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.

One day Mr Wonka announces through the newspaper that his factory is to be opened again at last, but only to five visitors. He proposes to hide Five Golden Tickets beneath the wrapping-paper of five otherwise ordinary chocolate-bars. The fortunate children who discover them will be his guests for the day, will see all the secret magic of the factory, and will be presented with a lifetime’s supply of confectionery. One by one these tickets are found, to the accompaniment of great publicity. The first goes to one Augustus Gloop, a fat and greedy youth, the second to the rich and spoilt Veruca Salt, the third to Violet Beauregarde, an inveterate gum-chewer, and the fourth to Mike Teavee, whose surname bespeaks his obsession. At the eleventh hour Charlie himself lights on the fifth ticket. Since each of the lucky five is entitled to be accompanied by one or two adult relatives, Charlie brings his Grandpa Joe along to the factory.

Mr Wonka proves to be a diminutive, benevolent, twinkling little man in a plum-coloured tail-coat and green trousers. He rushes his visitors gaily through various chambers and passages in his vast institution, which is situated almost entirely underground. They see a river of molten chocolate flowing through a landscape fashioned from confectionery. They inspect a machine that makes magic chewing-gum and witness a television process that can transmit an actual bar of chocolate instead of a mere advertisement. There are other wonders too numerous to mention. Along the way each of the four disagreeable children succumbs to his or her characteristic vice and receives a more or less appropriate punishment. Charlie Bucket is rewarded for his own restraint and good sense by being presented with the entire factory.

There are several things that Roald Dahl has got emphatically right, the most important being his appreciation of the passion children feel for sweets in general and perhaps for chocolate in particular. For pre-pubertal Westerners, sweets fill the vacuum later to be occupied by sex. It is unnerving to watch an otherwise decent child being temporarily demoralised (in the literal sense of being morally corrupted) by a desire for sweets as an otherwise decent adult may be by sexual need. In both cases, the overwhelming lust for immediate sensual gratification destroys habitual scruples, yet is itself tainted by a guilty awareness that fulfilment may collapse into satiety, shame and physical discomfort. The whole animal being is involved. A three-year-old with a chocolate-smeared face can wear the hangdog look of a man whose wife surprises him in adultery. For children, sweets are big magic. It’s observable that the considerable number of adults who don’t much take to sex tend to be among those who retain a considerable appetite for confectionery. A Mars a day helps them work, rest and play. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is thus, in effect, a piece of soft pornography, with Charlie in the Emmanuelle role: ‘as the rich warm creamy chocolate ran down his throat into his empty tummy, his whole body from head to toe began to tingle with pleasure, and a feeling of intense happiness spread over him.’

On the other hand, Charlie behaves impeccably throughout – though he’s presumably poised for an appalling nosh-up later in the day. This is a very moral story. Dahl has a Manichaean approach that goes down very well with children – in other words, he makes his bad characters as repellent as possible and then beats the hell out of them. Augustus wedged in the pipe, Violet Beauregarde transformed into a monstrous blueberry – these are images that children relish. There are other attractive features in the narrative: suspense is well maintained – Charlie makes three false starts before he finds his golden ticket – and there are several decent jokes.

But though it’s entertaining enough this isn’t a distinguished book. The style tends to be trite, dull, emptily assertive. Favourite hyperbolical words come up again and again. Mr Wonka’s liliputian workers, the Oompa-Loompas, frequently break into rhyme, producing a kind of down-market Cautionary doggerel:

Dear friends, we surely all agree
There’s almost nothing worse to see
Than some repulsive little bum
Who’s always chewing chewing-gum.
(It’s very near as bad as those
Who sit around and pick the nose.)

