Going Solo by Roald Dahl

Published by Penguin (1986)

I loved that journey. I loved it, I think, because I had never before in my life been totally without sight of another human being for a full day and a night. Few people have.

Roald Dahl is famous as the author of acclaimed children’s books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, George’s Marvellous MedicineFantastic Mr Fox, Danny Champion of the World and, of course, Revolting Rhymes all of which were among my favourite books when I was growing up. 

Going Solo, however, is non-fiction and is the second of Dahl’s two short autobiographical works.  The first, Boy recalls his childhood and school days.  Going Solo finds Dahl leaving home and England to find his way in the world as an employee of the Shell oil company in an African outpost of the British Empire.  A companion volume to both is Love from Boy, a collection of Dahl’s letters to his mother.

Interviewed for BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs by Roy Plomley in 1979, Dahl talks about his early travelling life and how, aged 17, after finishing school he embarked on an adventure with the Public Schools Exploring Society.  


The PSES (now the British Exploring Society and part of the Royal Geographical Society) was founded in 1932 by Surgeon Commander George Murray Levick, who was a member of Captain Scott’s final Antarctic Expedition of 1910-13.  The expedition which Dahl joined involved hiking through Newfoundland carrying a 114lb pack and involved experimenting with eating boiled lichen and reindeer most supplement their meagre rations.

Unsure what he wanted to do with his life after leaving school, Dahl told Plomley that he knew at the very least that he wanted to “get a job that will take me to distant lands.”  

You must remember that there was virtually no air travel in the early 1930s.  Africa was two weeks away from England by boat and it took you about five weeks to get to China.  These were distant and magical lands and nobody went to them just for a holiday. You went there to work. Nowadays you can go anywhere in the world in a few hours and nothing is fabulous any more.  But it was a very different matter in 1933.  (from Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl)

Dahl went for an interview with Shell to join its Eastern Staff.  One of 5 successful interviewees out of 60 candidates, Dahl believed that Shell’s board of directors had been impressed by his school prize for heavyweight boxing.  

Dahl’s Shell Company interview, his trip to Newfoundland and early working days in London as a businessman are covered in Boy:

The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him…A person is a fool to become a writer,  His only compensation is absolute freedom.  He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it. (from Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl)

Dahl also described in Boy how he had been offered and turned down a position in Egypt:

What I wanted was jungles and lions and elephants and tall coconut palms swaying on silvery beaches, and Egypt had none of that.  Egypt was desert country.  It was bare and sandy and full of tombs and relics and Egyptians and I didn’t fancy it at all. 

Within a week of turning down Egypt, Dahl was offered East Africa and Going Solo picks up his story after the Shell interview and the completion of two years’ training in the UK and joins Dahl on his way to Mombasa in 1938 aboard the SS Mantilla.

Please do not forget that in the 1930s the British Empire was still very much the British Empire, and the men and women who kept it going were a race of people that most of you have never encountered and now you never will. I consider myself very lucky to have caught a glimpse of this rare species while it still roamed the forests and foothills of the earth, for today it is totally extinct. More English than the English, more Scottish than the Scots, they were the craziest bunch of humans I shall ever meet.   

Only 22 years old, Dahl was headed for Tanganyika (what is now broadly Tanzania) and Dar es Salaam,  where he learned Swahili, shook scorpions from his boots, contracted malaria, visited sisal plantations and diamond mines and “saw that chaps had the right type of lubricating oil for machinery.” 

Dahl was in East Africa for only a short time when the Second World War broke out.  Dahl saw active service in North Africa, Greece and Palestine before being invalided back to the UK.  

From there he was sent to Washington DC and formed part of British intelligence’s efforts to persuade the United States to join the war.  It was in Washington and after a meeting with CS Forester that Dahl began to write.  

At the end of the war, Dahl resigned from the Shell company and started his writing career.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Going Solo focuses on Dahl’s time in East Africa and as a pilot in the Second World War.  It contains entertaining descriptions of his journey out to Africa and the colonial/empire types he meets on board as well as his brief period working in Tanganyika where he encountered lions and black mambas.  This part of Going Solo is relatively short although, as Dahl frankly acknowledged: 

any job, even if it is in Africa, is not continuously enthralling, I have tried to be as selective as possible and have written only about those moments that I consider memorable.

Dahl, however, sells his East African experience short in his foreword to Going Solo.  A volume of Dahl’s correspondence, edited by his biographer Donald Sturrock, was published in 2016 under the title Love From Boy.  

