Sunday, 4 September 2016

from Rewind: a reinvention of my mother

Magda at the hospital in Altenburg, after recovery

It may be that in the moments, minutes and hours of extreme suffering all one’s energy and attention is devoted to survival not to what might happen after the suffering stopped. It would have taken enormous will and concentration on Magda’s part, just to keep going. That would be followed by exhaustion, then more work and suffering. Little by little the relief provided by thoughts of the past, of others, of those loved, of other people’s stories or songs or jokes, fades away. Then comes the sick bay, the hovering between life and death in a state of starved semi-consciousness.  Then the slide towards death.

Then everyone leaves. You are starving. The dying around you continue to die.


The Americans arrive.  There is the sensation of being lifted up and examined, of being carried by truck to a hospital, of being lowered into a clean bed -  a proper bed! - then more examinations, the examinations more careful, more tender, the voices quieter, the light sweeter, the sight of ever more healthy bodies moving around a ward, the dawning to consciousness of spring, to breeze and warmth and scent. There is food, a carefully gradated increase in diet, the return of taste and smell beyond filthy rotting flesh. The touch and feel of knife and fork and spoon and plate. The relative softness of cloth, the sheer cleanliness, followed by the slow rediscovery of the body as pleasure, the rediscovery of the propriety of one’s own self. Look! Dark hair, an emaciated face beginning to fill out, a body regaining its shape, the sense of being a woman in a world of women and men, not a walking corpse. There are unfamiliar voices, a strange language, a dramatic change in the manners of other people entailing the recovery and repossession of a social hierarchy that comradeship in suffering has modified so the relationship between professor and street-cleaner is never quite the same again.

After the sudden switching off of the suffering machine there is the sheer numbness, the haze of recovery, that suspension of time between events when you know next to nothing of one moment’s relationship to another, when it’s all present tense, a succession of present tenses without context. Then there is George’s proposal of marriage  the arrival of dresses from America.

I am inventing her again, but only to a degree. What I imagine here is not specific to her, it is only a guess, possibly a wrong one, about the process of recovery in general, albeit in a specific place, in Altenburg, Mid-Saxony, spring 1945. It is an invention I can only justify by claiming that any knowledge is partly invention, that memory is mostly invention, and that knowledge of another is invention in the highest degree. Then I must go on to claim that invention can be a form of tenderness. We address our human inventions with the same solicitude with which we address any other of our own inventions. We even invent ourselves though with far less security. We keep inventing and inventing, growing tired of our inventions. We should reinvent ourselves occasionally, we think, sometimes even drastically. But in doing so we destroy other people’s inventions of us. We have to invent everything all over again and so do they. That is a serious responsibility.

I am interested in her so I go on inventing her, inventing a truth I can believe in about her. I invent nothing factual. I don’t make it up, but the person at the core of it all still has to be constructed and understood in terms of invention.

The trick is to invent the truth.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Penig Diary 3


Wednesday 24 August

We pack and have our last breakfast at the hotel. The sun is blazing outside and the river looks more beautiful than ever. At 10am Tobi, Ringo and Jakob call for us for the the trip to Chemnitz which is less than half an hour’s drive. Jakob tells us about his current course which is switching to Chemnitz from Leipzig because Leipzig was not right for some reason. He is quite a shy boy but maintains a certain cool while remaining very friendly. He is slowly becoming himself. His English is very good. 

Chemnitz was Karl-Marx-Stadt after the war till 1989 when it reverted to its earlier name. It was heavily bombed during the war and the city centre destroyed so it was entirely re-planned on the socialist, post-Bauhaus model, more with blocks than streets, the streets wide and arranged in grids. “Chemnitz is an attractive city which pleases the eye. At first sight its "face" is perhaps a little bit austere, but then it becomes more and more friendly,” says the website. In so far as austerity can possess a kind of gaiety Chemnitz has it. Large as it is it doesn’t look busy. and the marvellous Gunzenhauser collection is practically empty but for us. It is a treasure trove of mostly German artists from Impressionism, through Die Brucke, Der Blaue Reiter, the Neue Sachlichkeit and Expressionism with a comprehensive group of works by Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, but also Jawlensky, Münter, Schmidt-Rottluff, Heckel, Kirchner, Felixmüller and three by Paula Modersohn-Becker (would there were more!) Discoveries for us included Georg Schrimpf and, in the temporary exhibition, Reza Derakshani. We wandered around almost alone, starting at the top and descending the red staircase that  the banker-collector Gunzenhauser insisted on, floor by floor. 

