Roald Dahl's The Magic Finger was one of my favourite books as a kid, mostly because I could read it in a single sitting. With illustrations, it's a mere 57 pages. I read it this time over a cup of tea.
The unnamed girl narrating is a proto-Matilda, with magic abilities that allow her to enact revenge on the horrid people around her. She turns nasty teacher Mrs Winter into a cat, and the Gregg family - who like shooting - into ducks. It's a simple reversal, told with delicious glee.
Esio Trot seems to be Dahl's last book, published after his death. It's a similarly slim, one-cup-of-tea volume, and altogether something more odd. Mr Hoppy fancies Mrs Silver in the flat downstairs but can't pluck up the courage to say so. Mrs Silver has a beloved tortoise, Alfie, who she worries is not big enough. So Mr Hoppy concocts a convoluted scheme to make Mrs Silver think Alfie is growing.
Dahl explains in a caveat that this story "happened in the days when anyone could go out and buy a nice little tortoise from a pet-shop", back before the government stopped traders who "used to cram hundreds of [tortoises] tightly into the packing-crates without food or water and in such horrible conditions that a great many of them always died on the sea-journey over."
Yet it still seems a bit cruel, Mr Hoppy buying a whole bunch of tortoises of different sizes just to fool the woman he fancies. The tortoises might not mind - and they eat up the lettuce he gives them greedily and all live happily ever after. But there's still something uncomfortable about Mr Hoppy's plan. He tricks Mrs Silver into liking him.
This is a terrible cliche in stories and adverts for deodorant - that the way to a woman's heart is through subterfuge. It's not enough - as Mr Hoppy eventually does - to just stumble up to the lady in question and tell her that she's lovely. You need to contrive the Right Words and the Right Attitude and the Right Smell; you need to start lying to her from the start.
Something I read in the last few weeks (I've completely forgotten what) talked about the standard wheeze in masculine fiction being the chap winning the lady through adversity. He rescues her from a tower or a dragon, or survives a war. It makes getting together with a nice woman something decisive and acted, and suggests she gets no say in the matter. It happens too often in Bond films: Bond saves the day so the woman is his, without him ever winning her over himself.
Perish the thought that a woman might like you not because you stop villains or enlarge her tortoise (so to speak), but because she thinks you're nice.
Sunday 9 December 1660
6 hours ago