There can be no doubt that Dahl imagines more interestingly than he writes. But even some of the imagining lacks consistency. How hot is the chocolate river, for example? Why doesn’t it steam? How can it incorporate a ‘waterfall’? Doesn’t the ceiling that apparently encloses this massive prospect merit at least a word of description? An imaginary world such as Dahl creates is the more intriguing and persuasive in so far as it seems complete and consistent, controlled by certain laws. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and, more particularly, in its scrappy sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, the author seems to make up and to revise the rules as he goes along. Once it becomes clear that Mr Wonka can do virtually anything interest wanes.

Danny, Champion of the World, in my view a much better piece of work than either of the Charlie books, is damaged by a similar weakness. Danny goes poaching with his father. With great ingenuity they manage to carry off well over a hundred pheasants, drugged with sleeping pills. So far, so good. But for the climax of his story Dahl requires all the drugged birds to escape when the vicar’s wife is trundling them down the road, hidden in a pram beneath the recumbent form of her baby son. It’s a pleasant scene that generates some excellent illustrations. In order to make it possible, however, the author has so to engineer the narrative that Danny’s father constructs a special pram capable, against all the odds, of holding 120 pheasants and a baby.

The books are slapdash in other ways too. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie’s grandparents are said to be over ninety. In the sequel, they’re ten years younger. Danny is padded out with an entirely extraneous episode about a caning at school. There are other wedges of Polyfilla in the form of nature notes. Danny’s father tells him, for example, that crickets have ears in their legs while grasshoppers have them in their tummies. But Dahl has already dispensed precisely this information in James and the Giant Peach. Dahl’s books are eked out with tired material, random bits and pieces of a kind children are traditionally supposed to enjoy: nonsense verses, prefabulous animiles, space-men, comical, often alliterative exclamations – ‘Jumping jackrabbits!’ – talking insects, magic potions. Lewis Carroll is a powerful but ill-digested influence.

George’s Marvellous Medicine exhibits most of the author’s characteristic strengths and weaknesses. George has a frightful Grandma, a wicked old woman with ‘pale brown teeth and a small puckered up mouth like a dog’s bottom’. Badgered beyond endurance, he mixes her a special medicine from an immense range of vile ingredients, including nail varnish, toothpaste, deodorant, detergent, floor polish, flea powder, mustard, pepper and a variety of veterinary remedies – his father being a farmer. When Grandma takes a spoonful, she suffers some violent preliminary spasms and then proceeds to grow at a rapid rate. In a couple of minutes her head is breaking through into the floor above. ‘Hallelujah, here I come!’ it shouts, as it emerges into George’s bedroom. A second spoonful redoubles her rate of growth: ‘Crash! the old girl’s head went through the ceiling as though it were butter.’ When she is wedged firmly into the roof George tries his medicine on the farm animals, which grow with similar violence.

Grandma is retrieved from the house by a mobile crane. But George’s father is too obsessed with the potentialities of giant livestock to be much concerned with her: he uses up the remainder of George’s supply in experiments with his animals. Problems arise when he and his son attempt to make more, since George has no record of the ingredients. The first mixture they produce, when tried on a chicken, merely has the effect of making its legs 15 feet long. A revised concoction serves only to stretch a cockerel’s neck a couple of yards. Yet a further version shrinks a hen to the size of a newly-hatched chicken. At this point Grandma takes a good gulp of the stuff. Steaming furiously, she gets smaller and smaller until she disappears altogether.

The story improves in the summarising. Though it has some good, vigorous moments it seems to have achieved book-length only by means of some dilution. It traverses familiar ground. Granny’s fate resembles that of Mike Teavee in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – to say nothing of Alice and her mushroom. A disappearing grandmother is a major feature of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, which also makes great play with potions. The worst fault of George’s Marvellous Medicine lies in the ending. Once Grandma has been disposed of, Dahl concludes:

George didn’t say a word. He felt quite trembly. He knew something tremendous had taken place that morning. For a few brief moments he had touched with the very tips of his fingers the edge of a magic world.

Given that his grandmother has vanished and his father’s farm is at the mercy of cattle the size of dinosaurs, George’s reaction seems inadequate to the point of imbecility. It does, of course, leave the way open for a sequel.