Then we walked into what would have been and in its way still was the centre, by the old Rathaus, but the old buildings are oddments among the cubes of concrete and glass, the limited gaiety of which was down to what is probably the fabled sense of German precision.  We stopped to pay homage to the vast granite head of Karl Marx in front of his most famous words, Workers of the World Unite, engraved on the wall behind him in various languages, although the English version used a different translation.


The GDR wasn’t loathed by everyone, nor was it all humourlessly stern. Our friends had been socialists before the fall of the wall and they were the same socialists now, all kindness, sweetness and good humane intention. They were, after all all, our hosts. It is still possible to be socialist in that humane sense and live in hope that the world might be more equally divided and that Nazi crimes be honestly addressed.  They carry on working to that end even now, against the odds both in larger political terms and in localised conservative terms. And I must admit that when I consider Hungary, I myself sometimes prefer the Hungary of the pre-1989 period to the one currently represented by Viktor Orbán and his sub-fascist nationalist administration. I even think I preferred the people as they were then, squeezed together as they were by a common condition that was hardly affluent, somewhat chaotic and certainly not free from corruption but somehow tolerable because it was shared, to the ever more savage and hostile society that has since emerged.

It was hot, very hot where there was no shade. A party was being planned in one of the two main squares and marquees were being erected. Two human statues stood apparently suspended in mid air but they had dismantled their apparatus by the time we returned to them. 

We drove back the way we had come and on towards Leipzig and the airport, dropping Jakob off at his flat in a poorer part of the old city, something of a ghetto with boarded windows and graffiti but hardly dangerous, according to Jakob. Our farewells were long and warm. Tobi gave us a jar of home made honey that security allowed through.  The metal pins inside my chest holding my ribcage together had been picked up by X-ray at Stansted but caused no problem here. We waited a couple of hours, ate a canteen-style meal, sipped a vodka and nibbled a small piece of chocolate before settling down to read or solve puzzles. I carried on with Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, returning to it after over forty years: melodramatic prose, childish metaphysics, wilful paradox but with a mad, almost surreal streak, like Fantomas’s English catholic maiden aunt, sweetly, grandiosely barmy and inconsequently entertaining.

Then the plane arrived with the jolliest, self-consciously ragged Ryan Air crew I have yet come across and a couple of male passengers near us, possibly off-duty soldiers, harmlessly larking about, and chatting up a pretty girl I took to be Indian but who might have been Syrian. She seemed to be enjoying it. We got home about 1am. I stowed away the invaluable memory-stick, reassured the cat and fell asleep.

Jakob, Tobu, Clarissa, Ringo in Chemnitz

Tobi, Uli, Clarissa in Penig

Clarissa, Emilie in Penig (no pics of Jan and Janine, alas)

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Penig Diary 2

Monday, 3:20pm   Re: Sunday

What to make of it all? I am not sure I can answer that yet, if ever. We spent the morning at the hotel with Ringo, Tobi, Uli and Emilie going through a pile of documents. First we examine a plan of the camp as it was planned but not fully executed, together with an aerial photograph taken by a US plane on 13 April, two days before the camp was occupied by US troops and the remaining prisoners, that is to say those in the sick bay, some 80 women including my mother, were liberated and taken to the nearby Luftwaffe hospital in Altenburg. The rest (620) were marched off to Theresienstadt. Some (72) escaped along the way in the chaos, some died. What records say is that 13 women had already died at the camp, their bodies being buried just outside the camp fence, and that 17 died on the march. We don’t know what happened to those that arrived at Theresienstadt, but the information will be elsewhere.

