Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff, Wales on September 13th 1916. His parents were Norwegian and he was the only son of a second marriage. His father, Harald, and elder sister Astri died when Roald was just three. His mother, Sofie, was left to raise two stepchildren and her own four children (Alfhild, Roald, Else and Asta). Roald was her only son. He remembered his mother as "a rock, a real rock, always on your side whatever you'd done. It gave me the most tremendous feeling of security". Roald based the character of the grandmother in THE WITCHES on his mother - it was his tribute to her.

The young Roald loved stories and books. His mother told Roald and his sisters tales about trolls and other mythical Norwegian creatures. "She was a great teller of tales," Roald said, "Her memory was prodigious and nothing that ever happened to her in her life was forgotten." As an older child, Roald enjoyed adventure stories - "Captain Marryat was one of my favourites" - before going on to read Dickens and Thackeray as well as short-story writer Ambrose Bierce.

His father Harald was, as Roald recalled in BOY, a tremendous diary-writer. "I still have one of his many notebooks from the Great War of 1914-18. Every single day during those five war years he would write several pages of comment and observation about the events of the time.

Roald himself kept a secret diary from the age of eight. "To make sure that none of my sisters got hold of it and read it, I used to put it in a waterproof tin box tied to a branch at the very top of an enormous conker tree in our garden. I knew they couldn't climb up there. Then every day I would go up myself and get it out and site in the tree and make the entries for the day."

Roald's parents seem to have instilled in him a number of character traits. In BOY, he talks of this father's interest in "lovely paintings and fine furniture" as well as gardening. In spite of only having one arm, he was also a fine woodcarver. Paintings, furniture and gardening would all be passions of the adult Roald Dahl. Similarly, remembering his mother, in ROALD DAHL'S COOKBOOK, he recalls, "she had a crystal-clear intellect and a deep interest in almost everything under the sun, from horticulture to cooking to wine to literature to paintings to furniture to birds and dogs and other animals." Roald might very well have been describing his adult self.

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Roald had an unhappy time at school. From the age of seven to nine, he attended Llandaff Cathedral School. His chief memories of this time, as described in BOY, are of trips to the sweet shop. The seeds of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY were already being sown as young Roald and his four friends lingered outside the shop window, gazing in at the big glass jars of sweets and pondering such questions as how Gobstoppers change colour and whether rats might be turned into liquorice. Sherbert suckers were one of Roald's favourites - "Each Sucker consisted of a yellow cardboard tube filled with sherbert powder, and there was a hollow liquorice straw sticking out of it - you sucked the sherbert up through the straw and when it was finished you ate the liquorice. The sherbert fizzed in your mouth, and if you knew how to do it, you could make white froth come out of your nostrils and pretend you were throwing a fit."

Boarding at St. Peter's prep school in Weston-Super-Mare, from 1925-29, proved less of a sweet experience for Roald. He was just nine years old when he arrived at St. Peters and had to content with the twitching Latin Master Captain Hardcastle, the all-powerful Matron - a dead ringer for Miss Trunchball, who "disliked small boys very much indeed" and the cane-wielding Headmaster. Not surprisingly, Roald suffered from acute homesickness. At St. Peter's, Roald got into the habit of writing to his mother once a week. He continued to do so until her death 32 years later. Later, when his own children went to boarding school, Roald wrote to them twice a week to brighten up the drudgery of their school days.

Roald was thirteen when he started at Repton, a famous public school in Derbyshire. He excelled at sports, particularly heavyweight boxing and squash, but was deemed by his English master to be "quite incapable of marshalling his thoughts on paper". Whatever else he was forced to endure; there was one huge advantage to going to Repton. The school was close to Cadbury's, one of England's most famous chocolate factories and one, which regularly involved the schoolboys in testing new varieties of chocolate bars.

Dahl's unhappy time at school was to greatly influence his writing. He once said that distinguished him from most other children's writers was "this business of remembering what it was like to be young." Roald's childhood and schooldays is the subject of his autobiography BOY.

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At 18, rather than going to university, Roald joined the Public Schools Exploring Society's expedition to Newfoundland. He then started work for Shell as a salesman in Dar es Salaam. He was 23 when war broke out and signed up with the Royal Air Force in Nairobi. At first, the station doctor balked at his height (6ft 6in or 2 metres) but he was accepted as a pilot officer and was trained on the birdplane Gladiator fighters, mainly in Iraq. He then flew to join his squadron in the Western Desert of Libya but crashed en-route.

