Because I have such a hopelessly scattershot mind, many, many plans that I hatch or ideas that I get wind up being lost in the ol’ lumber room, sometimes turning up long afterwards, sometimes never to be seen again.

Among these was my intent to read Roald Dahl’s Going Solo, the autobiography of his early manhood in the late ’30’s and the first years of WWII.  It had been among the books the eldest gel read over the summah for school, and at the time I thought it looked like it would be quite interesting.  However, after I had filed away that particular resolution,  it seems to have got buried among many others, and I forgot all about it.

This morning the eldest gel suddenly brought it back to my attention when she shoved her copy of the book into my hands and said, “Remember this?”  I greedily delved into it and finished it off in a couple hours.  My goodness, what a treat! 

The book falls into two essential parts.  The first cover’s Dahl’s pre-War experiences.  His first job as a very young man was with Shell Oil in East Africa, to which he set out alone from London.  This was in the last days of the true British Empire Builders, and his descriptions of some of the characters he met both on the ship out and on post are quite entertaining.  I kept waiting for some high-handed colonial post-mortem tsk-tsking, but Dahl stays right off of that.  Instead, he concentrates on personalities and idiosyncracies.  It was his opinion (correct, from all I’ve read) that practically all the Brits out East eventually went quite barmy.  Nonetheless, he seems to have held some admiration for them and for what they did. 

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this part of the book is his stories of several encounters with East Africa’s nastiest snake, the Mamba (Black and Green).  Apparently, not only are they fearless and inclined to attack humans on sight, one simply cannot outrun them.  Dahl’s eye-witness accounts of how the local residents dealt with them are, shall we say, hair-raising. 

I am never going to East Africa.  Ever.

The second part of the book concerns Dahl’s war service.  When news reached his station in 1939, Dahl first helped to round up the local German civilian population (nearly getting himself shot in the chest point-blank).  Then he set out for the Med to volunteer as a fighter pilot with the RAF.  He describes learning to fly, which he did well enough, although nobody ever instructed him how to fight.  Eventually, without any prior combat experience, he found himself along with a handfull of other Hurricane pilots vainly trying to cover the disastrous Brit evacuation of Greece against swarms of German bombers and fighters.  His descriptions of combat and the insanities of organized war are among the best I have read.  Crisp, clear, exciting.  After the fall of Greece, Dahl found himself in Syria flying against the Viche French.  The high point of that service was an encounter he had with a group of early Zionists, although he does nothing more than relate a conversation he had with one of them on the topic of  homelands.  I’d have been interested to see what he thought about it all, but again he keeps pretty mum.

Dahl only flew a few weeks in the Levant before he was grounded by headaches caused by a concussion he had suffered as the result of a crash landing in the Egyptian desert prior to his move to Greece (and for which he had to spend many weeks in hospital).  The book ends with his invaliding out and returning to England, where he was reunited after three years with his mother and sisters.  (The book is puncuated throughout with excerpts from correspondence between them.)  And that’s pretty much it.  Dahl simply stops at the point where he gets off the bus and meets his waiting family.

As I say, I polished this book off in a couple hours.  While it certainly is not one of his children’s books and doesn’t flinch away from descriptions of death and mayhem, on the other hand, it is neither deep nor complicated, but is instead simply an account of what Dahl saw and heard with his own eyes and ears in the late 30’s and early 40’s.   Well worth it if you are interested in this sort of thing.

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