Danny the Champion of the WorldI got this book in 1988, when I was eight or nine years old, and it was a dear favourite of mine. The story of Danny and his fantastic dad, and their life in the old gypsy caravan by the petrol pumps and garage - it was at once a whole new other world, and something very near and dear to me.
Danny is raised by his dad, a mechanic and Danny's hero. They live in a colourful wooden caravan under a large apple tree, serving petrol and fixing cars. Danny's father teaches him all about cars and how toI got this book in 1988, when I was eight or nine years old, and it was a dear favourite of mine. The story of Danny and his fantastic dad, and their life in the old gypsy caravan by the petrol pumps and garage - it was at once a whole new other world, and something very near and dear to me.Danny is raised by his dad, a mechanic and Danny's hero. They live in a colourful wooden caravan under a large apple tree, serving petrol and fixing cars. Danny's father teaches him all about cars and how to fix them, and Danny is a great help in the garage. At night his dad tells him fabulous stories, and when Danny starts school at seven, his dad walks him there and back every day. Danny has the best life, and he loves his dad more than anything.Then one night Danny wakes up to find his dad missing. Anxious, because it is the first time his father has disappeared like this, Danny waits up for him. When his father returns, Danny learns that his dad has a secret: he's a pheasant poacher! His own dad was one before him and came up with several ingenius ways of poaching the birds, and Danny's own mother used to join him on poaching nights. This night marked the first night Danny's father had been out in the private woods - owned by the brutish Mr Victor Hazell - since Danny was born.And so, Danny's father introduces Danny into the world of pheasant poaching - and Danny discovers that virtually the entire town enjoys a spot of pheasant poaching! Even the doctor and the policeman and the minister's wife is involved - and no one likes Mr Hazell, with his "tiny piggy eyes" and "smug superior little smile". But it is Danny himself who comes up with the most clever poaching plan ever conceived - a way to steal all one hundred and twenty birds at once, the night before Mr Hazell's shooting party arrives!
Perhaps because of the different illustrator, or perhaps because it is more of a realistic and human story than many of Dahl's other, Danny the Champion of the World has a different tone and feel to it than classics like The Witches and The BFG. It is more like his memoir of his childhood, Boy, and similar works. It is written for children, and has humour and a lightness of spirit to it, but it is also more serious. In keeping the story "real", though, Dahl shows just how fantastic our real lives can be, without giants and witches and other fantastical things.It is also a story of one boy's childhood in what I figure was the early 50s, and as such it reads like a story of a completely by-gone era. The chances of someone now having a childhood like Danny's is pretty slim, and so there's something nostalgic about his story - perhaps, again, inspired by Dahl's own childhood, not in the details of the story but in the characters, and the mischief. It's also nostalgic in that small
English village way, where everyone knows everyone's secrets, finds clever ways of pulling the wool over the eyes of people they don't like, and can generally be counted upon in a pinch.In the schemes for poaching pheasants, there is definitely a touch of the wildly flamboyant Dahl we all know and love: "The Horse-hair Stopper" and "The Sticky Hat"; and in the description of oafish and cruel Victor Hazell. Danny's father, who's never named, is a fantastic figure, and when Danny calls him the best father in the world, you find yourself easily agreeing with him. Well, he may be at times irresponsible and a little wild, but he has the qualities you want in a great father - and this is Dahl's message, proudly spelled out at the back of the book:
A MESSAGEto Children Who Have Read This BookWhen you grow upand have children of your owndo please remember something importantIt's great, even as an adult, to come to that at the end of the book (something I had completely forgotten was there) and be reminded of what I loved and admired in adults when I was a kid. I loved the artist friend of my parents who, when he and his wife came over for dinner, would take the time to entertain us with magic tricks and make us laugh. Or my nanna when she would put me on her lap and read fairy tales to me. Or my dad (and grandad) when he'd lie on his back in the passage, put me on his feet, and toss me over his head, always catching me and setting me on my feet. Learning about plants with my mum. These are the memories we keep, after all - the ones that chase the darker shadows away. It seems like the current trend in parenting is to fill your kids' days with activities, sport, hobbies, studies, rather than spend time having fun with them. Or even to buy horrid plastic toy sets and computer games for toddlers and older - it's so much better to let kids invent their own games, make their own toys and things out of random household odds and ends and scraps, and play amongst themselves. Danny's inventiveness in the poaching scheme earns well-deserved praise from his dad and others, and his father calls him the champion of the world - far from being a form of gross steroid to a child's self-esteem, it humbles Danny but leaves him re-affirmed in the greatness of his one remaining parent. The two are a close family unit who share everything with each other, and so it doesn't matter that they're poor, that they live in a little caravan with just a little paraffin stove to heat up food on: they have each other, and love, and great stories and fantastic adventures. Having money isn't the key to happiness, is I think Dahl's other message here.
a stodgy parent is no fun at allWhat a child wants
and deservesis a parent who is
On a side note, it was interesting reading this after so many years, because I had a vivid memory of one of Bennett's illustrations at the very end of the book, which doesn't exist! I remembered it ending - with accompanying illustration - with all the pheasants roosting in the apple tree above the caravan. I must have invented this ending for myself, as a child, and improved upon it each time I read it until it supplanted the real ending in my head. I've done this with other things from my childhood, so it wouldn't surprise me in the least. It is the ending I would have liked, but not a realistic one!