Camp as planned, but not all huts built

As for Penig itself it was one of the 136 sub-camps of Buchenwald. It was opened on 9 January 1945 and settled by seven hundred women transported from Ravensbruck by train on 10 January. The plan was standard throughout the German territories, standard huts, of standard measuremen (36.55 metres x 8 metres), each with the standard three level cribs. There seem to have been six or seven huts plus a sick bay, and a hut for the guards who comprised both local people and the SS. It was surrounded by an electric fence and had at least one watchtower. There were no washing facilities at the camp, nor was there food or heating. Food and washing were provided by the Max Gehrt aeroplane-parts factory where the women worked, perched on stools or standing, in three shifts of 06.00-14:00,14:00-22:00 and 22:00-06:00 so the factory was working 24 hours a day, seven days a week,  at full capacity.  Also at the camp, as prisoners, were three women from Leipzig as medical staff.  (There were times when ⅙ of the work force were too ill to work.) The deal seems to have been that the factory was short of workers, all the men being on the front, so it approached Ravensbruck to provide 700 prisoners as workforce and the camp was built with that purpose in mind. The women chosen were all Hungarian and mostly on the basis of skill, or whatever skill they said they had. The women were not tattooes at this stage as that took long and were simply given nubers that had to be stitched to their light uniforms. There were a few Ukrainians and Poles added from sources nearby. Among the guards there were some Hungarian Swabians.

One of the valuable documents Ringo showed was the timeline, which made it clear that the Hungarian women were deported from Budapest to Ravensbruck on the 8th and 9th November 1944, so my mother must have spent at least two months at Ravensbruck before being transferred to Penig (incidentally, pronounced by locals as Pay-niche). What did the people of Penig know about this? There were certainly some local people working alongside the prisoners  so they must have known, as would those who saw over 200 women march through the streets three times a day, seven days of the week.

Ringo made it clear I could take away as much material as I liked but we would need another suitcase for that so I made a quick selection. More was to be added to that the next day (today, as I write this).

All this is information that I note down and absorb.

After this we went to lunch. It had been sunny but it began to rain as we sat outside so moved the table under cover. Ringo, it turned out, was the manager of a village football team playing a first round cup match that day so he kept in occasional touch by phone. They ended winning 7-1.

Walking from factory to camp

First we walked to the factory, a little way inside town up quite a steep hill. We examined the site, now vacant, looked at photographs of the factory as it was in 2011 just before demolition, by which time it was unoccupied. We passed hardly anyone in the street.

Then we set out for the camp. It was well over an hour’s walk almost all uphill on the side of a highway, past fields of maize, a restaurant, a quarry. It was slow going with a heavy rain cloud, clearly alrready precipitating ahead of us to our right. We missed it. It grew hot when the sun was out and cooled as soon as it disappeared behind clouds. A solitary black cat in a field was absorbed in watching for its prey in the grass. Cars shot past us.

The camp was built a long way from the factory and off the road in order to keep its existence secret, though it couldn’t have been secret for long. The long march between camp and factory went past houses of the period and plenty would have seen it. The chief lesson of the march for me was the thought of women marching all that way up and down hill, in every seasonal condition, while suffering from hunger, fatigue and disease. It seemed impossible. While Penig was a work camp not an extermination camp the eventual aim was to exterminate all prisoners once they had served their purpose. They would have exhausted that purpose pretty soon.

It was down a lane surrounded by birch trees at the end of which there was simply a block of granite, recording the site as a sub-camp of Buchenwald. There was nothing left of it except the area itself, at the centre of which a show-jumping course was prepared. People came here for fun now. Equipment related to show-jumping was stacked one side. There was just one hut which was not original but built on the foundations of an original so of the same dimensions. It was that that took my attention, it being the only object around which some coherent feeling might form. I am not sure it did, or rather that the feeling, such as it was, was coherent, but I felt drawn back to the hut once we had passed it. I imagined sitting on the steps with my mother and talking to her but it was a faint image, nothing I could grasp.

