Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Roald Dahl and Kingsley Amis

One of the many interesting meetings featured in Craig Brown's One on One that I'd not previously heard of is between Kingsley Amis and Roald Dahl, who met at a party thrown by Tom Stoppard in 1972. Craig tells how, thrown together by chance with Amis, Dahl professes himself a big fan, then starts asking about money:
"So you've no financial problems."

"I wouldn't say that either, exactly, but I seem to be able to . . ."
Dahl, frustrated, cuts to the chase: "What you want to do is write a children's book. That's where the money is today, believe me." Amis, knowing his limitations, demurs:
"I couldn't do it," says Amis. "I don't think I enjoyed children's books much when I was a child myself. I've got not feeling for that kind of thing."

"Never mind," replies Dahl. "The little bastards'd swallow it."
The story is told, both by Amis in his memoirs and by Brown in his book, as a sort of inadvertent revelation by Dahl of a calculating cynicism, and that's certainly how it would seem if it ended there. But Brown relates the conversation's conclusion, which to my eye changes its whole tone:
In his account, Amis goes on to say that children are meant to be good at detecting insincerity, and would probably see through him. . . .

"Well, it's up to you. Either you will or you won't. Write a children's book, I mean. But if you do decide to have a crack, let me give you one warning. Unless you put everything you've got into it, unless you write it from the heart, the kids'll have no use for it. They'll see you're having them on. And just let me tell you from experience that there's nothing kids hate more than that. They won't give you a second chance either. You'll have had it for good as far as they're concerned. Just you bear that in mind as a word of friendly advice."
That apparently sincere sentiment complicates the anecdote, and, moreover, when its sincerity about hard work and commitment is combined with the bluntness of his earlier statement, seems to represent the Dahl we know.

But good god, imagine what a children's book by Kingsley Amis would have been like. Ghastly to think about, isn't it?


  1. Remembering the many dreary saccharine books my children demanded I read to them over the years, the prospect of an Amis equivalent seems wonderful to me - I think Craig Brown, who is such a brilliant parodist (see his weekly Private Eye column), might do well to produce a children's collection in time for Christmas, with fairy tales retold by Nabokov, Updike, the Amises father and son, Saul Bellow, et cetera

  2. Well - if we only knew Roald Dahl from "Kiss Kiss" and "Switch Bitch" we would probably shudder at the thought of a children's book by the man.

  3. zmkc, Brown isn't really known Stateside--I only happened to get this book because it caught my eye in Daunt's back in the winter--but I suspect I'd really enjoy an Amis parody along those lines.

    And Helen, you're completely right. The first Dahl I ever read, before any of his children's books, was "The Man from the South," which I read in Spellbinders in Suspense, one of the Robert Arthur-edited Alfred Hitchcock collections aimed at younger readers. I like imagining it as a children's story, a particularly vicious attempt to convince kids of the evils of gambling.

  4. While Amis never wrote a children's book, he did write a novella for young adults, and it's substantial stuff.