Fantastic Mr Dahl
It’s Friday the thirteenth. Strange and unexplainable things will happen to many people today that will cause them to become ridiculously superstitious about this date for the rest of their lives. (If you’re interested, the fear of Friday the 13th is known as friggatriskaidekaphobia.) But lots of good things will happen to people as well, and thousands of others will experience absolutely nothing of significance at all. So there we go.
But this Friday the thirteenth is Friday the thirteenth of September, which means Australians will be celebrating 44 years since the birth of one Shane Keith Warne, Italians will be marking Fabio Cannavaro’s 40th, and parents of school children across the country will be sending their kids to school dressed as Oompah Loompas, Head Witches and Fantastic Foxes. Or, if you’re like me and you have a daughter called Matilda, you can just send them to school.
Yes, 13th September is Roald Dahl Day (he was born on 13th September 1916). I have no idea who’s responsible for creating official days in honour of writers, or whether you just need to pick a date and buy a url, but I can’t think of many modern writers more deserving of the accolade.
Dahl’s obviously best known for being a children’s writer, but he takes his dark and slightly twisted sense of humour to new levels in his adult work. ‘Pig’ from Kiss, Kiss is one of the most surreal and macabre stories I’ve ever read, ‘Genesis and Catastrophe’ poses some unsettling questions and the ludicrously obscene My Uncle Oswald… well, maybe just check you’re OK with the subject matter before you order a copy. (It is brilliant though, IMHO, as the kidz say. Actually I don’t think they say that anymore.) Even Tarantino’s been so impressed by Dahl’s warped mind that he’s taken a metaphorical page or two out of his books. (Although possibly the less said about Four Rooms, the better.)
What makes these grown up books so beautifully disturbing is not just their subject matter, but that they’re all written in the same voice as The BFG, James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr Fox. In the way that the dark humour from the adult books makes his children’s stories so engaging, it’s the innocent tone and language from the kids’ books that makes the adult stories so unsettling. There’s an awkward juxtaposition in what’s being said and who’s saying it.
That’s what I love about Dahl – every time I read one of his books I get this mental picture of a childish old man hunched over his typewriter, chuckling away to himself devilishly as he taps away on his keyboard, weaving these bizarre and magical tales. You get the impression that he’s never been bothered about what people think of his work – the only person he’s writing for is himself, and he’s enjoyed typing every word on that page.
And that’s where I think brands can really learn from him. For me, the majority of the copy I read in advertisements and brochures creates a mental picture of a man in a suit, sat in an office. And he’s got really, REALLY nice teeth. And he’s typing away on his MacBook Air, and he’s probably called something like Hank, and he always looks people in the eye, and he’s got a really strong handshake. It may very well be written in slightly different styles, or in different tones, but it still all comes from Hank. Don’t get me wrong – Hank’s not a bad guy – you just can’t trust his motives. (Apologies for stereotyping the world’s entire population of Hanks.)
Dahl’s gift was creating characters that he could resonate with, not characters that he thought other people could resonate with. From Sophie to Charlie Bucket, from Aunts Sponge and Spiker to farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (one fat, one short, one lean), all his characters are based on a real people from his life. And then he twists them a little – he makes the familiar seem slightly unfamiliar. And that’s where brands often go wrong with tone of voice – they try and make the familiar seem even more familiar; they try and make the perfect seem even more perfect. And the result is Hank, and his beautiful set of gleaming white teeth.
So, that’s my quick overview on Dahl – probably my favourite writer of all time, and also the reason people stare nervously at me as I roll the aluminium foil from my sandwiches into a ball after lunch. Make sure you don’t just leave him for the kids.