Dahl's exploits in the war are detailed in his autobiography GOING SOLO. They include having a luger pointed at his head by the leader of a German convoy, crash-landing in no-man's land (and sustaining injuries that entailed having his nose pulled out and shaped!) and even surviving a direct hit during the Battle of Athens, when he sufficiently recovered to fly again - this time in Hurricanes. Eventually, he was sent home as an invalid but transferred, in 1942, to Washington as an air attach - it was there that he would meet an important writer who would set him on the path to a new career.

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In 1942, during his time in Washington, C S Forester, author of Captain Hornblower, took Roald to lunch. Forester was in America to publicise the British war effort and hoped Roald was describe his version of the war, which Forester would write up for the SATURDAY EVENING POST. Roald chose to write down his experiences. Ten days after receiving the account, Forester wrote back "Did you know you were a writer - I haven't changed a word." He enclosed a cheque for $900 from the POST. The piece appeared anonymously in August 1942 under the title "Shot Down Over Libya". Roald's career as a writer was underway.  

Roald Dahl's first book for children was not, as many suppose, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH but THE GREMLINS, a picture book published in 1943 and adapted from a script written for Disney. Walt Disney had invited the 25 year-old Roald to Hollywood, given him the use of a car and put him up at the Beverley Hills Hotel. The story of THE GREMLINS focused on the mischievous spirits that, according to RAF legend, cause aircraft-engine failures. In the end, the project to make a movie version was abandoned but the book was published. Roald was never very keen on THE GREMLINS and didn't really think of it as a children's book. Nevertheless, it caught Eleanor Roosevelt's eye and Roald became a not infrequent quest at the White House and FDR's weekend retreat, Hyde Park.

Roald's career as a children's book author did not begin in earnest until the 1960s, after he had become a father himself. In the meantime, he devoted himself to writing short stories for adults with devilish twists in the tale.

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For the first fifteen years of his writing career, Dahl concentrated on writing for adults. His short stories are classics of the storyteller's craft. It comes as no surprise to learn that he tool advice from Ernest Hemingway ("never use a colon or a semi-colon" and "when it starts going well, quit".). He was not, by his own admission, a quick writer and might take six months on a story - "sometimes as much as a month on the first page". And he refused to write at all unless he could come up with a really good plot.

Dahl's first "story" was "A Piece of Cake", which C S Forester urged him to write for the SATURDAY EVENING POST in 1941. He went on to write another sixteen articles/stories for the POST. "They became less and less realistic and more fictional," Roald, said, "I began to see I could handle fiction." The stories were published in a well-received collection, OVER TO YOU. At that point, Roald realised "since I could write, that's what I'd do."

His stories were initially published in magazines such as the NEW YORKER, HARPERS and ATLANTIC MONTHLY before being collection in book form. Mario Basini in the WESTERN MAIL describes the stories as "masterful - brief, punchy, with a devastating mixture of innocence and the macabre (which) summed up the brittle, sceptical, uneasy civilisation in which he wrote." In the words of SUNDAY TRIBUNE, "his stories are bizarre, inventive, clever, imaginative, spine chilling. For kindness and pleasantries, I suggest you look elsewhere. If, on the other hand, it is dark ingenuity you're after with lashings of malice and a slice of humour then Roald Dahl is the man."

Perhaps his most famous story is "Lamb to the Slaughter", in which a woman beats her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb and then roasts the murder weapon and serves it up to the policemen who come to question her. "It wasn't nasty," Roald, said, "I thought it was hilarious. What's horrible is basically funny. In fiction."

Dahl's adult writing was favourably compared to O'Henry and Saki. He won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America three times.

Many of Roald's short stories were televised for the hugely successful TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED, which featured such stars as John Gielguid, Alec Guinness and Joan Collins.

Roald wrote two novels for adults - SOMETIME NEVER, published in 1948 and the first novel about nuclear war to be published in America following Hiroshima, and MY UNCLE OSWALD, published in 1979.