These letters contain funny and candid glimpses of Dahl’s experiences in Africa, from daily routines, nights getting ‘whistled’ at the Dar es Salaam club, drinking coconut milk and gin, fancy dress parties, living 50 yards from the beach in a villa with staff, snooker, golf, cinema visits, dinners with colonels, breakfasts of tea and an orange and hours spent listening to the wireless or symphonies on his gramophone: 

It looks as though [my drinks bill] may be a bit above the average this month – but as I said before – don’t get excited, I’m not becoming a toper [drunkard] 

As the Second World War draws closer, both Going Solo and the letters in Love from Boy chart the rising tensions with the East African German community.  In one letter, Dahl recounts an evening spent throwing darts at photos of Hitler and Goebbels, reporting:

There’s the hell of a showdown – you see there are so many Germans in this place & everything is rather on the boil – we seemed to have squeezed the bugger…Moral: Don’t throw darts at Hitler’s Balls in public they’re private parts. 

After a brief spell in the King’s African Rifles rounding up Germans in East Africa at the outbreak of the war, Dahl drove 600 miles to Nairobi at the end of 1939 where he enlisted as an airman and completed his basic pilot training.  

He writes about the “marvellous fun” of flying over Africa and viewing the Rift Valley’s volcanic craters, lakes, villages, flamingos, wildebeest and giraffes and how, in Iraq where he underwent further training, tribesmen took potshots at the planes from the hills.  

While in Iraq, Dahl took a photograph of the Arch of Ctesiphon while flying a biplane, for which he was given a bronze medal by the Egyptian Photographic Society in Cairo.  His letters also describe sightseeing trips to Cairo, the Pyramids and to Babylon and detail the daily hazards of life in Iraq from scorpions, snakes, the flooding of the Euphrates and the Bedouin.  

After Iraq, Dahl was posted to North Africa and then to Greece where he took part in the Battle for Athens, flying a Hawker Hurricane fighter before being evacuated to Egypt.  From Suez, he drove alone up to Haifa where he rejoined his squadron and the Syrian Campaign against the Vichy Airforce.

It was a Sunday morning and the Frenchmen were evidently entertaining their girlfriends and showing off their aircraft to them, which was a very French thing to do in the middle of a war at a front-line aerodrome. 

Going Solo is primarily a wartime memoir but evokes the places he is posted at that particular time from colonial life in East Africa, drinking retsina and eating olives in Greece and encountering Jewish refugees in (then) Palestine.  His letters in Love from Boy give more of a feel for daily life, are amusing and well worth a read.  

Dahl’s descriptions of air battles in Going Solo are exhilarating although his enthralment with flying is tempered by sober descriptions of how only 3 of the 16 men he trained with survived the war, comrades who were killed and the long odds of surviving as a wartime pilot. 

However, before reading Going Solo, I hadn’t appreciated that Dahl was nearly among those who died following a near fatal crash in North Africa which left him badly burned and temporarily without sight.

This crash has been credited with starting Dahl’s writing career.  According to Ronald Dahl’s biographer, Donald Sturrock:   

A monumental bash on the head” was how Dahl once described this accident in the Western Desert, claiming that it directly led to his becoming a writer. This was not just because his first published piece of writing was a semi-fictionalised account of the crash, but also because he suspected that the brain injuries which he received there had materially altered his personality and inclined him to creative writing.  (from Roald Dahl: the plane crash that gave birth to a writer by Donald Sturrock, published in The Daily Telegraph, 9 August 2010)

Dahl himself once said of the incident:

It’s my cosy little theory, that because i was a fairly square young chap intent on a happy business life with the Shell Company and that I started writing soon after that maybe the head helped. (from Roald Dahl: In His Own Words)

In this programme for BBC Radio 3 to mark the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth, Frank Cottrell Boyce discusses the myth that Dahl made out of the crash and how his flying career and the accident influenced his work.  He also draws interesting comparisons with Antoine Saint-Exupéry, another celebrated aviator and children’s author.  


Dahl continued travelling in later life including to Japan as part of his work on the film of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel You Only Live Twice.  Dahl also worked on the screenplay for the film of Fleming’s childrens’ story, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

He went onto to become a highly successful writer of children’s and adult fiction.  In relation to his writing, Dahl thought of himself primary as an entertainer but also tried his best to teach children to love reading books:

My crusade is to teach small children to love books so much that it becomes a habit and they realise that books are worth reading.

Books, if you are going to be anything, are vital in life.

For more on Roald Dahl’s life, listen to this edited selection of interviews (or click on embedded player below) covering different episodes from his life and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 as Roald Dahl: In HIs Own Words as part of the BBC’s Roald Dahl at 100 season.


Alternatively, try Donald Sturrock’s biography of Roald Dahl (which was also serialised in The Telegraph, here) or Sturrock’s edited collection of Dahl’s correspondence to his mother which is an excellent and essential companion to Boy and Going Solo and contains letters from his Newfoundland trip, time in East Africa and his war years.  There is also Jennet Conant’s history, The Irregulars, which focuses on Roald Dahl’s time in Washington DC.

      

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