I was a lucky child who was read to, and then taught to read, and then allowed many, many books from the library. I was also lucky to be the generation that was brought up with Roald Dahl. The Henry Sugar collection is a teenage rather than children’s book, and I’ll never forget the specific type of end-of-childhood excitement and wonder this particular story provoked: a grittier, darker, more promising kind of excitement than that of a child, but the same absolute willingness to believe in the story’s unbelievable premise. I love it when a writer presents the impossible and says, “I know this is unbelievable, but trust me, it’s really true”. I don’t need to be asked twice; I’ll throw off all trappings of sensible rationalism, grab their hand, and go along for the ride.
Collected in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, Jonathan Cape, 1977
There is much glee indeed to be had reading Dahl’s stories, but this is the one that makes me wince the most, and with painful joy. A cruel and clever plot, an odious swindler of a protagonist, and a pair of wise fools make for a comedy that breezes along towards devastation. I listened to this as part of an audio book as I walked through London, the streets around me transforming into the summery Buckinghamshire countryside that Mr Boggis traverses in his station wagon, scouting for country houses he might relieve of their antiques. When new levels of deviousness are about to deliver him a major prize that will one day – he is sure – be known as The Boggis Commode, “All the buttercups in the field were suddenly turning into golden sovereigns, glistening in the sunlight. The ground was littered with them, and he swung off the track on to the grass so that he could walk among them and tread on them and hear the little metallic tinkle they made as he kicked them around with his toes.” Kicking buttercups comes before a fall, and one that made me giggle as much as Boggis does at his seeming fortune.
In Completely Unexpected Tales, Penguin, 1986; first published in Esquire (1958), available online here
I still have my copy of this collection of fiction and non-fiction pieces, published in 1977 when I was nine, and could have chosen any of its stories, because they’re lodged in my mind: ‘The Swan’, in which a boy attempts to fly; ‘The Mildenhall Treasure’, an account of the discovery of Roman silver in a Suffolk field; the memoir, ‘A Piece of Cake’. But the title story – which tells of a wealthy gambler who believes he’s hit on the perfect system for beating the house – stands out because I can still remember Henry’s motto for living: “It is better to incur a mild rebuke than to perform an onerous task.” Quite so.
(collection first published 1977, available in a Puffin edition)