We climbed a patch through more trees to get to the back of the site and compared what we saw there with the plan and the aerial photograph. It was easy enough to see where the buildings would have been.  We stood at the top, talking, looking around then came down. It was of course odd to see the show jumping course at the heart of it.  Once a year, said Ringo, there is a commemoration attended by some, but most people prefer not to think of it, or of the past at all. Penig was not bombed, there was no street fighting, only at the outskirts. It could continue its existence in full beauty, albeit without most of its men who were, of course, engaged in fighting doomed last ditch battles against Russians and Americans.

Path between levels in the camp.

Hard to know what to make of all this. After walking back, taking a short cut that did not exist in 1945, we drove to dinner in a fine Italian restaurant in a beautiful spot, just overlooking a beautiful small town. There we talked of what we experienced. Ringo said he felt ashamed that his grandparents should have allowed it to happen. Shame, I suggested, was not the best feeling for people of his generation, because shame leads to resentment. Rather than focusing on the guilt of the criminals it is better to remember the humanity of the prisoners, and to consider their lives before - and after, if they survived. Build the archive out of them, for them, as a memorial. Celebrate and lament a common humanity. And don’t remember the prisoners as primarily Jews or as Hungarians, though clearly they were both things and were there precisely because they were such. Better, I said, to remember them a fellow human beings with lives like ours.

I don’t know how far I thought or felt that through. I certainly didn’t want Ringo and his friends, or indeed any German of that generation to feel shame, though I did not want to spare the generation of perpetrators any shame or guilt. I  do think the Holocaust was a unique event in that it was a coldly efficient attempt to exterminate, with the maximum humiliation,  anyone ‘infected’ by up to the three generations, wherever they were, not just in one country, an entire race of people who had suffered cycle after cycle of persecution, and to wipe all memory of them from the earth so no one would know they ever existed.

Nevertheless, I am not quite sure that it is worth making that distinction as regards the fate of individual victims, whether they were Jews, or Roma or sickly or gay. The distinctions were the problem in the first place. It may be better and more useful for us think of one set of human beings inflicting terrible suffering on other human beings, to concentrate on what unites rather than divides us.

But that is easy for me to say, and it sounds a little pious as it comes out of my mouth. Just talking about it makes me suspicious of my mouth.

Penig Diary 1

Saturday 20 August to morning 21 August

Flight lands at 10:40, about half an hour late, in Leipzig. Ringo, Tobias and Uli immediately recognise us. They don’t speak much English between them but we do manage to talk along the hour’s drive to Penig, taking a slight detour through the streets of Leipzig, a handsome city where the artists of the New Leipzig School worked and continue to work.

The camp at Penig was opened, Ringo tells us, in January 1945, which is when my mother arrived. It housed some 700 Hungarian women, one of whom Rózsa Deutsch is still alive. Deutsch kept a diary after 1945 so they could talk in depth to her in German Otherwise they haven’t got very far. There are only five in the group and they have been operating for only three years. All are in their forties now so roughly the age of our own children. Ringo is an engineer, Uli teaches in a nursery and Tobias works with children-in-care. Ringo, sitting next to me, mutters under his breath in German when trying to think of a phrase in English. I wish I spoke German but I did Latin at school instead. My father spoke it pretty fluently and he also had some Russian. Me? Some French, and reasonably fluent Hungarian. We should, as Michael Hoffman writes in today’s Guardian, speak more languages.

We pass a couple of cooling towers and a laser display, then some slag hills marking an old mine now a resort. Nothing to see of landscape except that it is relatively flat. Highways at night are much the same everywhere. It is dark, the journey smooth, the conversation dying eventually for lack of linguistic energy. The landscape is no longer as flat.

The strangest thing is suddenly seeing the name Penig appear on a road sign. The name becomes a place. We are entering the name. We turn off the dual carriageway and make our way into further dark, finally entering the small town whose population is less that Wymondham’s, under 10,000, but which looks as though it’s longer and wider geographically. 

