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March 2018: Autobiography > Going Solo - Roald Dahl (3 and a half stars) - *Decathlon*

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message 1: by KateNZ (last edited Mar 30, 2018 02:12PM) (new)

KateNZ | 2211 comments The second volume of Roald Dahl's autobiography follows on from where Boy: Tales of Childhood ended. It takes us through Dahl's first job working for Shell in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and then into his short but intense career as a fighter pilot with the RAF during the war.

There are many flashes of the riotous imagination and sense of the ridiculous that Dahl brought to his children's stories. As always, he zeroes in on larger-than-life characters - both positive and negative. The dotty "British Empire" types on the ship going to Africa, who are subjected to his needling ridicule, start the book off well. And the fonder memories of African characters include an eccentric snake-catching Scotsman and Dahl's personal servant Mdisho who desperately wants to live up to his warrior heritage.

At least he liked most of the African folks that he encountered. The Air Commodore in Greece doesn't fare nearly so well - for good reason, if Dahl's description of that fiasco is anything to go by. In fact his whole recollection of his RAF activities in the Middle East and Greece is characterised by extraordinary military incompetence that claimed many lives. We love to romanticise wartime heroism and 'how we won the war' stories, but Dahl was present at some far less flattering encounters. He also doesn't stint about his own incompetence - put up in an aircraft that he'd had no training on, he nearly gets himself killed on several occasions, and once was only saved from shooting down a British aircraft by the timely intervention of David Coke, his friend in the unit, an excellent pilot who did not survive the war. (Am I the only one who finds it irritating, though, that Dahl doesn't specifically recall any of his other colleagues in the squadron who weren't famous flyers or members of notable families? He says he can't remember names of some people that he flew with - but there were so few of them in Greece that this seems unkind).

The military mistake that had most personal effect on him was the crash that nearly killed him. Just out of training, Dahl was sent solo on a journey to a distant camp for which he'd been given totally the wrong co-ordinates. Out of fuel, he tried to put down in the rocky desert but crashed horribly, suffering a skull fracture, a smashed nose (which had to be reconstructed) and temporary blindness. While he got back into the air, the effect of the injuries later recurred in Egypt - he started to get headaches when he flew that made him momentarily black out. This resulted in him being invalided home, though he remained in the service until after the war.

There are some gems in the book - the story of the Scotsman catching the green mamba was wonderfully told. And the letters to his mother, which are scattered through the book, are warm and often funny. Also on the plus side Dahl downplays his own skills, poking fun at himself and his youthful enthusiasm. He must have been a naturally skilled pilot - he had to come to grips with new aircraft on no training on several occasions, and it takes skill as well as luck to crash successfully. It's very British understatement, and possibly false modesty, but at least it's endearing.

The book isn't without its problems though. In particular, his recollection of Mdisho, and other indigenous people, comes across as patronising to modern ears. At least he has a degree of self-awareness - he criticises colonial attitudes to 'natives', but overtly acknowledges that he was too young to be able to escape them altogether. But even with the benefit of many years' hindsight, there's an uncomfortable edge to the way he replays those conversations - a sense of poking fun, even if it is intended as affectionate, and the affection is pretty heavily paternalistic. He's trying to keep a light tone and not be preachy, for sure, but it grates even so.

Altogether I enjoyed it well enough - it didn't massively hold my interest, but that could have been as much my mood as anything and there were some excellent episodes in it.


message 2: by Anita (new)

Anita Pomerantz | 6276 comments Your description of this one makes it sound really really good, but your rating gives me pause, lol. I had NO idea this renowned childrens author was a fighter pilot. Ha! Never would have guessed that . . .


message 3: by Hilde (new)

Hilde (hilded) | 365 comments I loved this book, enjoyed it even more than his first autobiography (Boy). He is a great storyteller! I


message 4: by KateNZ (new)

KateNZ | 2211 comments It was good, Anita - some cool stories and I’m glad I finished it. There were just some aspects I liked less, so not quite up to rave standards :)

My Dad was a WWII vet as well (rear air gunner, so also super-lucky to survive). So I’m really interested in first hand accounts from that period.


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