Roald Dahl, the son of Harald Dahl, shipbroker, and his second wife, Sofie Magdalene, was born at Villa Marie, Fairwater Road, Llandaff on His parents were prosperous Norwegians. His biographer, Philip Howard, has argued: "When Dahl was only three another beloved, older sister and his father died within two months of one another. This was the first in a series of catastrophes and mortal disasters that dogged his life, and, he claimed, gave his work a black savagery. His mother, a devoted matriarch, ran the family. In the summers she took them to Norway, where her family fostered Dahl's interest in insects and birds, Nordic trolls, and witches."
Roald Dahl was educated at Llandaff Cathedral School and Repton School. Fellow students have since commented on his "bullying humour and competitive spirit, and his hatred of authority". He clashed with Geoffrey Fisher, the headmaster of Repton. Dahl later recalled that the "hypocrisy of his headmaster's brutal beatings followed by pious sermons in Repton chapel cured him of any inclination towards Christianity."
Roald Dahl decided against going to university and after taking part in the Public Schools Exploring Society's expedition to Newfoundland he joined Royal Dutch Shell in 1934, and was sent to Tanganyika (Tanzania). On the outbreak of the Second World War he drove six hundred miles across jungle roads from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi to volunteer to join the Royal Air Force. He was told initially that at six feet six inches he was not "the ideal height" for a fighter pilot. As Jennet Conant, the author of The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington (2008), has pointed out: "When he climbed into the open cockpit of a Tiger Moth for the first time and took his seat on the regulation parachute pack, his entire head stuck out above the windshield like some kind of cartoon character. But he was not easily deterred. The war had just begun, pilots were in demand, and in the end the RAF was not too fussy to take him."
Roald Dahl was sent to Iraq where he learnt to handle a Hawker Hart, a military aircraft with machine guns in their wings. With less than a year of training he joined a squadron in Libya. Unfortunately he made "an unsuccessful forced landing" and crashed into the desert at 75 miles an hour. He managed to drag himself from the fuselage before the gas tanks exploded. His overalls caught fire but by rolling in the sand he only suffered minor burns. Dahl was taken to a hospital in Alexandria, where he spent six months recovering from a fractured skull and a damaged spine. He lost his sight for several weeks and suffered back pain for the rest of his life. His nose had to be rebuilt by a famous Harley Street plastic surgeon.
In April 1941 Dahl was passed fit and joined 80 Squadron based in Eleusis, Greece. Flying a Hawker Hurricane, for the next two weeks, he engaged the enemy as many as three or four times a day. He made several kills but completely outnumbered, they were forced to relocate to Haifa, on the coast of Palestine. His main role was to defend the British destroyers stationed in the harbour. Dahl managed to shoot down five enemy aircraft before he suffered a temporary blackout during a dog fight. The squadron doctor argued that gravitational pressure was taking a toll on his old head injury. As the RAF regarded his aircraft as valuable property, he was declared unfit to fly.
After a short spell on leave at his mother's home in Grendon Underwood. In March 1942, Roald Dahl was posted to Washington as assistant air attaché. Soon afterwards he began working for William Stephenson, the head of the British Security Coordination (BSC). Grace Garner, Stephenson's head secretary, claims that Dahl was for a while Stephenson's personal assistant. "Then I think he got rather bored with that and moved back to Washington and after that he wasn't in the New York office very much." Other members of the organisation included Charles Howard Ellis, H. Montgomery Hyde, Ian Fleming, Ivar Bryce, David Ogilvy, Paul Denn, Eric Maschwitz, Giles Playfair, Cedric Belfrage,Benn Levy, Noël Coward, Sydney Morrell and Gilbert Highet.
Roald Dahl claims that William Stephenson told him that BSC managed to record the conversations of Japanese special envoy Suburu Kurusu with others in the Japanese consulate in November 1941. Marion de Chastelain was the cipher clerk who transcribed these conversations. On 27th November, 1941, William Stephenson sent a telegram to the British government: "Japanese negotiations off. Expect action within two weeks." According to Dahl, who worked for BSC: "Stephenson had tapes of them discussing the actual date of Pearl Harbor... and he swears that he gave the transcription to FDR. He swears that they knew therefore of the oncoming attack on Pearl Harbor and hadn't done anything about it.... I have no way to judge if he was telling the truth, except Bill didn't usually tell stories like that."
While in New York City Dahl was approached by Cecil Scott Forester, who was working for the British Information Services (BIS) and encouraged to write about his wartime experiences to be used as propaganda. Dahl's romanticized version of his plane crash appeared in the Saturday Evening Post under the misleading title Shot down over Libya . In it Dahl informed his readers that his Hawker Hart had been brought down in flames by a burst of machine-gun fire.
Dahl also wrote a story called Gremlin Lore about a pilot named Gus whose plane is sabotaged by a little six-inch creature bearing a large drill, who damages his engine. Dahl's story introduced the idea of gremlins, a tribe of tiny mythical rogues who live amid the clouds, riding on the fighter planes and bombers. The RAF had for many years blamed everything that went wrong with their aircraft as being caused by "gremlins". Sidney Bernstein of the BIS sent the unpublished story to Walt Disney, suggesting that it would make a good animated film. It was also sent to Random House and it was published as The Gremlins: A Royal Air Force Story.
One of Dahl's tasks given to him by William Stephenson was to spy on Henry Wallace. A close friend, Charles Edward Marsh, managed to get hold of a briefing paper written by Wallace. It called for "the emancipation of colonial subjects in the British Empire countries of India, Burma, and Malaya, and the French Empire of Indo-China, and the Dutch Empire in the East Indies." Stephenson passed this information to Winston Churchill who then took it up with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the 1944 presidential election Wallace was replaced on the Roosevelt ticket by Harry Truman.
At the end of the Second World War the files of British Security Coordination were packed onto semitrilers and transported to Camp X in Canada. Stephenson wanted to have some record of the activities of the agency, "To provide a record which would be available for reference should future need arise for secret activities and security measures for the kind it describes." He recruited Dahl, H. Montgomery Hyde, Giles Playfair, Gilbert Highet and Tom Hill, to write the book. Stephenson told Dahl: "We don't dare to do it in the United States, we have to do it on British territory... He pulled a lot over Hoover... He pulled a few things over the White House, too, now and again. I wrote a little bit but eventually I called Bill and told him that it's an historian's job... This famous history of the BSC through the war in New York was written by Tom Hill and a few other agents." Only twenty copies of the book were printed. Ten went into a safe in Montreal and ten went to Stephenson for distribution.
After the war Stephenson bought a house, Hillowton, on Jamaica overlooking Montego Bay. Roald Dahl often visited Stephenson and his wife. "Stephenson had an extraordinary relationship with his wife... He loved her and they had a very, very good marriage... but she was frightened of him." Lord Beaverbrook, who also had a house on the island, often visited him: "He was a close friend, a really genuinely close friend of Beaverbrook. I've been in Beaverbrook's house in Jamaica with him and they were absolutely like that (crossing his fingers)... A couple of old Canadian millionaires who were both pretty ruthless." He also kept in close contact with Henry Luce, Hastings Ismay and Frederick Leathers. His friends recalled that he was drinking heavily. Marion de Chastelain commented that "he made the wickedest martini that was ever made". Coward referred to him often having "too many martinis".
Roald Dahl managed to have several of his short stories, published in the New Yorker and Harper's Magazine. As Philip Howard has pointed out: "They were horrific, fantastic, and unbelievable. Lapsed vegetarians do not commonly find themselves being slit up for sausage-meat in a homely abattoir, nor do babies fed on royal jelly turn into bees. In a typical Dahl story a woman clubs her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb and then feeds it to the detectives who have come to search for the murder weapon, or a rich woman goes on a cruise, leaving her husband to perish in an elevator stuck between two floors in an empty house." A collection of his stories, Someone Like You, was published in 1953.
Dahl married the film star, Patricia Neal in 1953. The couple had four children. Their son Theo was brain-damaged at the age of four months when he was tipped out of his pram in New York City and fell under a cab. His skull was smashed and he was not expected to live. However, working with an aircraft designer of hydraulic pumps, Dahl pioneered the Wade-Dahl-Till Valve. This non-blocking valve drains fluid from the brain and helped Theo with his medical problems. A second disaster hit the family when a daughter, Olivia contracted a rare form of measles aged seven and died of encephalitis.
Roald Dahl continued to have success with his stories. A second collection of his work, Kiss, Kiss, appeared in 1960. Dahl also began writing for television and his stories appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected. He then turned to writing books for children. This included James and the Giant Peach (1967). This was followed by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, filmed in 1971 as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Other books by Dahl include Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1973), Danny, the Champion of the World (1975), The Enormous Crocodile (1978), The Twits (1980), George's Marvellous Medicine (1981) and Revolting Rhymes (1980).
Although popular with the public, his work was attacked by educationalists. One critic called his work "cheap, tasteless, ugly, sadistic" and another described them as "incipient fascism". Margaret Meek, an expert on children's literature, and the author of How Texts Teach What Readers Learn (1987), has argued: "I do not trust Dahl as implicitly as his young readers do, because I find his view of life seriously flawed by a particular kind of intolerance." The Witches (1983) was accused of racism, sadism and misanthropy, and removed from some school libraries.
Roald Dahl admitted that he appealed to children's baser instincts: "When you are born you are a savage, an uncivilised little grub, and if you are going to go into our society by the age of ten, then you have to have good manners and know all the do's and don'ts - don't eat with your fingers and don't piss on the floor. All that stuff has to be hammered into the savage, who resents it deeply. So subconsciously in the child's mind these giants become the enemy. That goes particularly for parents and teachers."
While pregnant with their fifth child, Patricia Neal suffered a series of massive strokes. According to Philip Howard: "Dahl refused to accept the grim prognosis. He set about bringing her back into the world with a determination that shocked onlookers by its brutality and ruthlessness. She was helped through her long recovery by Dahl until she was well enough to resume acting. Some said that he humiliated her by treating her like a child, and bullied her back into health with force and even sadism. Dahl not only recreated his wife. He ran his household, adored his children, planned the garden, wrote screenplays (unsuccessfully), and continued to produce stories. Dahl then divorced Neal in 1983 and on 15 December the same year married her best friend and his long-time mistress, Felicity Ann Crosland."
Roald Dahl published two volumes of autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984) and Going Solo (1986). He was difficult to work with and one publisher described him as "unmatched in my experience for overbearingness and utter lack of civility". In a couple of interviews he expressed racist comments. This included the comment that "there is a streak in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity" and that Adolf Hitler "did not single them out for nothing".
Roald Dahl died of leukaemia on 23rd November 1990 at the John Radcliffe Hospital and was buried on 29th November at St Peter & St Paul Church, Great Missenden.
When you are born you are a savage, an uncivilised little grub, and if you are going to go into our society by the age of ten, then you have to have good manners and know all the do's and don'ts - don't eat with your fingers and don't piss on the floor. That goes particularly for parents and teachers.
When he climbed into the open cockpit of a Tiger Moth for the first time and took his seat on the regulation parachute pack, his entire head stuck out above the windshield like some kind of cartoon character. The war had just begun, pilots were in demand, and in the end the RAF was not too fussy to take him.
A writer of both children's fiction and short stories for adults, Roald Dahl (1916–1990) is best known as the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl's works for children have been praised as skillfully crafted, with fast-paced plots, captivating detail, and onomatopoetic words that lend themselves to being read aloud. His adult-oriented short stories are noted for their dark humor, surprise endings, and subtle horror. Whether writing for juveniles or an adult audience, Dahl has been described as a master of story construction with a remarkable ability to weave a tale.
His incredible life was also affected by serious illness, tragedy and loss. It was his personal experiences of illness – of his own and his close family – which spurred Roald Dahl to help seriously ill children and their families.
Roald Dahl believed in taking practical steps to improve the lives of those around him. His creativity and determination even helped to develop pioneering new medical treatments such as the Wade-Dahl-Till valve. This device was used to help thousands of children with hydrocephalus. Roald Dahl also generously gave his time and money to help seriously ill children and their families, including many he never met.
Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity continues this part of Roald Dahl’s legacy.
We were created in memory of Roald Dahl (originally as the Roald Dahl Foundation) by his widow Felicity, shortly after his death in 1991. Sir Quentin Blake helped to found our charity having been a huge part of Roald Dahl's life and stories, and remains a dedicated supporter and Co-President. His artwork is a crucial part of our brand and he supports us through fundraising, campaigns and in other ways.
Over the last 30 years we have achieved a number of firsts and have been able to work closely with the NHS to support how specialist nursing can change the care and support of seriously ill children.
Books For Adults
Roald Dahl wrote many short stories for adults, as well as two novels. Here is a list of some of his adult contributions:
- Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life
- Going Solo
- The Great Mouse Plot
- My Year
- Over to You
- Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes
- Roald Dahl’s Even More Revolting Recipes
- Someone Like You
- Sometime Never
- Switch B***h
- My Uncle Oswald
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'Roald the Rotten' was a worthy title
As it turns out, Dahl wasn't much fun to be around. It's honestly surprising that the guy could write books loved by millions of children everywhere. The author had a mean streak. He was irritable. Oddly enough, he was defensive about the thing that made him famous — being a children's book author. Dahl was all-around bad enough, says the BBC, that Patricia Neal nicknamed him "Roald the Rotten," but she might have had a tiny, little smudge of bias, since he cheated on her repeatedly. His longest affair was with her best friend.
As if being a jerk, in general, wasn't bad enough, Dahl had more than a touch of the racism going on. Several of his books had to have the racism edited out. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory upset the NAACP with its depiction of Oompa-Loompas, and Dahl was worried his profits would be hurt if he didn't do something quick, so he cut the racism down. The BFG made the giant out to be one big racist caricature of Black people, says the Harvard Review of Latin America. It was bad enough that his publisher called him out, saying it was a "derisive stereotype." Dahl's racism was profound and persistent. It's the reason you can still find lists on the internet, like this one on Forward, of anti-Semitic things he said. "Roald the Rotten" is putting it far too mildly.
Children’s author Roald Dahl is born
Dahl’s childhood was filled with tragedy. His father and sister died when Dahl was three, and he was later brutally abused at his boarding school. After high school, he traveled widely, joining an expedition to Newfoundland and later working in Tanzania. In World War II, he joined the Royal Air Force and became a fighter pilot. He flew missions in Libya, Greece, and Syria, and was shot down in the Libyan desert, suffering serious injuries. (He saved a piece of his femur, removed in an operation after the accident, and later used it as a paperweight in his office.)
After he recovered, Dahl was sent to Washington, D.C., as an attaché. There, the writer C.S. Forester suggested he write about his war experiences, and 10 days later Dahl had his first publication, in the Saturday Evening Post.
Dahl wrote his first book, The Gremlins, for Walt Disney, in 1943, and the story was later made into a Disney film. He wrote several popular adult books, including Someone Like You (1953) and Kiss Kiss (1959), and began writing stories for his own four children in 1960. James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory became bestsellers. He also wrote the screenplay for Charlie (with a title change-the movie was called Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), and a James Bond film, You Only Live Twice (1967).
Excerpt: 'Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl'
Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald DahlBy Donald SturrockHardcover, 672 pagesSimon & SchusterList price: $30
Lunch with Igor Stravinsky
ROALD DAHL THOUGHT BIOGRAPHIES were boring. He told me so while munching on a lobster claw. I was twenty-four years old and had been invited for the weekend to the author's home in rural Buckinghamshire. Dinner was in full swing. A mixture of family and friends were devouring a platter brimming with seafood, while a strange object, made up of intertwined metal links, made its slow way around the table. The links appeared inseparable, but Dahl had told us all they could be separated quite easily by someone with sufficient manual dexterity and spatial awareness. So far none of the guests had been able to solve it. As I waited for the puzzle to come round to me, I tried to respond to Roald's disdain for biography. I mentioned Lytton Strachey, Victoria Glendinning, Michael Holroyd. But he wasn't having any of it. Sitting in a high armchair, at the head of his long pine dining table, he leaned back, took a swig from his large glass of Burgundy, and returned to his theme with renewed relish. Biographers were dreary fact-collectors, he argued, unimaginative people, whose books were usually as enervating as the lives of their subjects. With a glint in his eye, he told me that many of the most exceptional writers he had encountered in his life had been unexceptional as human beings. Norman Mailer, Evelyn Waugh, Thomas Mann and Dr. Seuss were, I recall, each dismissed with a wave of his large hand, as tiresome, vain, dreary or insufferable. He knew I loved music and perhaps that was why he also mentioned Stravinsky. "An authentic genius as a composer," he declared, throwing back his head with a chuckle, "but otherwise quite ordinary." He had once had lunch with him, he added, so therefore he spoke from experience. I tried to think of subjects whose lives were as vivid as their art: Mozart, Caravaggio, Van Gogh perhaps? His intense blue eyes looked straight at me. That wasn't the point, he said. Why on earth would anyone choose to read an assemblage of detail, a catalogue of facts, when there was so much good fiction around as an alternative? Invention, he declared, was always more interesting than reality.
As I sat there, observing the humorous but combative glint in his eye, I sensed that, like a boxer, he was sparring with me. He had thrown a punch and been pleased that I jabbed back. Now he had thrown me another. This one was more difficult to parry. It would be hard to take it further without the exchange becoming detailed and perhaps wearisome. I hesitated. I wondered at his own life. He had just written two volumes of memoirs, one of which he had given to me to read in draft. So I knew the rough outline of his first twenty-five years: Norwegian parents, a childhood in Wales, miserable schooldays, youthful adventures in Newfoundland and Tanganyika, flying as a fighter pilot, a serious plane crash, then a career as a wartime diplomat in Washington. I had already told him privately that I found the books compelling. Did he want me to repeat the compliment over dinner as well? It was hard to tell. At that moment the metal links were presented to me and the conversation moved on. Soon, too, his huge pointy fingers had plucked the puzzle from my inept hands and he had begun confidently to demonstrate its solution. Later on, at the end of a meal which had concluded with the offer of KitKats and Mars Bars dispensed from a small red plastic box, he took his two dogs out into the garden. A few minutes later he returned, wished everyone good night, and retired theatrically from the public space of the drawing room into the privacy of his bedroom.
Half an hour later, I was walking up the frosty path from the main building to the guest house in the garden. The atmosphere was absolutely still. A fox shrieked in the distance. I stopped for a moment and looked up at the clear winter sky. I was struck by how many stars I could see. Great Missenden was less than an hour's drive from London, but the lights of the city seemed far, far away. Some cows stirred in a nearby field. I looked about me. Gentle hills curved around the garden on all sides. At the top of the lane a vast beechwood glowered. The dark outline of the 500-year-old yew tree that had inspired Fantastic Mr. Fox loomed over me. In the orchard, moonlight glinted on the gaily painted gypsy caravan that he had recreated in Danny The Champion of the World. An owl fluttered low into the yew. I turned and opened the door to my room.
Soon, I found myself examining the books in the bookcase by my bedside. There was certainly no biography here. Most of it was crime fiction: Ed McBain, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Dick Francis. As I pulled out a volume, I noticed some ghost stories too, an insect encyclopedia, the diary of a Victorian priest, and a book of poetry by D. H. Lawrence. All of the books looked as if they had been read. I reflected again on our exchange over dinner, and wondered whether Roald had actually met Stravinsky. Perhaps he had simply made that remark to disconcert me? Before I switched off the light, I remember thinking that next day I would flush him out. I would ask him how he had come to have lunch with the great composer. Needless to say, I got distracted and forgot to do so.
It was then February 1986. I had known Dahl six months. The previous autumn, as a fledgling documentary director in the BBC's Music and Arts Department, I had proposed making a film about him for Bookmark, the corporation's flagship literary program. Nigel Williams, the producer, himself an established playwright and novelist, had decided that the Christmas edition of the show would be devoted to children's literature. Twenty-five years ago this was still a field that many people in the UK arts affected to despise, and for once none of the program's older, more experienced directors seemed keen to put forward any ideas. I was the most junior on the team. I wanted desperately to make a film. Any film. So I took my chance. It was an obvious suggestion -- a portrait of the most famous and successful living children's writer. The motivation however behind my plan was largely opportunistic. At that point, I had read none of Dahl's children's fiction other than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. On the other hand, as a thirteen-year-old, I had read most of his adult short stories, feasting on them with concentrated relish from behind a school desk during math lessons. My adolescent mind had revelled in their grotesqueries, their complex twists and turns, and their spare, elegant, strangely sexy prose.
I remember Nigel Williams's smile. How he looked at me when I mentioned Roald Dahl. It was knowing, almost wicked. "Okay," he said. "If you can persuade him to do it." I paused. Was he thinking about money? The program had a tiny budget and always paid its contributors the most modest of disturbance fees. It wasn't cash, however, that was on Nigel's mind. "You know his reputation?" he asked rhetorically. "Unbelievably grumpy and difficult. He'll never agree to take part." I nodded, although this was actually news to me, for my impression of Dahl the man at that point was in fact one of singular lightness. Four years earlier, while I was an undergraduate, he had taken part in a debate at the Oxford Union. "Romance is bunk" was the motion. Dahl had contributed to it memorably, arguing that romance was no more than a euphemism for the human sex drive. He was a great entertainer -- witty, subversive, and often risqué. At one point he challenged a young woman in his audience to try and "get romantic" with a eunuch. At another he joked that a castrated male was similar to an aeroplane with no engine, because neither could get up. As I walked out of Nigel's office, all this was still fresh in my memory. Maybe Dahl will be cantankerous, I thought, but I am sure he will be funny, too. I discovered from press cuttings that he lived in a village called Great Missenden. I searched a telephone directory for Dahl, R. and there was his phone number. Ten minutes later I was calling him to discuss the project. Our conversation was brief and to the point. "Come to lunch," he said. "There are good train services from Marylebone."
A week later, I was standing outside the bright yellow front door of Gipsy House, his modest eighteenth-century whitewashed home. I rang the bell. An explosion of dogs barking heralded the arrival of a gigantic figure in a long red cardigan. He looked down at me. He was six foot five inches tall, craggy and broad of beam. His body seemed larger than the doorway and far, far too big for the proportions of the cottage. He ushered me through into a cozy sitting room where a log fire burned generously in the fireplace. He seemed a trifle surprised. I asked if I had got the date wrong. "No," he said. "I was expecting you." He asked me to wait a moment, then left the room. His strides were huge and ponderous, but strangely graceful -- a bit like a giraffe. On one wall a triptych of distorted Francis Bacon heads glared out at me alarmingly, reminding me that for years, Dahl's adult publishers had dubbed him "the Master of the Macabre." On an adjacent wall, another Bacon head -- this one a distorted swirl of green and white -- returned my gaze. Around them a dazzlingly eclectic group of paintings and artifacts decorated the room: colorful oils, a collection of outsize antique Norwegian pipes, a primitive mask, a sober Dutch landscape and some stylized geometric paintings. I learned over lunch that these were the works of the Russian Suprematists: Popova, Malevich and Goncharova.
His wife Liccy (pronounced "Lici" as in the middle two syllables of her name, Felicity) returned five minutes later and suggested I go through into the dining room, where he was waiting for me. Over a lunch of smoked oysters, served from a tin -- I don't recall any wine -- we discussed the documentary. In the week leading up to our meeting I felt I had become an expert on his work and had read everything of his that I could get my hands on. I asked him some questions about his early life and about childhood. He told me how easy he found it to see the world from a child's perspective and how he thought that this was perhaps the secret to writing successfully for children. His memoir of childhood, Boy, had recently been published. I wanted to use this as the backbone of the film and so we talked about Repton, the school where he had spent his teenage years, fifty years earlier. He told me what a miserable time he had had there and we talked about the ethics of beating, for which the school was famous. We pencilled some provisional shooting dates in his diary. Then I asked whether I could see his writing hut. I had read about it and wanted to film there. I anticipated he might say no and tell me that it was too private a place to show to a film crew. But he did not bat an eyelid, and, after lunch, he took me to see it. We walked down a stone path bordered with leafless lime saplings, tied onto a bamboo framework that arched gently over our heads. He explained to me that in time the saplings would grow around the structure and make a magical, shady tunnel.
He opened the door to the hut and I went inside. An anteroom, stuffed with old picture frames and filing cabinets, led directly into his writing space. The walls were lined with aged polystyrene foam blocks for insulation. Everything was yellow with nicotine and reeked of tobacco. A carpet of dust, pencil sharpenings and cigarette ash covered the worn linoleum floor. A plastic curtain hung limply over a tiny window. There was almost no natural light. A great armchair filled the tiny room -- Dahl frequently compared the experience of sitting there to being inside the womb or the cockpit of a Hurricane. He had chopped a huge chunk out of the back of the chair, he told me, so nothing would press onto the lower part of his spine and aggravate the injury he suffered when his plane crashed during the war. A battered anglepoise lamp, like a praying mantis, crouched over the chair, an ancient golf ball dangling from its chipped arm. A single-bar electric heater, its flex trailing down to a socket near the floor, hung from the ceiling. He told me that by poking it with an old golf club he could direct heat onto his hands when it was cold.
Everything seemed ramshackle and makeshift. Much of it seemed rather dangerous. Its charm, however, was irresistible. An enormous child was showing me his treasures: the green baize writing board he'd designed himself, the filthy sleeping bag that kept his legs warm, and -- most prized of all -- his cabinet of curiosities. These were gathered on a wooden table beside his armchair and included the head of one of his femurs (which had been sawn off during a hip replacement operation twenty years earlier), a glass vial filled with pink alcohol, in which some stringy glutinous bits of his spine were floating, a piece of rock that had been split in half to reveal a cluster of purple crystals nestling within, a tiny model aeroplane, some fragments of Babylonian pottery and a metal ball made, so he assured me, from the wrappers of hundreds of chocolate bars. Finally, he pointed out a gleaming steel prosthesis. It had been temporarily fitted into his pelvis during an unsuccessful hip replacement operation. He was now using it as an improvised handle for a drawer on one of his brokendown filing cabinets.
The shooting went without incident. Though it was the first time he had ever been filmed in his writing hut, and indeed the first time that the BBC had made a documentary about him, there were no rows, no difficulties, and no grumpiness. Roald charmed everyone and I occasionally wondered how he had come to acquire his reputation for being irascible. His short fuse had not been apparent to me at all. Years later, however, I discovered that I just missed seeing it on my very first visit. Not long after he died, Liccy explained why I had been abandoned in his drawing room. For, standing in his doorstep, I had not made a good impression. Roald had gone straight to her study. "Oh Christ, Lic, they've sent a fucking child," he had groaned. Liccy encouraged him to give me a chance and I think my youth and earnestness eventually became an asset. I even felt at the end of the two-day shoot as if Roald had become a friend. In the editing room, putting the documentary together, I was reminded of the suspicion that still surrounded Dahl in literary circles. Nigel Williams, concerned that Dahl appeared too sympathetic, insisted that I shoot an interview with a literary critic who was known to be hostile to his children's fiction. This reaction may have been largely a result of a trenchantly anti-Israeli piece Dahl had written for The Literary Review two years earlier. The article had caused a great deal of controversy and fixed him as an anti-Semite in many people's minds. But there was, I felt, something more than this in the atmosphere of wariness and distrust that seemed to surround people's reactions to him. Something I could not quite put my finger on. A sense perhaps that he was an outsider: misunderstood, rejected, almost a pariah.
I must have visited Gipsy House six or seven times in the next four years. Gradually, I came to know his children: Tessa, Theo, Ophelia and Lucy. Many memories of those visits linger still in the brain. Roald's excited voice on the telephone early one morning: "I don't know what you're doing next Saturday, but whatever it is, you'd better drop it. The meal we're planning will be amazing. If you don't come, you'll regret it." The surprise that evening was caviar, something he knew I had never tasted. True to the spirit of the poacher at his heart, he later explained that it had been obtained, at a bargain price, in a furtive transaction that seemed like a cross between a John Le Carré spy novel and a Carry On film. The code phrase was: "Are you Sarah with the big tits?" Another evening, I remember him opening several of the hundreds of cases of 1982 Bordeaux he had recently purchased and that were piled up everywhere in his cellar. The wines were not supposed to be ready to drink until the 1990s, but he paid no attention. "Bugger that," he declared. "If they're going to be good in the 1990s, they'll be good now." They were. I recall his entrances into the drawing room before dinner, always theatrical, always conversation-stopping, and his loud, infectious laugh. Being in his company was always invigorating. You never quite knew what was going to happen next. And whatever he did seemed to provoke a story. Once, on a summer's morning outside on the terrace, he taught me how to shuck my first oyster, using his father's wooden pocketknife. He told me he had carried it around the world with him since his schooldays. Years later, when I told Ophelia that story, she roared with laughter. "Dad was having you on," she explained. "It was just an old knife he had pulled out of the kitchen."
Roald's physical presence was initially intimidating, but when you were on your own with him, he became the most compelling of talkers. His quiet voice purred, his blue eyes flashed, his long fingers twitched with delight as he embarked on a story, explored a puzzle, or simply recounted an observation that had intrigued him. It was no surprise that children found him mesmerizing. He loved to talk. But he could listen, too -- if he thought he had something to learn. We often discussed music. He preferred gramophone records and CDs to live performances -- his long legs and many spinal operations had made sitting in any sort of concert hall impossibly uncomfortable -- and he enjoyed comparing different interpretations of favorite pieces, seeming curiously ill at ease with relative strengths and merits. A particular recording always had to come out top. There had to be a winner. This attitude informed almost every aspect of life. Whether it was food, wine, painting, literature or music, "the best" interested him profoundly. He liked certainty and clear, strong opinions. I don't think I ever heard him say anything halfhearted. And despite a life that had been packed with incident, he lived very much in the present and seldom reminisced. I recall only one brief conversation about being a fighter pilot and none at all about dabbling in espionage, or mixing with wartime Hollywood celebrities, Washington politicos and New York literati.
Occasionally he name-dropped. I recall him telling me, for no particular reason, that one well-known actor had been a bad loser when Roald beat him at golf. And then, of course, there was that improbable lunch with Stravinsky. But, though he was clearly drawn both to luxury and to celebrity, he took as much pleasure in a bird's nest discovered in a hedge as he did in a bottle of Château Lafleur 1982 or the bon mots of Ian Fleming and Dorothy Parker. He delighted in ignoring many of the usual English social boundaries and asking people personal questions. He did it, I suspect, not because he was interested in their answer, but because he revelled in the consternation he might provoke. In that sense he could be cruel. Yet, though his fuse was a famously short one, I actually saw him explode only once. He was on the telephone to the curator of a Francis Bacon exhibition in New York, who wanted to borrow one of his paintings and had called while he had guests for dinner. She said something that annoyed him, so he swore at her furiously and slammed the phone down. I recall feeling that the gesture was self-conscious. He was playing to an audience. His temper subsided almost as soon as the receiver was back in its cradle.
Even then, I was dimly aware that this showy bravado was a veneer, a carapace, a suit of armor created to protect the man within: a man who was infirm and clearly vulnerable. Several dinner invitations were cancelled at short notice because he was unwell. Once, Liccy told me on the phone that the "old boy" had nearly met his maker. Yet he always rallied, and the next time I saw him, he would look as robust and healthy as he had been before. Always smoking, always drinking, always controversial, he appeared a life force that would never be extinguished. So his death, in November 1990, came as a shock. At his funeral, a tearful Liccy, who knew my passion for classical music, asked if I would help her commission some new orchestral settings of some of Roald's writings and thereby achieve something he had wanted: an alternative to Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf that might help attract children into the concert hall. I had just left the BBC to go freelance and jumped at the opportunity. Over the next few years, I encountered Roald's sisters, Alfhild, Else and Asta, as well as his first wife, Patricia Neal. They all took part in another longer film I made about Dahl in 1998, also for the BBC, which Ophelia presented, and in which she and I explored together some of the themes of this book for the first time. Many of the interviews with members of his family quoted in this book date back to this period.
Shortly before he died, Roald nominated Ophelia as his chosen biographer. In the event that she did not want to perform this task, he also made her responsible for selecting a biographer. This came as something of a shock to her elder sister Tessa, who had hoped that she would be asked to write the book. Nevertheless, it was Ophelia who took up the challenge of sifting through the vast archive of letters, manuscript drafts notebooks, newspaper cuttings and photographs her father had left behind him in his writing hut. Living in Boston, however, where she was immensely busy with her job as president and executive director of Partners in Health, the Third World medical charity she had co-founded in 1987, made the research time-consuming, and she found it increasingly hard to find time to complete the book. Eventually, when she got pregnant in 2006, she decided to put her manuscript on the shelf and asked me whether I would like to try and take up the challenge of writing her father's biography. It was a tremendous leap of trust on her part to approach me -- a first-time biographer -- to write it. She did so, she told me, because I was outside the family, yet also because I had known her father and liked him. She felt that someone who had not met him would find it almost impossible to put together all the disparate pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that made up his complex and extravagant personality. Everything in the archive -- now housed in the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre at Great Missenden, which had opened the previous year -- was placed at my disposal. With characteristic generosity, Ophelia even allowed me to draw on the manuscript of her own memoir. Tessa too, despite an initial wariness, has subsequently freely given me her time and energies. I could not possibly have written the book without their cooperation as well as that of their siblings Theo and Lucy. I am profoundly grateful to all of them.
There were many surprises and puzzles in store for me on the journey -- not least the discovery of how many contradictions animated his personality. The wild fantasist vied with the cool observer, the vainglorious boaster with the reclusive orchid breeder, the brash public schoolboy with the vulnerable foreigner, who never quite fit into the English establishment although he liked to describe himself as "very English . . . very English indeed." A delight in simple pleasures -- gardening, birdwatching, playing snooker and golf -- counterbalanced a fascination for the sophisticated environment of grand hotels, wealthy resorts and elegant casinos. His taste in paintings, furniture, books and music was refined and subtle, yet he was also profoundly anti-intellectual. He could be a bully, yet prided himself on defending the underdog. For one who always relished a viewpoint that was clear-cut, these incongruities werenot entirely unexpected. With Roald there were seldom shades of gray. I was also to learn that, as he rewrote his manuscripts, so too he rewrote his own history, preferring only to reveal his private life when it was quasifictionalized and therefore something over which he could exert a degree of control. Many things about his past made him feel uncomfortable and storytelling gave him power over that vulnerability.
So now, in 2010, a wheel has come full circle. Little did I imagine when Roald and I had that conversation over dinner in 1986 that, twenty-four years later, I would finally answer his challenge by writing this book. It is an irony that I hope he would have appreciated. For seldom can a biographer have been presented with such an entertaining and absorbing subject, the narrative of whose picaresque life jumps from crisis to triumph, and from tragedy to humor with such restless swagger and irrepressible brio. Presented with so much new material -- including hundreds of manuscripts and thousands of letters -- I have tried, everywhere possible, to keep Dahl's own voice to the fore, and to allow the reader to encounter him as I did, "warts and all." Sometimes I have wished that I could convey the chuckle in his voice or seen the twinkle in his eye that doubtless accompanied many of his more outrageous statements.
Moreover, his tendencies to exaggeration, irony, self-righteousness, and self-dramatization made him a particularly slippery quarry, and my attempts to pick through the thick protective skein of fiction that he habitually wove across his past may not always have been entirely successful. I have tried to be diligent and a good fact-checker, but if a few misjudgments and errors have crept in, I hope the reader will pardon them. I make no claim to be either encyclopedic or impartial. I am not sure either is even possible. Nevertheless, I have tried to write an account that is accurate and balanced, but not bogged down in minutiae. That is something I know Roald would have found unforgivable. So, while I remain uncertain if he ever had lunch with Igor Stravinsky, I have to confess that now I no longer care. It was perhaps a storyteller's detail, a trifle. Compared with so much else, whether it was true or false seems ultimately of little importance.
Excerpted from Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl. Copyright 2010 by Donald Sturrock. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster.
Five Fascinating Facts about Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl was born on this day in 1916, so we’ve taken the opportunity to raise a glass of burgundy (apparently one of Dahl’s favourite drinks – see below) to the man who gave us Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Twits, Matilda, The BFG, and so many more classic books. Here are five of our favourite interesting Roald Dahl facts.
1. Roald Dahl didn’t do particularly well at school. One of his teachers wrote in his school report: ‘I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended.’ While he was at school, Dahl undertook what has to be one of the schoolchild’s dream jobs: he was an occasional taste-tester for Cadbury’s chocolate. This surely played a part in his later creation of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
2. In 1971, a real Willy Wonka wrote to Roald Dahl. This is our favourite Roald Dahl fact relating to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This real-life Willy Wonka was a postman from Nebraska, and was probably inspired to write to the author by the release of the film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s well known that Dahl hated Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, partly because of the change in title – Dahl thought that Charlie, and not the eccentric Wonka, was the real protagonist of the story. Dahl planned to write a third Charlie Bucket book, Charlie in the White House but in 1990 he died before he could complete it.
3. Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach was originally going to be ‘James and the Giant Cherry’. There are other noteworthy working titles/character names which were later changed. In early drafts of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka was called ‘Mr Ritchie’. The original title of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was ‘Charlie’s Chocolate Boy’. And in early drafts of that book, the Oompa-Loompas were known as the ‘Whipple-Scrumpets’.
4. Roald Dahl’s book The Twits was triggered by his desire to ‘do something against beards’ – he had an acute dislike of them. Such beard-fear is known as pogonophobia. Dahl confided in an essay that he had always harboured ‘a fierce antipathy’ to beards, which he described as ‘hairy smoke-screens behind which to hide’.
5. Roald Dahl was buried with chocolate, red wine, HB pencils, a power saw, and his snooker cues. He wanted to be buried with some of his favourite things, which included some good-quality burgundy, some upmarket chocolate (Dahl took chocolate very seriously and even planned to write a ‘History of Chocolate’), and the pencils that had served him so well in his writing shed over the years.
If you enjoyed these Roald Dahl facts, check out our interesting facts about Dr Seuss.
Image: Portrait of Roald Dahl (author: Carl Van Vechten), public domain.
Roald Dahl Biography
One of the most popular children's book authors of all time, Dahl began his career writing adult horror stories and magazine articles, including a Saturday Evening Post series about his experiences as a World War II Royal Air Force pilot.
Dahl's children's books, however, are lighthearted, often outrageous fare. His first, The Gremlins (1943), was based on a script commissioned by Walt Disney. While the first screenplay was scraped, the story was adapted for the big screen in 1984. His next children's book, James and the Giant Peach, didn't appear until 1961, and it established Dahl as a literary force. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) followed, as did the best-selling Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970), The Witches (1983), and Matilda (1990). He also wrote the scripts for the films You Only Live Twice (1967) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). His adult collections include Someone Like You (1953) and Kiss, Kiss (1959).