We wind our way through until we come to a bridge over a river, the Zwickauer-Mulde. We take a narrow cobbled lane straight after and proceed along the bank for some thirty yards before arriving at the hotel where we are greeted by another of the group, Janine, a tall friendly woman of roughly the same age as the rest. She shows us to our room. It is large, simple and clean. The windows open on to the river and the constant rushing sound of the weir / filter / electricity generator  that is directly under us. It sounds like steady rain and takes some time to get used to it but once we are asleep we remain asleep.

It is only in the morning we actually see what is outside. It is idyllic, a lovely town with gardens, the river wide and clear with dense lines of trees further down the bank. The beauty is a startling counterpoint to the horrors that took place at the camp, where my mother spent three months working at the nearby airplane factory, wearing wooden shoes or no shoes at all in the snow, in the thin summer uniform provided, marching miles to get there, working long hours then marching back in ranks of five, the most tired often asleep or half-asleep, in the middle, supported  by the two on either side.

Breakfast downstairs, the room again handsome, clear, healthy. Clarity in light, clarity in order, clarity in language, everything cleanly articulated: spotless. There is just one other couple present, Germans set for a cycling tour. The cook speaks no English but we manage. After bright sun we now have light cloud. The plan is to walk to the site of the factory, then to the concentration camp and back.

I am not sure what I feel. Curious. A little apprehensive partly because of what I might feel but also because of what I might not feel.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

My father's birth and childhood

My father as a baby

My father would have been ninety-nine today. I have posted excerpts from the conversations I had with him after my mother's death both here and on Facebook. Those concerned the war but, since this is his birthday, I am posting a few paragraphs about his birth and early childhood.

I was born in Budapest, in a small clinic in Ferencváros, the IXth District, in 1917, the first child of my parents’ 
marriage in 1916. Two and a half years later came my sister, and two and a half years after that my little brother, who was to be killed in the accident. [He was on a school excursion, and was killed in a sand slide on the shore of Lake Balaton. – GS] That was while I was in summer camp. My parents, like many others, couldn’t afford a family holiday

At the time I was born my father was working in a leather and shoe factory in Újpest on the outskirts of Budapest where he had to travel about eight miles a day by tram. He had to be in the factory by 7 am so had to start off at 6 and get up at 5. He was a cutter, that is to say he cut up the leather. This was a skilled manual job. My mother did sewing at home to earn more money. She got work through friends, by word of mouth, never advertised. 

I was not brought up by them though but by my paternal grandparents and their two sisters – that is after my own sister was born. My parents had a very small flat and that is why they were quite happy for me to stay there, especially after the birth of my younger brother. It was pretty difficult in those days to bring up a family. My father’s salary was very low, and my mother could do less sewing once she had two children to look after. The arrangement continued until I finished school when I went back to my parents.

I didn’t mind, I loved the arrangement. My grandparents were old gentle people. Grandfather was a tailor and had a small workshop very near their flat. He had two men working for him and he himself worked there until he was seventy-three years old and could barely see. He loved the family and his grandchildren, especially me for some reason. I was very pampered. I was the little bright chap of the family and they spoiled me. Every day my aunties would go down to the confectioner’s to get me a bit of pastry or mignon to put on the table for when I got home from school at about one o’clock and there was always that bit of mignon waiting there for me on the plate. They were very proud of me because I had good school results. My name was printed in capital letters in the yearly report of the school. 

Grandfather was a tall man with white hair, moustache and beard. He looked like a nobleman. Grandmother was a small woman, usually dressed in the customary black. She was a very good cook. The flat was in Eötvös utca and consisted of two rooms, a kitchen, a little hall and an outside toilet. No bathroom. The rooms were pretty dark, on the first floor of a four storey house, looking down to the yard. They lived about ten minutes walk from my parents’ so I would often look in at home, but more often they would come over to visit me at the grandparents’ flat. 