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Roald Dahl is without question the most successful children's writer in the world," wrote Brian Appleyard in THE INDEPENDENT in 1990. Roald himself said, "I'm probably more pleased with children's books than with my adult short stories. Children's books are harder to write. It's tougher to keep a child interested because a child doesn't have the concentration of an adult. The child knows the television is in the next room. It's tough to hold a child, but it's a lovely thing to try to do."

He first became interested in writing children's books by making up bedtime stories for his daughters Olivia and Tessa. This was how JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH came into being. The book was published in America in 1961 and the UK in 1967.

His second book, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY also debuted in the USA (in 1964) before being published in UK (1967). It was a significant success on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, Elaine Moss wrote in THE TIMES, "It is the funniest children's book I have read in years; not just funny but shot through with a zany pathos which touches the young heart." The book went on to achieve phenomenal success all over the world. The Chinese edition was the biggest printing of any book ever - two million copies! 1971 saw the release of a movie version starring Gene Wilder. Roald himself was not a fan, but the movie has proved consistently popular.

An unbroken string of bestselling titles followed, including THE BFG, DANNY THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD, THE TWITS, THE WITCHES, BOY and GOING SOLO. Sales of MATILDA, Roald's penultimate book, broke all previous records for a work of children's fiction with UK sales of over half a million paperbacks in six months.

Many people have tried to account for the astonishing success of Roald Dahl's writing for children. Robin Swicord, who co-wrote the script for the movie version of MATILDA, says, "He is keyed into the psychological life of a child better than any other writer. He brings their fears right to the surface, whether it's about the first day of school or saving your grandparents from death." In a similar vein, Danny DeVito, actor, producer and director, says that "Dahl will lead a child out onto a windy limb and then suddenly he'll place a ladder underneath and the child will be able to get safely to the ground."

Roald's empathy with children goes even further than that. As David Gritten notes in SAINSNURY'S - THE MAGAZINE, "Dahl books, strong on plot and instilled with a tremendous sense of mischief, insist on seeing the world through children's eyes, and often portray adults as silly, uncomprehending or insensitive; no wonder kids love them." This was something Roald was set upon doing. He once declared that, "If you want to remember what it's like to live in a child's world, you've got to get down on your hands and knees and live like that for a week. You'll find you have to look up at all these giants around you who are always telling you what to do and what not to do."

The Dahl magic has proved unstoppable throughout the world. In addition to the UK editions, his work has been translated into 34 languages, reaching everywhere from Estonia to Finland; from Greece to Japan. In spite of his unrivalled success, Roald Dahl won only a handful of awards, including, in the UK, the Whitbread Award 1983 for THE WITCHES and the Children's Book Award (from the Federation of Children's Book Groups) in 1988 for MATILDA. As Tony Bradman noted in THE TELEGRAPH, such awards "came late in a career characterised by a general snootiness in critical quarters, and a growing tide of popularity with the punters which eventually became a deluge of Noah-style proportions."

Road Dahl was a great believer in the importance of reading. "I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers," he once said, "to become comfortable with a book, not daunted. Books shouldn't be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage." He would, then, have been gratified by his obituary in THE INDEPENDENT, which paid tribute to the huge role he played "in getting children hooked into reading by offering them the kind of stories they really wanted to read." Stylistically too, he helped new readers by using language simply and accurately. The quality of his writing is easily discernable by the fluency with which it can be read aloud. For many children Roald Dahl is synonymous with reading. He is the one author whose books are currency among children, being passed eagerly from hand to hand as soon as they appear.

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In 1960, Roald and his family settled in Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, England at Gipsy House. It was here, in a small hut at the bottom of the garden, that he would write most of his unforgettable stories for young and old.

The hut was, by all accounts, a dingy little place but one that Roald viewed as a cosy refuge. Christopher Simon Sykes in HARPERS and QUEEN recalls, "A dirty plastic curtain covered the window. In the centre stood a faded wing-back armchair, inherited from his mother, and it was here that Dahl sat, his feet propped up on a chest, his legs covered by a tartan rug, supporting on his knees a thick roll of corrugated paper upon which was propped his writing board. Photographs, drawings and other mementoes were pinned to the walls, while a table on his right was covered with a collection of favourite curiosities such as one of his own arthritic hip bones, and a remarkably heavy ball made from the discarded silver paper of numerous chocolate bars consumed during his youth."

