“A life is made up of a great number of small incidents and a small number of great ones. An autobiography must therefore, unless it is to become tedious, be extremely selective, discarding all the inconsequential incidents in one’s life and concentrating upon those that have remained vivid in the memory.” – R.D.
For today’s Nonfiction Monday, hosted by Jean Little Library, I’ll be sharing the thoughts of Roald Dahl from Going Solo, a follow-up to my review of his first autobiographical book, Boy: Tales of Childhood. Luckily, both books were included in my Roald Dahl box set, so it saved me time to search the library catalog for Going Solo. Dedicated to his mother, Sofie Magdalene Dahl, Going Solo picks up where Boy left off – he sets off to East Africa where he worked under the Shell Company.
Going Solo is a whole different ballgame compared to Boy. Matter of fact: Wartime exploits are more serious than childhood stories. While it is true that most of Dahl’s childhood accounts focused on the maltreatment of school boys in traditional British schools during his time, nothing can be more somber than talking about world war, plane crashes, and near-death experiences. Only a man such as Roald Dahl can tell stories of daring and dangerous adventures without making it sound too grown-up and too boring.
Going Solo and Saying Goodbye to Childhood
I started reading Going Solo a while back, so when I leafed through the pages of his East Africa accounts, I barely remembered anything I’ve read in that part of the book. Honestly, I thought the first part of the book was not as entertaining as I had hoped it to be. However, I did remember a story worth mentioning, and it goes like this:
“We very quickly spotted the massive sandy-coloured lion not more than eighty or ninety yards off and trotting away from the house… The lion had the woman by the waist so that her head and arms hung down on one side and her legs on the other, and I could see that she was wearing a red and white spotted dress. The lion, so startlingly close, was loping away from us in the calmest possible manner with a slow, long-striding, springy lope, and behind the lion, not more than the length of a tennis court behind, ran the cook himself… Oh it was a scene of great tragedy and comedy both mixed up together, and now Robert Sanford was running full speed after the cook who was running after the lion.” – Simba, p. 36
Roald Dahl dedicated a good six pages just for that encounter alone. If I didn’t know any better, the lion encounter was one of the small incidents that he mentioned in the quote above. A straightforward narrative of day-to-day events is boring and overrated. Thankfully, Roald Dahl’s narrative style is anything but. In fact, this story was so popular that it became his first published work and earned him a cheque for five pounds. This is the kind of story you’d like to read – one that takes you by surprise and lingers in your mind for a while.
Roald Dahl’s first involvement in war happened when he was given the orders to stop a group of German civilians from escaping Dar es Salaam to join the German troops. He was face-to-face with a bald German who was shot when the man threatened to kill one of the officers. Roald Dahl was shaken up by the incident, but this was essential in building up his courage to face war when he least expected it.
Going Solo in Life and War
As he did with Boy, Roald Dahl included photos of his adventures in Going Solo. In addition to these precious, hard-to-reproduce snapshots that he took, Roald Dahl included excerpts from some of the letters he wrote to his mother. In one of these letters, he said:
“Dear Mama, I’m having a lovely time, have never enjoyed myself so much. I’ve been sworn in to the R.A.F. proper and am definitely in it now until the end of war… No boys to do everything for me anymore. Get your own food, wash your own knives and forks, fold up your own clothes, and in short, do everything for yourself.” – Nairobi, 4 Dec 1939
Just for that letter alone, I must say that his book was aptly titled Going Solo. It wasn’t just about him joining the war, but fending for himself in a land thousands of miles away from home, away from his beloved mother who loved him dearly. This was a point in Dahl’s life in which the words of the Dahl family doctor were fitting. The doctor told Dahl, when he attempted to fake a stomach ache due to homesickness, that it was better for him to experience harsh realities early in his life so that he would be prepared for the harsher realities of life later on. It wasn’t just a test of courage. It was a test of survival as well.
Going Solo While the Rest of the World Did Not Care
Roald Dahl’s personal account of his life as plane fighter not only reflected his bold adventures but also how bad the military system was during his time. When he arrived at the RAF station on the Suez Canal, he was posted 80 Squadron, and he was to fly one of their massive Gloster Gladiators to shoot down enemies. It was one thing to fly an aerobatic little biplane called a Tiger Moth, and another to maneuver an out-of-date fighter biplane such as a Gladiator. When Roald Dahl asked a Flight-Lieutenant who would teach him how to fly, he was given this response:
“Don’t be an ass. How can anyone teach you when there’s only one cockpit? Just get in and do a few circuits and bumps and you’ll soon get the hang of it. You had better get all the practice you can because the next thing you know you’ll be dicing in the air with some clever little Italian who will be trying to shoot you down.” – Flying Training, p. 95
These were the thoughts running through Dahl’s head at the time, and I think it is worth sharing to you, dear readers:
“I remember thinking at the time that this was surely not the right way of doing things. They had spent eight months and a great deal of money training me to fly and suddenly that was the end of it all. Nobody… was going to teach me anything about air-to-air combat, and they were certainly not going to take time off to instruct me when I joined a busy operational squadron. There is no question that were flung in at the deep end, totally unprepared for actual fighting in the air, and this, in my opinion, accounted for the very great losses of young pilots that we suffered out there. I myself survived only by the skin of my teeth.” – Flying Training, pp. 95-96
Going Solo Simply Because He is Roald Dahl
In Boy, Roald Dahl shared some experiences that portrayed his mischievousness as a child. (Yes, the Great Mouse Plot once again.) In Going Solo, his thirst for cheap thrills and adventures was reflected in his war encounters, thoughts, and decisions he made throughout his flying career.
When Roald Dahl was in Greece, the Corporal was telling Dahl some “prophecies of doom,” as he aptly put it. Dahl was told that there was no hope for fifteen of their Hurricanes fighting thousands of German planes. They would be wiped in a few days’ time.
“I guessed that everything the Corporal had just told me was more or less true, but curiously enough none of it worried me in the slightest. I was young enough and starry-eyed enough to look upon this Grecian escapade as nothing more than a grand adventure. The thought that I might never get out of the country alive didn’t occur to me.” – First Encounter with a Bandit, p. 126
In another part of his story, an Air Commodore asked for a volunteer to take a mysterious parcel to Elevsis. Nobody volunteered at first because everybody was fed up of being pushed around by the high officers who either did not know what they were doing or were simply power-tripping. Finally Pilot Officer Dahl volunteered. According to him, he is a “compulsive volunteer,” he would say yes to anything.
Imagine what life would be like if we are all “compulsive volunteers” like Dahl. The End.