderful treasure, but across slow country roads, right to the door of the man who discovered the hoard, Gordon Butcher.
Butcher is a self employed ploughman subcontracted by an agricultural engineer named Ford to plough deep furrows in a field belonging to a local land owner. As the January weather closes in he pulls the metal blades over something much harder than frost bitten soil. Butcher stops to investigate and digs out a huge metal plate encrusted with centuries of mud and a layer of blue-green rust.
The ploughman is suddenly paralysed by a sort of fear. What he has dug up? ‘He immediately drew away. Then got to his feet and turned his back on what he had just seen… He will tell you that the only thing he can remember about those first few seconds was the whiff of danger that acme to him, from that little patch of greenish blue… this was something that could destroy the peace and happiness of many people. ’
It’s a moment that could easily have come from an MR James story, or one of his own Tales of the Unexpected; a supernatural embellishment that is not Dahl’s invention. It also sets up the entrance of a classic Dahl villain.
Being a plain sort of man Butcher calls on the help of the wily Ford, who like farmer Bean from Fantastic Mr Fox has a beady eye on self profit. He knows the value of these pieces and understands that as neither landowner nor the discoverer he is entitled to nothing. As snow falls the pair begin to frantically uncover 34 pieces in total. As Butcher’s body seizes up Ford’s mind works overtime, hatching a plot to keep the silver for himself.
We follow Ford home with his ill gotten gains and watch as he obsessively cleans his precious treasure – it’s a scene straight out of Tolkein, Ford standing in for Gollum, a man overwhelmed by his lust for treasure.
It’s perfect territory for both Dahl and the illustrator of the 1999 edition, Ralph Steadman. The artist is best known for his lacerating satirical cartoons and brain melting illustrations for Rolling Stone magazine. His style is a good match for the characterful Suffolk faces and its equally weathered rural landscape which he shows in its rawest possible state.
The intricate carvings on the silver are rendered fluid as mercury, slithering off the plates and into the twisted mind of Ford. ‘There was a fierce face with a tangle of hair, a dancing goat with human head, there were men and women and animals of many kinds cavorting around the rim, and no doubt all of them told a story.’ Its a scene you could imagine flowing from the pen of Steadman’s other great collaborator Hunter S. Thompson, sitting immobile in some Las Vegas casino as the drugs begin to take hold.
There’s certainly a similarity between the ruthless, dogged nature of the two writers. They were both great stylists, writing super sharp prose led by their own sense of social justice, the latter point often overshadowed by their more extravagant literary peccadilloes. Dahl is in effect practicing a version of the new journalism that Thompson pioneered in the 70s – reporting on a news story but using all the tools of the fiction writer.
It’s probably for the best that Dahl didn’t pursue a career as a journalist – this is desperately biased reporting. Although Ford refuses him an interview, the reporter is blithely unconcerned. He takes honest Butcher’s account as gospel and then can’t help but implant himself into the story, insisting the wronged ploughman takes half of his fee for the story – a small act of compensation for the million pounds that Ford has cheated him out of, and something Dahl seems maybe just a little bit too proud of.
The Mildenhall Treasure is also available without Steadman’s illustrations in the collection the Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar