August 30, 2014

THE SHARK BENEATH THE SURFACE:

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at 50 (Lucy Mangan, Friday 29 August 2014, The Guardian)

[S]hortly after his son Theo was born in 1960, Dahl sent a revised version of the story, entitled "Charlie's Chocolate Boy" to his agent Mike Watkins, in which the eponymous hero visits the factory with nine other children and is accidentally made into a chocolate figure and delivered to Mr Wonka's house, where he foils a burglary and is rewarded with a sweet shop of his own "nine storeys high".

The others include Augustus Pottle (Gloop's precursor), Miranda Grope (disappears up the pipe with Augustus), Wilbur Rice, Tommy Troutbeck (whose fates you will learn in the never-before-published chapter cut from the draft that accompanies this piece); Violet Strabismus (had been Glockenberry, would become Beauregarde, always ends up violet); Clarence Crump, Bertie Upside, Trevor Roper (who all overheat after ingesting an unwise number of Warming Candies), and Elvira Entwhistle (gets booted down a rubbish chute but would eventually be known as Veruca Salt as she went) - an unwieldy group and it is obvious that some of them need to go, but it is still great fun while they're around.

But then Theo was almost killed when a cab hit his pram in New York. He survived, but developed hydrocephalus. The shunt put in his head to drain the fluid kept clogging, nearly killing him each time. Dahl mined Theo's neurosurgeon Kenneth Till for every ounce of his knowledge then took the problem to his friend Stanley Wade who, in a twist you wouldn't dare write, was an engineer whose hobby was making miniature engines for toy aeroplanes and whose job was running a factory that produced precision hydraulic pumps.

Together, the three men invented the Wade-Dahl-Till valve for Theo and the thousands of other children in his situation. In June 1962, the first one was inserted into the head of a patient in London's Great Ormond Street hospital. It worked beautifully. Theo was well enough not to need it by then, but over the years it was used to treat thousands of children all over the world.

Dahl went back to his book.

The publishers Knopf were reading a second draft when Olivia and Tessa arrived home from school with a note warning parents about a measles outbreak. Vaccination programmes would be introduced a year later in America, but that was too late for the Dahls. Seven-year-old Olivia caught the bug and died. It is perhaps both impossible and unwise to try to describe the depths of anyone's grief at losing a child: recalling it 20 years later in her autobiography As I Am, Neal still struggled to articulate hers; of her husband, she says simply that he "all but lost his mind".

Eventually, however - and it's not quite clear how long after, because Dahl did not date his drafts - the need, both financial and personal, to work reasserted itself and another draft of Charlie took shape. And another, and another.

Reading them now is like watching a familiar landscape slowly emerge out of the mist, or the coloured chips of glass in a kaleidoscope before a final turn of the lens aligns them in the proper pattern. The chocolate river is there, but there's no waterfall or minty grass-meadow setting (though the latter has its precursor in a garden Wonka makes for a rich woman, full of trees with barley sugar branches, fudge trunks and mint crisp leaves). The inventor is the central figure, not Charlie. There are uniformed workers in the factory and disembodied voices whispering the songs that accompany each child's departure instead of a musical tribe of tiny, cacao-loving Loompaland natives.

What we think of as the "real" Dahl is there, moving underneath the story like a shark but only occasionally breaking the surface to show his grinning teeth (one mother objects to her child being made into fudge on the grounds that "we've spent far too much on his education already"). But it is only after a letter from his former agent and confidante Sheila St Lawrence that you can see him start to really trust his instincts. Although she says now that "he was going to get there anyway ... If someone else hadn't alerted him, I'm quite sure he would have alerted himself", she made a variety of specific suggestions - including making the uniformed assistants "something more surprising than they are" - but also encouraged him more generally to let rip. "I'd like to see more humour, more light, Dahlesque touches throughout," ends the letter. "I hope some of my remarks will produce counter remarks in you that will stir you to flights of fancy to make the book take off and really fly, as it undoubtedly will."
Posted by at August 30, 2014 7:28 AM
  
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