Nearly 30 years ago I had dinner with Roald
Dahl in the West Indies. It sounds like an exotic event, but it wasn’t
exactly an epic meeting of the intellects. For one thing, he was 6
foot 6 inches tall and the author of numerous short stories and children’s
books, as well as a James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice. I was 4 foot tall and the author
of nothing other than various mishaps, which included falling out
of coconut trees and getting bitten by a pariah dog that I’d
tried to adopt. He was in Tobago with his wife, the actress Patricia
Neal, to try out the Mount Irvine Bay Hotel’s golf course. The
course had been landscaped from a former coconut plantation, while
the hotel itself was a converted sugar-mill. I was there because my
father, Gordon Cunningham, was the winter golf pro at the hotel.
Having received a golf lesson from my father, Dahl invited him and
my mother to dinner. They declined at first, being unable to find
a babysitter for me, but he waved this aside and invited me along
too. That was how I found myself installed on a chair built up with
cushions, gazing across the table at Mr and Mrs Dahl. We dined on
the garden terrace of the Sugar Mill restaurant. Blood orange bougainvillaea
and ginger lilies luxuriated in the warm air. At dusk, the croak of
tree frogs was punctuated by the occasional distant thud of a falling
coconut. Dahl looked gauntly sardonic, while his wife was handsome
rather than pretty, her slightly askew smile the only sign of the
stroke she had endured some years previously.
Dahl’s method of dealing with a child was to both intimidate
and flatter you by speaking to you as if you were an adult, in a clipped,
inquisitorial tone. Getting straight to the point, he enquired about
my recent misadventures and seemed genuinely delighted to hear that
I had, only the other week, electrocuted myself by plunging a rusted
knitting needle into a faulty light socket. At no point during the
meal did I cease to feel overawed by him, but nor did I feel patronised.
Patricia Neal was much more conventionally indulgent and did most
of the talking for both of them. She described in particular how he
had ‘bullied’ her back to health. My mother recalls that
Dahl was rather self-consciously dismissive of his role in her recovery.
Much of the rest of the conversation went over my head, but I do remember
him describing how he wrote in a potting shed at the bottom of the
garden – a disclosure which made him seem an even more strange
and shamanic figure than he already did.
My father’s job at Mount Irvine Bay ended not long after. During
my provincial Scottish upbringing I read Dahl’s children’s
books voraciously. As an adolescent, I graduated to his adult short
stories, which, with their intimations of the kinky and macabre, allied
to a lingering schoolboy-ish gusto, were like a bridge thrown across
towards more mature reading matter. And there was Tales of the Unexpected on television, its credit sequence featuring a Bond-style silhouetted
dancer, swaying to a strange hurdy-gurdy theme tune.
My parents separated when I was in my mid-teens and my father died
soon after. We put the family home on sale and for ten years my mother
and I couldn’t afford to travel outside Scotland. But it was
a consolation, in the midst of long winters, to recall a more exotic
life – of which my brief encounter with Dahl had been part.
I greeted the news of his death, in 1990, with resigned sadness. A
few years later I started writing seriously myself. From the beginning
I produced both adult short stories and longer, more imaginative fiction
aimed at younger readers. The tone of my output may have been very
different from Dahl’s, but the division of labour was the same.
Eventually some of the short stories appeared in literary magazines and
were broadcast on the radio. In 2006, my debut fantasy novel,
CloudWorld, was published by Faber & Faber. Here's a summary of it:
"CloudWorld is set on a planet entirely covered in a thick cloud layer. Mountain peaks - thousands of miles apart - rise out of the clouds, their gentle slopes covered in fields and orchards. Many of these peaks also have huge, populous citadels on them.
The cloud-dwellers are not aware that they live on mountains and the cloud depths are an abiding mystery; many believe that they are the realm of Omnium, a divine being who created them.
At the beginning of the story, the king of one of the citadels – Heliopolis (‘city of the sun’) – fails to return from a diplomatic visit to a neighbouring citadel, Selenopolis (‘city of the moon.’) He is presumed lost in the cloud depths. His son, Marcus, who lives a sheltered but lonely palace life, insists that a mission across the cloudscape be staged in search of the king. But Marcus realises too late that there is conspiracy in the citadel. Someone wants him dead and he is plunged into a terrifying new adventure beneath the clouds.
Marcus and his comrades discover that, whatever its true nature, some mysterious force seems to bind their world together, making it habitable both above and below the clouds yet keeping the two regions apart. They find themselves in a more ancient, less evolved place called Daldriadh. Its inhabitants have created a whole religion based around debris fallen through the clouds over many centuries. They are perpetually at odds with one another, but also determined not to be colonised.
Marcus has to not only survive in this world, but also win the trust of the races who live there and find a way of getting home…"
Paying a tremulous visit to WH Smith’s to see CloudWorld on sale for
the first time, I was surprised then dazedly pleased to note that,
due to the spelling of my surname, it was shelved right beside
Dahl’s many more famous titles. This sight offered an immediate
balm of continuity. Whatever else had been lost, I was still the same
person who had been indulged by that glamorous couple in Tobago so
many years ago. Now all I have to do is find a way to make a pilgrimage