Friday, January 22, 2010

`Sweepings from the Butchers' Stalls'

For the past week we’ve been reading Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory aloud to students in the special-education center. Most have little understanding of the story but some enjoy the occasional songs, nonsense words and sound effects voiced by enthusiastic readers. My turn came with Chapter 24, “Veruca in the Nut Room,” in which an assembly line of discerning squirrels shells walnuts.

Veruca Salt is a pathologically selfish and spoiled little girl who demands that her parents, who are touring Willy Wonka’s factory with her, indulge every whim. In the Nut Room, Veruca resolves to take home one of the factory’s 100 squirrels. They have other ideas and deposit her in the garbage chute leading to the incinerator, followed by her parents. It’s the sort of justice we long for in real life but which occurs only in art. The Oompa-Loompas enter, singing a two-page song in rhyming couplets celebrating the fate of the Salts and other waste sent down the garbage chute. Here’s a selection:

“A bacon rind, some rancid lard,
A loaf of bread gone stale and hard,
A steak that nobody could chew,
An oyster from an oyster stew,
Some liverwurst so old and gray
One smelled it from a mile away,
A rotten nut, a reeky pear,
A thing the cat left on the stair,
And lots of other things as well,
Each with a rather horrid smell.”

The staff enjoyed Dahl’s doggerel, if not the kids. My sons, though rather fastidious about suspicious foods and smells, eat up this sort of thing in print. So do I, and between the couplets and offal I was reminded of another poem that revels in filth and noisomeness -- Jonathan Swift’s “Description of a City Shower” (1710), the conclusion in particular:

“Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odours seem to tell
What streets they sailed from, by the sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives, with rapid force
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood.”

Dahl and Swift savor catalogs of cloaca. Rarely, but sometimes, the humor of nasty little boys is more than just the humor of nasty little boys.

[I agree with much of what Nige wrote about Dahl several months ago. Based on my reading of Jeremy Treglown’s biography I understand that “Dahl was a nasty overgrown child…” yet still enjoy some of his books for children, especially The BFG. His stories for adults, some published in Playboy, are commercial rubbish.]

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