The magic of Danny, the Champion of the World

What follows is an extract from Dave’s work in progress, currently entitled From Solipsism to Socialism – Memoirs of a Political Animal. It traces Dave’s personal, social and political development from the 1970s to the turn of the millennium, trying to discover what may lie behind the social and political ideas we choose to identify with. For Dave, there is a complexity of subjective factors underpinning our ideologies, and more often than not, they are in no way ‘political’…

The first thing that happened when I joined the Junior section of Redbridge primary school was the short walk from the main building across the playground to our new classroom. This was a large wooden hut painted dark blue which was set upon wooden legs. That the existence of such a makeshift classroom was possibly related to the public spending cuts being carried out by the Callaghan Labour government was of no interest to me. We had a separate section for our coats and hats and we only had to enter the main building for assembly or to use the toilet.

Perhaps this created an air of freedom for both Miss Marshall and her pupils. We seemed to enjoy being cut off from the rest of the school, and I believe that this was reflected in the lessons – certainly how I experienced them at any rate. One of the things that set Miss Marshall apart from other teachers was her smile – or the fact that she smiled. There was a warmth attached to it, a friendliness that made me want to please her in an unconscious way. Until this point, school had been something I just experienced in an existential solipsistic way. I did not love or hate it – just did it. I was there almost as a spectator, but with Miss Marshall, laughter regularly occurred in the classroom and she hardly had to raise her voice to maintain order. She told us about dinosaurs and I was particularly fascinated by who would win a fight between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a Triceratops. At one stage, she took us out of our caravan classroom, onto the playground, where she drew a life size Tyrannosaurus, in white chalk, on the playground surface. It was an incredible sight. She also told us about Australia, and how she wanted to live there one day. I think that this was the first time I heard about the Aborigines, and that it took a full day on an aeroplane to get there. When we did sports, she commented on what a fast sprinter I was, which gave me the confidence to win just about every race I entered. As if this was not enough, she introduced me to Roald Dahl.

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I recall her beaming face, enthusiasm coming from every pore. “Today, we are going to start reading a book in class. It is called Danny – The Champion of the World, and it is written by a man with a strange name: Roald Dahl”. I think she gave us a brand new copy between two pupils, which in itself was strange because nearly all the exercise books we ever looked at were extremely dog-eared and old. This may have been due to the fact that the book had only recently been published (in 1975), and Miss Marshall proceeded to tell us: “If you look at the inside cover, you will see the date when it was written and a little letter ‘c’ in a circle. This means that the story inside belongs to Roald Dahl, and if anyone tries to pretend that they wrote the story, Roald Dahl can go to the police”. Wow – I grasped the concept of intellectual property rights at the age of eight! “And because it is such a beautiful story, that we are going to love reading together, somebody may actually do this, so Roald Dahl has made sure that no bad person steals his story”.

This was very impressive. It had never previously occurred to me that words could belong to an individual person, because words were not like things which could be stolen, such as Dad’s Hillman. This was also the first time my attention had been turned to the concept of an author. My ladybird books were predominantly fairy tales so I did not associate the contents with a particular individual and although we had listened to Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree being read to us in the infants’ school, it was read by a teacher who had no enthusiasm for the story, and barely referenced that Enid Blyton was an actual person. Subsequently, I hated those sessions (normally on a Friday afternoon), detested the story and would sit there fidgeting, yet fearful of incurring the ire of the suitably named Mrs Cross. Miss Marshall was not like Mrs Cross at all. Whereas Miss Marshall was young and vibrant, Mrs Cross was middle-aged and possessed an angry countenance which scared me. I was so terrified that I may actually end up in her class for the final year of Infant school that I prayed to God on the eve of the September term: “Please lord, do not make me go into Mrs Cross’s class”. My prayers were answered, and I got Miss Kenvin instead; a young benign alternative. My main memory of my year with her was learning all about a cat named Gobbolino, who apparently belonged to a witch. There was an accompanying song which we used to sing, and I can still remember some of the words.

However, everything about Miss Marshall’s class from our physical environment to her expressive face was different. The cover of Danny – The Champion of the World was a reddish orange and it showed a father and son walking through a forest. The love between these two characters was unmistakable. I could tell this by body language, including facial expressions, alone. She then told us to turn the book around and look at the back cover. “When you buy a book, you should always look at the ‘spine’ to see if it looks interesting, then the cover and finally the back cover where there will be a quick description about the story. If you like it, ask mummy or daddy to buy it for you”.

The confidence of how to ‘handle’ a book was possibly instilled in me from this point, and to this day the most natural thing in the world for me to do, when I see a book, is to instinctively and lovingly repeat this procedure. Each book contains a life of its own – its personal universe. It is inconceivable for a book to be on a table, or anywhere I am, without me recognising it, and making some kind of contact with it. If I see someone with a book, I have to know what it is, and if I am familiar with it, or indeed have read it, do everything I possibly can to attract the reader’s attention in the most subtle of ways, in order to signify the secret solidarity which exists between all genuine bibliophiles.

This is the gift that Miss Marshall gave me.

Everything about this process was real and human. She told us a little about Roald Dahl: how he got his funny name, and the fact that he wrote fantastic stories for children as well as adults. This was no longer just a pile of bounded printed paper. Thanks to Miss Marshall’s alchemy, it was alive, and throbbing with the taste of the fantastic. My anticipation was palpable, and I could hardly wait to start.

Unsurprisingly, it was as good as Miss Marshall had suggested. We would each take a turn in reading, including Miss Marshall, and there were wonderful pictures which only further fuelled the imagination. Danny, and his doting father, lived in a gypsy style caravan next to a small garage and petrol station. Danny’s father was a practical man who could fix and do almost anything, particularly when it came to cars. But he was also an extremely tender and loving man. I was so touched by the way he would sit on his son’s bed talking to him about his dead mother, kiss him goodnight, and refer to him as ‘my love’. I was overwhelmed by this father/son relationship; it was both beautiful and magical. From this position of love, Danny was able to learn and absorb practical skills, but most importantly he learnt to love and be loved. I imagined Danny being tucked up in his caravan bed, safe and warm, his father’s workplace next door. Everything felt so contained, so balanced. And indeed it was within itself, but this idyllic cocoon was situated on the edge of a forest that was owned by an extremely obnoxious landowner called Mr Hazel, who was having continual problems with people poaching his pheasants. Miss Marshall explained to us that this was a fancy word for stealing. Needless to say that we were shocked and surprised to find out that Danny’s wonderful father was one of the poachers, as was Danny himself. And then one night, after awaking to find his father missing, Danny demonstrated the wherewithal to jump into one of the garage’s cars in order to drive into the forest to rescue his father who had fallen into a poacher’s trap. His father was not only able to legitimise his stealing, from the hateful Mr Hazel, but won his son’s support for the final big poach which included sowing crushed sleeping pills into raisons in order to drug as many pheasants as possible.

Today I can find many themes in this book that went over my childish head. A good example being class struggle. This must have been the first time in my life that a greedy landowner was cast in the role of villain, with the oppressed petit bourgeois as hero, who also happened to have the support of the local community (including the police sergeant). This book seemed to suggest that stealing was a relative concept, and that poaching was a form of art. There was a complexity to Danny’s father which fascinated me. Like Jesus, he was tender, loving and mild, and like Jesus he was an element of society that could be deemed as ‘criminal’ and prone to a righteousness which may be backed up with the threat of violence. Perhaps this delicate matrix of love, hate, morality and criminality entered my subconscious, but all I knew was that this was a wonderful story, facilitated by a teacher who demonstrated warmth and kindness as first principles.

The magic of the ‘book’ had been revealed.

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