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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Number 120: Roald Dahl "Television"


The most important thing we've learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set --
Or better still, just don't install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we've been,
We've watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone's place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they're hypnotised by it,
Until they're absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.
Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don't climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink --
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?
'All right!' you'll cry. 'All right!' you'll say,
'But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!'
We'll answer this by asking you,
'What used the darling ones to do?
'How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?'
Have you forgotten? Don't you know?
We'll say it very loud and slow:
THEY ... USED ... TO ... READ! They'd READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!
Such wondrous, fine, fantastic tales
Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
And treasure isles, and distant shores
Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
And pirates wearing purple pants,
And sailing ships and elephants,
And cannibals crouching 'round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it's Penelope.)
The younger ones had Beatrix Potter
With Mr. Tod, the dirty rotter,
And Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland,
And Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and-
Just How The Camel Got His Hump,
And How the Monkey Lost His Rump,
And Mr. Toad, and bless my soul,
There's Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole-
Oh, books, what books they used to know,
Those children living long ago!
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks-
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They'll now begin to feel the need
Of having something to read.
And once they start -- oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They'll grow so keen
They'll wonder what they'd ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.

--Roald Dahl

Hap Notes: Nobody probably needs an introduction to Dahl (1916-1990) with his myriad extraordinary books (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, The Witches-- just to name a few.) Even if you've never read them (and do read them–they are wonderfully written) you've seen the countless movies based on them. He was also a short story writer in addition to his "children's" fiction.

Dahl himself was a sweet and salty character who did a bit of "spy" work during WWII (which mostly involved women and I'm not sure he was all that great at the "spy" part) and he was a flying ace who cut a very handsome and dashing figure then. He was severely beaten (with a cane– it left him bloody) when he was eight, at private school, for a prank of which he'd been a part (he and three other kids put a dead mouse in a jar of jawbreakers at a local candy store.) The incident passes but one can surely see that this could form a vivid part of childhood memories. Dahl was born in Wales to Norwegian parents– there's certainly a mix of cultures one doesn't see every day, eh?

Everybody probably also knows that he was married to actress Patricia Neal and he nursed her back to health (speaking and walking) after a debilitating stroke she suffered in 1965. One can read gossipy stories about Dahl's sex life, his drinking, his bitter talk but underneath it all beat the heart of a 7-year-old prankster who loved candy and had a sense of humor and intrigue.

He's quite serious in the poem about television, you know. Kurt Vonnegut said that nobody ever learned anything from the television and there's certainly a large grain of truth in that. You don't have to mentally visualize anything when watching the screen and this seems to do more harm than good. In the poem he's referencing books you've probably read– Mr. Tod, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and Pigling Bland are all Beatrix Potter, the stories about the camel and the monkey are from Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, and Mr. Toad, Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole are from (an especial favorite of mine) Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. Children's literature is usually a mighty good read since the book has to appeal to a limited attention span- they get to it and they're rousing and fun and full of amazing things. Have you ever seen a movie that could equal a good book? They are rare – very rare.

I know it seems impossible now but when I was growing up there were kids who were NEVER allowed to watch television- there were families who didn't even own a television set (not from poverty, from choice.) In my family our rules were strict about it- one hour per day, at MOST and we were allowed to watch cartoons on Saturday morning. My mother always let me watch old movies with her. If one wanted to watch football with my father, one could- but it was hardly a lot of fun what with all the cigar smoke and tense cursing. Television, like soda pop, was a treat doled out very sparingly. O Tempora! O Mores! eh?

Here's a good Dahl quote: "I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers, to become comfortable with a book, not daunted. Books shouldn't be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage."

Dahl wrote quite a bit of verse. You can find some here:

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