There is a curious irony here. I don’t actually like chocolate and I would go on to call my son Augustus (after John, not Gloop). This is the book that changed my life, partnered with Great Expectations but in a different way. This one got here first. There are all sorts of prescient elements and sensitive social observations going on here. Roald Dahl treats the Bucket family’s impecunious status with great sensitivity – to me it comes across as endearing, rather cosy and safe. A family pulling through together; multi-generational. I always loved the notion that the grandparents stayed in bed and were always close by.
The golden ticket, the lottery of life. I like to believe in fable. I like to think the notion of lyricism and fable should not just be woven into life, but kept as its essence. I would go on to fall in love with the writing of Italo Calvino for the same reason.
There is of course also the sense of justice. Charlie’s family hasn’t had the strongest run of luck; their lives change through a simple twist, a sprinkling of fairy dust. I still get excited on the rare occasion I do unwrap chocolate to think that there might be a golden ticket tucked inside.
I often think of Willy Wonka as I go through life. An adult trying, in this case through rather extravagant means, to ease, appease and possibly remedy childhood wounds. In building his glorious factory Willy is hopping on a flying carpet, looking at an injury experienced in childhood and possibly not being able to face it or trying to assuage it. Who hasn’t done that? My childhood was half in England, half in France and I have this silly default setting (as I didn’t much like school and had a horror of 1970s food) that nothing bad can ever happen in France.
The factory itself. I am not a great film watcher and I know there is an often-quoted algorithm that films are neither true to nor respectful of an original text. But I found the Gene Wilder version spot on and he is my Willy Wonka. I thought it visually amazing. I know some people were scared of the Oompa Loompas, but I think them marvellous.
There is the redemptive quality in Charlie’s fellow ticket-winners and their varied demises. It’s hard to identify the most obnoxious, but I would have to go with Violet Beauregarde. Dahl is subtle here: look what money can buy. I was a very easy-going child and got along with everyone, I am the youngest of five so bombproof on the whole, but I knew one I suppose we would call her a ‘brat’, and I didn’t have a clue how to interact with her. Once I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I did. It gave me a reference point for dealing with children I didn’t fully understand. I genuinely think it made me compassionate; the other book I was going to choose? The Little Matchstick Girl. I won it as a prize in a spelling competition. It totally floored me and would lay a personal foundation of great empathy for the underdog, the dispossessed.
I feel this book gave me an early sense of social justice. The division caused by wealth, the notion that stays with me, aged 49, that money doesn’t buy happiness.
Back to my opening irony. The sweeties, lollipops, river of chocolate didn’t really appeal to me as I have no sweet tooth but I have many friends for whom they do, continuing into adulthood.
Willy Wonka is seen as eccentric, odd, a loner. He dresses in a flamboyant way and is perfectly atypical. He comes across as stern, unpredictable, quite intimidating. He seems to have rules as to how to live his life quite bespoke to him.
We get to the closing chapters. The other children have been, shall we say, hoist with their own petards. Charlie, Grandpa Bucket and Willy Wonka remain, the last men standing. We get to see the real Willy: he is kind, funny and compassionate. Still eccentric. What does this tell me? That sometimes when people are behaving in a way that seems difficult, perhaps aggressive or intemperate, there may well be more to it. The mammalian offence is defence. We see Willy as he really is. He has come to trust and I think admire Charlie. He reveals himself; the crotchety veneer a protection mechanism for the sensitive, nervous boy he once was.
This is sort of merging into the sequel, but I still have a thing for lifts. I’ve been in several ‘on the outside of the building’ ones – and I always think there is an outside chance I am going to fly somewhere terribly exciting. That is a gift. Thank you, Mr Dahl.
Victoria Sutton is a fiddling writer and headhunter. You can find her on Twitter at @Givememontaigne