Sweet Porn

Michael Irwin

  • George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake
    Cape, 96 pp, £3.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 224 01901 5

The publisher’s note on the jacket of George’s Marvellous Medicine says that ‘Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was voted No 1 (above Winnie the Pooh, Lord of the Rings and Alice in Wonderland) in a Sunday Times survey to find the best ten children’s books.’ Even if the word ‘best’ is translated into reasonable terms (‘currently most popular’?), the claim remains impressive, and implies classic status. Sales figures tend to confirm it: they had reached the half-million mark before the book went into paperback. But sales figures alone can be misleading. As the hapless recipients of gifts, children, even more than adults, tend to give house-room to books they don’t actually read, juvenile equivalents to The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. My own research, however, admittedly based on a grotesquely small proportion of the pre-teen reading public, suggests that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach and Danny, Champion of the World are far from being mere bookshelf-ballast. More or less normal children revealed, under intensive cross-examination, that they not only enjoyed these stories but remembered their respective plots, and numerous particular episodes, images and jokes, with considerable clarity.

In a sense, that is sufficient compliment. We should be grateful to any author who can get our children to read at all. But from at least two points of view it’s worth pursuing somewhat further the question of quality. Children’s taste in literature, as in food and most other things, is so lousy as constantly to call for adult intervention. It would be reassuring to discover that their preferred reading was not rotting their teeth, so to speak, or – better still – that it even had nutritional value. One must go further: if a major children’s author has emerged in our time (Charlie was first published in 1964, Danny in 1975), then his abilities should receive their just acknowledgment. Conversely, of course, Dahl may simply be on to a good thing which others might try: Charlie, he says, ‘grew from being a bedtime story told to my children’.

Its eponymous hero, Charlie Bucket, lives in extreme poverty with his father, his mother and his four bed-ridden grandparents. He has a passion for chocolate that is gratified only once a year when he is given a small bar for his birthday. His deprivation is the more acutely felt because he lives close to ‘an ENORMOUS CHOCOLATE FACTORY’ which fills the air with tempting odours. Charlie learns from his Grandpa Joe that the proprietor of this establishment is a Mr Willy Wonka, a man who, in defiance of his unpromising name, is a miracle of energy and inventiveness – ‘the most extraordinary chocolate-maker the world has ever seen!’ For many years no outsider has set foot in the factory. Plagued by industrial espionage, Mr Wonka discharged his entire work-force and has apparently replaced them by a scab troop of midgets – ‘apparently’, because these homuncules, no more than knee high, never set foot in the town and have only been glimpsed behind the windows.

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