This article appeared in the April 23, 2000 issue of The Sunday Times.
Tessa Dahl, in a letter to her dead father Roald, bemoans a world where nothing is left to the imagination.
Nobody could call me conventional. Nobody could call me a prude. It takes a lot to shock me. But you would’ve been stupified by the film I saw last week. Called Kevin and Perry Go Large, starring Harry Enfield as a body fluid-obsessed teenager, you would have been horrified.
There was no subtlety, no entrancement, no mystery at all, merely straining flies and long, stiff kebab-shaped things popping into your face.
Nothing was left to the imagination. How different from your insistence always to respect the audience and allow them to travel into their world and weave a story in their own language. It seems nowadays that teenagers are not allowed the luxury of self-translations. From all that I saw, the writers and directors did not want to risk the chance that their teenage audience might have resourceful ingenuity – or, indeed, minds.
I realised that my children, Clover and Luke, and all the other teenagers of today are force-fed filth. I remember innuendo. Titillation, suggestion and naughtiness left us room to make our own discoveries in our own time. We did not have smut rammed down our throats.
When I was growing up you taught me about using my imagination. When I was older and beginning to write children’s books, you lectured me often about respecting my readers, wanting me to have “sparkly thoughts” and the ability to intertwine my own ideas. You felt the same about your young readers and taught them to use their imaginations with your books, such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang1 and Willy Wonka.
When I was a teenager I had a pretty rocky time, but that was nobody’s fault. A horrible succession of tragedies rather deprived me of a full chance to indulge my adolescence. Yet I had been given a wonderful launching pad. Brought up as the first child to hear James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Magic Finger and Fantastic Mr Fox, I was immunised against the predictable.
I awoke one morning to see my name written across our lawn. As I gazed in awe of the unbelievable, you told me the fairies had done it in the night (much later I discovered it was you who had sprayed your treasured grass with weed killer). But you did not overprotect me. If the local fire station alarm sounded, we would follow the fire engine to its destination. Real-life drama was interlaced with phantasmal scenarios. We were taught to understand and therefore to empathise by thinking what it could or would be like to be them.
As I grew older you would pick out an oblivious couple or harmless family who were eating in the same restaurant as us and have me spin the tale of their involvements and relationships, later inviting the subjects over to tell us the truth.
We had enough harsh tests in our family life. You know how awful it was for me when I was only 10 to watch my much-worshipped older sister die of the measles that she caught from me. And then I witnessed my little brother enduring relentless brain surgery for massive injuries caused by the pram I was pushing with my nanny being hit by a rogue taxi. If that were not enough, my beautiful mother had a near-fatal stroke while bathing me, which left her terribly harmed. I needed to learn the art of escaping and you, my dear father, were my mentor.
It was much later that my life became so unbearable that I forgot how to slip away from the reality. For some it may be hard to understand, but when you died I was left feeling like, I suppose, the rabbit in the hat would if the conjuror disappeared. Events started to gain momentum and I forgot about the secrets and could not find the magic. In trying to cope with the huge abyss that surrounded me when you died, my grief drowned the spark you had lit. Suddenly my mind became the enemy, an arid desert replacing the lush jungle of imagination. As a result of this I disappeared from circulation for quite a long time.
It was my own time machine. When I returned, I discovered that the influences on our children had changed enormously since you died. information is freely available. Nothing is left to be unearthed. The internet will give away any little secret that would have been hidden in the most unlikely place. My children have mobile phones and the most lewd text messages are sent. I am no longer the only parent who has been or is a drug addict; Clover has a belly button ring, her best friend a pierced tongue.
My eldest daughter, Sophie, is clearly a product of your grand-parenting. Not one second of your storytelling was wasted. Hers is now a glow which she keeps stoked with her humour, love of wizardry and what we always called her “posey apple stories.” From her tiniest made-up tales to her O-level essays, everyone had to have glorious, happy existences.
Luckily I have come back with a good grip on just how much information our children need. Clover and Luke are already brimming with adventures and inventions. I believe that if you had not nurtured my imagination then I would have found it impossible to return to being a parent. I would not have the strength to ban South Park cartoons and films such as There’s Something About Mary.
You showed me subtlety. You taught me that less is more and that my job as a parent is to allow my children their childhoods. We must tease and be clever, not be obvious and clumsy. In Boy, you wrote of the innocent yet hysterical fun of filling a relative’s pipe with goat dung instead of Player’s Navy Cut. Today, the least you would have done is stuffed body fluids or rubbish into his crack pipe.
Now I am well, I shall continue to keep the spark flickering for the children and be there to help them scale reality with a smooth knapsack of fantasy.
Of course, the fact that I am writing to you now might cause some to question my own grip on reality. But because of you I have been lucky enough to find the magic again.
- Tessa Dahl, I think, incorrectly attributes Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to her father. He did NOT write the book; instead he merely adapted it for the screen. It’s possible that this is a simple misunderstanding, but I don’t think the way she phrases it is very clear. – KH