Roald couldn't type and always used a pencil to write. For much of his career, his working day began at 9:30, when his secretary would work through his fan mail. At around 10:30, he'd fill a thermos with coffee and head off to the hut. He'd write until about midday when it was time for lunch and a gin and tonic. After an afternoon read, at about 4 p.m., he'd return to the hut for another couple of hours of writing. "I am a disciplined writer," he once said, " I don't think any writer works particularly long hours because he can't - he becomes inefficient." He wrote several drafts of his work "because I never get anything right first time."

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Roald Dahl was married twice. His first wife Patricia Neal, the Broadway and Hollywood actress whose films include THE HASTY HEART (opposite Ronald Reagan), THE FOUNTAINHEAD (with Gary Cooper) and HUD (with Paul Newman) for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress. Roald and Patricia were introduced by playwright Lillian Hellman in New York, where Patricia was acting in Hellman's play THE CHILDREN'S HOUR. After their marriage, in 1953, they divided their time between England and America.

Roald and Patricia had five children together - Olivia (who sadly died aged seven), Theo, Tessa, Ophelia and Lucy. Roald's stories for children grew out of the bedtime tales he made up each night for his own children. "Had I not had children," he once remarked, "I would not have written books for children, nor would I have been capable of doing so." Ophelia Dahl, writing about her father in THE ROALD DAHL TREASURY, remembers "every evening after my sister Lucy and I had gone to bed, my father would walk slowly up the stairs, his bones creaking louder than the staircase, to tell us a story. I can see him now, leaning against the wall of our bedroom with his hands in his pockets looking in to the distance, reaching into his imagination.

Roald's second wife was Felicity "Liccy" Crossland. Although they were born in the very same street, in Llandaff, they did not meet until 1972. They soon became inseparable and following Roald's divorce from Patricia Neal, he and Liccy married in 1983. "He was not an easy man," Liccy says, "but to me he was the most stimulating man in the world and the best husband a woman could ever have."

Although there was a period of adjustment, today Patricia and Liccy are friends and there is a large, extended family from Roald's two marriages.

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Although Roald Dahl enjoyed a great deal of success in his life, he also endured an unusual number of tragedies involving those closest to him. His oldest daughter Olivia died after a bout of measles developed into encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). Roald's four-month-old son Theo was brain-damaged after a road accident.

As Peter Lennon observed in THE GUARDIAN in 1996, "It cannot be said that the series of misfortunes and tragedies Dahl was to suffer made him more bitter. Loss and physical adversity seemed to stimulate his enormous energies to positive action. He fought misfortune as if it was a dragon to be slain."

In the case of Theo, Dahl joined forces with two friends, an engineer and a neurosurgeon. Together, they spent months devising a valve for draining fluid from the brain to enable Theo to live independent of machines. The Dahl-Wade-Till valve was used for many years until it was finally surpassed by new technological developments. Theo has made a spectacular recovery.

In 1965, Roald's first wife, Patricia "Pat" Neal, suffered three strokes in rapid succession. She was only 39 years old and pregnant with Lucy. "I couldn't move and I couldn't speak," Patricia remembers, "Roald knew that if I lost my motivation it would be the end of everything for me. He called in my neighbours and friends and set up a programme that would keep me busy every minute of the day." This amounted to six hour-long sessions of speech therapy every single day (the standard offered by the National Health Service was two half-hour sessions per week). Roald himself took care of the running of the house. In time, and in no small part thanks to Roald's efforts, Patricia made a full recovery, gave birth to a healthy baby and returned to her acting career.

Roald's life was marked with tragedy right until the end. A few months before his own death, his stepdaughter, Lorina, died of a brain tumour.

Throughout his life Roald Dahl gave time and money to help people in need. In the 1960s, for example, he arranged for many children from a Southern Italian orphanage to come on holiday with families in his village of Great Missenden. As his fame grew, he would receive many requests for help and would frequently assist or visit individual children, in consultation with their families, particularly the sick or disabled or those who were hospitalised long term. After his death, his widow Felicity Dahl established The Roald Dahl Foundation to continue this tradition. The Foundation offers grants in three key areas - Literacy, Neurology and Haematology, all associated with his life: Literacy, because it was his crusade; neurology, because his family was so badly affected by problems in this area; and finally haematology, because Roald Dahl suffered from a blood disorder for many years and became very interested in this particular field of medicine.

Roald Dahl books reviewed