It was my aunts who had particular care of me. Riza was born in 1884, Tini looked older but was the youngest of five. She walked badly but loved shopping at the local shops. They’d buy half a kilo of bread every day, and 5dk of butter, ½ kilo of cooking fat, and milk of course since there was no milkman to deliver milk. She’d carry the milk home each morning in a jug. The milk didn’t come in bottles but in big churns and it was all used up each day as we had no means of keeping things cool. There were refrigerators that worked on ice sold by icemen which consisted of a tin compartment equipped with a tap through which the melted ice ran out into a bucket but we didn't have one of those. 

I remember very little of my father and mother. They were both busy then. He looked like me, was never very elegant, wore a trilby and tie, dark suits and went clean shaven. He had dark hair, no moustache, a big nose (just like mine) and had had a bad operation when he was sixteen or seventeen and it left a two inch scar under his left eye. My mother was quite an attractive woman for the times. 

I visited her parents every couple of weeks.  Her father was already ill with cancer and couldn't move. I’d often sit by his bedside and he’d tell me stories from the Bible or the Torah. He was quite religious. He had a long snow-white beard and I found him a very attractive man. They had eleven children, but I didn’t very much like my mother’s sisters. They were mostly older than her. There were two brothers and nine sisters but by the time I was born only seven of the girls were still alive. They were all married bar one, and one was divorced and lived with her parents. By the time I was born Giza néni, the oldest, was about 45 years old.

The old man used to be a painter and decorator with a little business. I remember very well when he died – it was my first meeting with death and made a terrific impression on me. I was about 12. I attended the funeral at the cemetery. I couldn’t cry. I didn’t know what it was about, seeing people crying.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Return to Budapest 1945

My father as goalkeeper, 3rd from right, front row

An excerpt from the transcribed tape of my father talking about his life. This is now 1945 and he is home in Budapest. Béla Boschán was my father's last employer before the forced labour brigades began. He offered my father work after he was dismissed from relatively humble post to post because he was a Jew.

"So we were back in Eötvös u. It was January and very cold, as is usual in Hungary at that time. Snow and frost. People were starving. There was a ceramic stove in the flat which heated two rooms. It worked on fuel, which was difficult to get. We didn’t do much in the next few days. We looked around the house for any food that might have been left there. Every now and again we heard the boom of large calibre guns.

I began to think of how to make a living. I remembered that the area where I had worked with Boschán was in a reasonable state so, about a week after settling down, I walked over there to see if I could find anybody. It was all in one piece but I found a note stuck on the door to the basement to the effect that if anyone wanted to start working they should report next Monday. The firm was called Boschán Ignácz, Vízvezeték és Központi Fűtés Szerelő Vállalat. [Ignácz Boschán, Plumbing and Central Heating Company] So I returned on the Monday morning and found Béla, who was of course my friend. We embraced each other, happy to be alive, and I learned that his two brothers, who were the ones with engineering qualifications – one had a university degree, the other had finished high school – had perished. Béla did the office and bookkeeping and he asked me if I would consider starting up the business in junior partnership with him and his brother’s wife. I said yes, I would do that, because I needed to earn some money quickly. It must have been mid-February, 1945.

Boschán’s workshop was in Honvéd u, very near the Vígszinház [Comedy Theatre]. It was mainly a store for materials, plant and tools, but there were a couple of machines there for bending aluminium, lead and zinc sheets – roof work. The cellar was divided into office, workshop, and store. Béla had also been in labour camp in the Ukraine and was extremely lucky because in his particular group over half were killed, mainly by typhoid. The rest were brought back. They were somehow dispersed in Eastern Hungary and no attempt was made to take them to Germany.

Sooner or later, two or three of the old work force reported for work – plumbers, heating fitters, and so on. At that time it was still quite risky to walk in the city because the Russian soldiers were not very selective and if they felt like taking a few people off the streets they just took them.
The behaviour of the Russian troops, even allowing for the fact that this was war time, was not as civilised as we hoped. They got a bad reputation for what they did in Budapest during the war. Of course, they were not as well-organised or as cold-blooded as the Germans had been, but they were so unpredictable that people were afraid. They changed moods from one moment to the other. I had little experience of this directly since we were rarely raided. I remember once when two young Russian soldiers came round demanding watches but we lived on the fourth floor and by the time they got to the second floor they had quite a collection and were happy. The majority of the liberating Russian forces did not come from Central Russia but from Uzbekhistan, Turkestan, Kazakhstan and Siberia. Some of them, possibly the majority, were very good hearted, but very childish and quite unsophisticated, therefore dangerous.

