6 min read

No More Books

What Roald Dahl and a guinea pig taught me about death.
No More Books

Gillian was especially quiet that morning.

Usually, I rose early, drew my curtains and reached for a book to start the day. My parents had forbade me from going downstairs too early and making my own breakfast after an unfortunate incident with the toaster and some porridge.

Gillian typically greeted the day with some gentle noises and readjustments of her sleeping quarters and I would normally begin my day reading by her side - usually a Roald Dahl story - while she squeaked and moved the hay around in the cage.

Gillian was a guinea pig - my first pet.

Looking back, it seems like rather a grown-up name for a guinea pig. CEOs and secretaries and actors are called Gillian. A squat, domesticated rodent from the Andean region of South America is not.

That particular morning, her unusual silence intrigued me, so I set down my book and peered into the cage, which was positioned on a small white cupboard. While standing on tip-toes, I opened the cage and reached inside.

Gillian was as stiff as a board and quite clearly dead. She felt like a small oblong of wood that someone had glued fur to. She made no noise. I calmly shut the cage and went to wake my parents up.


My parents seemed to be afraid of death, but I was not.

I did not understand what the fuss about death was. Sure, my Grandad hadn't come back yet, but he was probably enjoying his time in heaven. Mum said that he'd worked hard all his life, so it made sense if he didn't want to come back immediately.

Even at a young age - I was eight when Gillian died - it was clear to me that my parents were doing a fine job at protecting me. They were among the good ones, the grown-ups that could be trusted. As long as they didn't die, I wouldn't die either.

It was somewhat confusing to me that my pet had died though, because I had looked after her.

I always made sure she had fresh hay. My parents and I would buy it from the pet shop. I had read that sharp pieces of straw could poke a guinea pig in the eye and do serious damage, so we never bought that. I had cleaned the algae from her water bottle and I had washed dandelion leaves from the garden.

After Mum had been shopping, she would give me a carrot which I would wash, pulling the red stool up to reach the sink. I would toss the carrot into the cage and Gillian would immediately and energetically chew at the vegetable, jerking it around the cage in her excitement.

So, no, I had not killed Gillian. I had looked after Gillian. But I had also not protected her from dying and that did not feel good. I did not cry, but I felt something else.

I knocked on my parent's bedroom door, told them that Gillian was dead, and asked whether we could expect Gillian to come back, or was she gone somewhere to be looked after like her babies Chalky and Rusty.


It was Roald Dahl that taught me that adults are not always the authorities they seem.

I devoured his books. He wrapped up darkness in delight and invested me in the hopes of quiet, heroic children like poor Charlie Bucket or lonely Matilda, pint-sized protagonists from difficult backgrounds.

On the inside covers of his books were pictures of all the other books he had written and I had read every single one. They were all lined up on my bookshelf. I had read some of them multiple times; I knew passages by heart.

I loved Roald Dahl's inventive language, the playful, alliterative names like Willy Wonka or Boggis, Bunce and Bean, characters who were forever biffsquiggling or whizzpopping. His stories were full of secret plans and plots and I learned that the world was not always as it seemed to be. But the lesson that stayed with me was that adults were not to be trusted.

The sum total of my extensive life experiences, aged eight, backed this up.

When the hairdresser cut my ear, the blood trickled quickly down my neck and splashed onto the wooden plank he had perched me upon, the wooden plank he had retrieved from behind the door and lain across upon the armrests of the grown-up barber's chair. He told me not to worry, it was an accident, it would stop soon. He gave me a packet of Polo mints, but I knew.

And when my headmistress pulled me up for talking in class and told all my classmates that I was very noisy for a boy whose parents had complained that he was being bullied by someone from the year above, it confirmed things. These people could not be trusted with anything, least of all information.

Some of the humans in Roald Dahl's stories, like Matilda's teacher, Miss Jennifer Honey, or the father of Danny, Champion of the World, were good.

But even one of my good humans, a teacher called Mr Reet, let me down. I was tired of being called wingnut and had heard about an operation that could pin your ears back. I wanted to know if I was too young to get the operation. But he had already driven home in his convertible Saab. I waited until it was dark but he didn't show up and I ran home.

Roald Dahl was right, I concluded: you cannot trust a grown-up. He was one of the good ones, he was looking after me.

It was the teachers, barbers, and pet shop owners that were not to be trusted.


The pet shop owner was distracted when we arrived. When I pointed a sticky finger at a plump guinea pig with bright eyes and short hair, he unceremoniously grabbed it from the cage and held the squeaking animal briefly up to the light as though looking for a watermark.

"Is it a boy or a girl?" I asked.

"Male, I think." He flipped it over and squinted.

"Are you sure?"

"Yep, that's a boy."

"Good. I want to call him Gilbert," I said.

"Really?" said Mum.

"Yes," I replied. "Gilbert the Guinea Pig."

Several weeks later, Gilbert had babies.

After some thought, he was given a new pronoun and a new name. "Gillian," I said.

"Really?" said Mum.

"Gillian the Guinea Pig."



I was not allowed to name Gillian's babies. My Dad called them Chalky and Rusty on account of their colour. Safe neutral names, no mistakes to be made there.

We put them in a shoebox with some hay and drove them to a family in Sleaford. I wanted to keep them but Dad said we hadn't the space. They never came back and neither did Gillian.

Roald Dahl introduced me to the finality of death. In James and the Giant Peach, the boy's parents are killed by a rhinoceros that escapes from London Zoo. In Danny, the Champion of the World, Danny's mother dies when he is four months old. The Witches opens with the boy’s parents dying in a car accident in Norway, leaving him in the care of his grandmother. None of those people came back.

The Witches ends with the unnamed protagonist - a boy who has been turned into a mouse -  being told by his grandmother that, because he is a mouse, he will only live for nine more years. She says that she is old and that she will probably only live that long too.

Gillian hadn't gone somewhere to be looked after like Chalky and Rusty. Dead meant gone forever.


When my Mum came up to my room, I was doing my homework. She showed me the newspaper. There was a headline, and a picture of Roald Dahl. He looked old.

"What is the article about?" I asked.

"Roald Dahl has died. He was very poorly.” She pointed at my bookshelf. “He was a great writer.”

"What does it mean?" I asked.

"It's very sad," said my Mum. "It means you can be sad."

I looked around the room. The guinea pig cage was still on top of the white cupboard, but it was empty. I looked at the bookshelves.

"Roald Dahl won’t write any more books now, will he?" I asked, knowing the answer.

In Roald Dahl's books, adults were not just untrustworthy. They were frequently cruel. And it was their own weaknesses that made them cruel. Their greatest failings were being weak and they compensated with evil intent and cruel actions.

Though the man who taught me about death passed, his legacy lives on. For many he is the greatest children's storyteller of all time. However, for others, his anti-semitic outbursts and racist views make this adoration understandably hard to stomach.

If I were a better writer with more time, I'd have tried to address this in the piece. Complicity and revisionism is something I addressed, with difficulty and some success, in Far Beyond Driven.

Roald Dahl's stories work because they expose children to distressing situations. Through them, children are introduced to the more uncomfortable sides of human nature.

For adults, his legacy does the same.

Thanks to Christine Cauthen, Rhishi Pethe, Peter Houston, Siobhan Bamber, and Hannah Storm for the edits and interventions. Thanks to Julia for being one of the good ones.