Roald Dahl, Roma-Baiter

Danny the Champion of the World used to be a story about people like me. Then I learnt what inspired the caravan.

I loved Roald Dahl when I was small. Now I’ve changed shape a bit, I’m conflicted. His books are as brilliant as ever, lurid, funny and dark, but tend to have troubling implications. They’re sexist in a quaint old fashioned way—ugly women are evil, Trunchbull is a feminist and Mrs Silver falls for a man who abducts her pet—and the Oompa-Loompas are hard to justify; a lot of the stories also have classist undertones, with the virtuous, noble poor pitted against the unsophisticate, television-watching lower classes, and of course, there were Dahl’s comments about the Holocaust.

I can’t say that I had a favourite book—adult feelings aside, I loved them all—but Danny the Champion of the World always meant a great deal to me. Danny is one of the stories about the noble poor: set in rural England, it centres on a boy’s relationship with his widowed father and their scheme to humiliate a local landowner. The two of them own and run a garage, living in a caravan round the back, with the station and field behind the only plot for miles around that isn’t part of the villain’s estate. In the first pages of the book—written like a memoir—the adult Danny remembers the caravan.

The caravan was our house and our home. It was a real old gipsy wagon with big wheels and fine patterns painted all over it in yellow and red and blue. My father said it was at least a hundred and fifty years old. Many gipsy children, he said, had been born in it and had grown up within its wooden walls. With a horse to pull it, the old caravan must have wandered for thousands of miles along the roads and lanes of England. But now its wanderings were over, and because the wooden spokes in the wheels were beginning to rot, my father had propped it up underneath with bricks.

My great grandmother was one of those kids. As an old woman, she kept a vardo—perhaps the one she was born in—behind her house, and that was where my mum visited her as a child. Our living room wasn’t large, but a huge picture hung right in the middle: a Helen Bradley painting, Big Bertha, showing a Romany procession through a northern industrial town. I don’t remember how Mum kept hold of that painting when she left my dad—most of what she owned, she never got back—so perhaps it was in someone else’s care at the time. Either way, it was a prized possession of hers.

Despite the text saying otherwise, I always read Danny and his dad as Romanichal. The story takes place in the home counties, where there have always been a lot of us: a film was made in Oxfordshire, near where my great gran lived, and Danny’s dad is a storyteller like her. When the villain first encounters Danny, he treats the boy like he’s a criminal, and inspectors arrive to badger his dad over the state of the caravan. (The implication, at least as I read it then, is that his child may be taken away.) Mostly, the Quentin Blake sketch of the vardo—top—reminded me of Mum’s painting.

I only learnt today that the wagon was based on one Dahl bought for his own back garden, which became a playroom for his children. Now my fond feelings for Danny feel like they’ve been blasted with a shotgun. I was never naïve to what kind of word gypsy was, or the fact I was writing myself in, or that the lives pictured in the caravan’s past were a whitewashed gorjer imagining of our history, free of violence and criminalisation and ill health—but knowing it was based on one that had been turned into a kids’ playhouse? It’s as if Mr Victor Hazell had gone poaching in Danny’s field.

Those caravans were our houses and homes—at six square metres each, the only safe places when schools, churches, police and entire towns attacked us. The were beautiful because it’s easier to stay sane when your only refuge looks nice. They weren’t built so the people who took our children away could turn our houses into garden ornaments, letting their kids play in them and crayoning on the walls. Danny’s vardo is romantic because the people who it belonged to have been turfed out. When gorjer children play in our wagons, they’re magical: when it was our kids, they got set on fire.

I’m struggling to reconcile this story’s place in my heart with the writer’s attitude. Believing in the death of the author can be easier said than done—how do I salvage Danny from my headcanon’s sudden absurdity, and do I even want to save it now? I’ve managed to remain a fan of Dahl by taking his other flawed works with a strong pinch of salt, but this feels personal in a way other issues don’t; feels unignorable rather than just jarring. Perhaps like the Oompa-Loompas, it just needs a rewrite—but I doubt the publishers would agree. Without Roma Danny, I don’t know how to love this book.

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