The city was full of them. My brother-in-law, Zoli, who came back from a camp in Transylvania, was walking on the street three days after he had returned. That day the Russians rounded up some 200 people, bundled them on to a lorry, and took them to barracks with a view to deporting most of them. Zoli, who was about 27 and had just suffered three years in labour camp, was rounded up with them. However he was ‘lucky’: he had stomach trouble and about half a day after he was locked up he started vomiting and the Russians were so worried that he might be carrying some infection that they kicked him out.

They deported about 110,000 people at this time from Budapest alone. I know of other people who were suddenly surrounded by a Russian patrol and taken off to Russia. There was no rhyme or reason in it."

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Spielberg's The BFG: Rethinking Dahl

We took the children to see Spielberg's The BFG this afternoon with Mark Rylance as the Big Friendly Giant and Ruby Barnhill as the child, Sophie. We all loved it. It was funny, beautifully inventive, superbly acted by both main actors, wonderfully visualised and full of a warmth I hadn't really associated with Dahl.

I don't think we ever read The BFG to our own children when they were young. We certainly read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach and George's Marvellous Medicine as well as a number of the shorter books. I think the children read The BFG for themselves.

I remember I had ambivalent feelings about Dahl. His work seemed all about appetite and full of cruelty, revenge, and an overindulgence in the childhood desire to shock. I had reservations about Michael Rosen too. If Dahl was about appetite, Rosen seemed to me to be about gangs and crowds united in some escapade. There seemed very little sense of the individual isolated from the crowd. I wanted more of that.

I think it may have been a case of prissiness on my part. The fact is both Dahl and Rosen were, and remain, very popular with children themselves. They clearly understood some aspects of childhood far better than I did. My early school memories involved edging round threats rather than throwing myself full heartedly into group occasions. I had very little group confidence: the world was what existed in my head.

Whether it was prissiness or not though I was plainly wrong. Particularly about Dahl. It would be interesting to go back to the books now and read them again and more of them. Spielberg's Dahl certainly constitutes an invitation. Spielberg has a touch of Chagall. in his treatment of children and adults. By Chagall I mean the best of Chagall, the early younger artist for whom magic wasn't a form of sentimentality but a normal element of the given, perfectly real world.

The Dahl story-as-film could easily have been sentimental. A little girl in an orphanage is abducted by a magical creature, overcomes monsters and learns something about the world in the process. It could have been an 'uplifting', morally approvable soft fable. The little girl could have been the wrong kind of cute, the magical creature could have been a soppy cardboard cut-out and the monsters perfectly unthreatening. Any humour involved would have been incidental, a coy joke cutting this way or that on the general map of cute.

The underpinning principles of the tale: that innocence is never fully innocent and yet is vulnerable, that a child can imagine the adult world as a complex group of comforting, comical yet pathetic and threatening figures, that the developing imagination can take flight into the ridiculous and laugh full-heartedly at the vulgar - all this offers a persuasive vision of the world. The world is genuinely a dangerous place. Terrible giants are slumbering just under your feet. Courage and wit can help to see you through but they don't always do so. And there is something uproariously ridiculous about the whole project of being wise or good.

There are only two central characters in the film: a serious, psychologically mature child and a childish overgrown adult with certain limited powers. Rylance is superb. His understanding of his lines is extraordinarily subtle, and Barnhill as the girl is perfectly convincing as a proper girl not a Disney projection. The late episode about visiting the queen and the farting at breakfast is not just an interlude to make the children laugh: it is the Rabelaisan asserting itself in the halls of majesty, procedure and dignity.

The film is marvellous but the figure of Roald Dahl stands behind it. He is the truthful wild-child with a sense of humour, able to be both enchanted and ironic about the enchantment.