The Other Side of Roald Dahl
Created | Updated Jul 28, 2016
Part Three - Cruelest Fate and Truest Love
Part One - The Boy That Made the Man
High over the Buckinghamshire village of Great Missenden, the morning sun casts its glow across the sloping, grassy churchyard that dips down towards the early bustle of the school run and commuter traffic. Shadows slide across flowers, toys and tributes of all kinds that mark the memories and emotions of many whose loved ones now lie untroubled by the frantic scrambling in the valley below. Extraordinarily large footprints lead off into the morning dew from the comfort of a warmly weathered circular seat inscribed with the names of Olivia, Tessa, Theo, Ophelia, Lucy, Neisha, Charlotte and Lorina.
Whoever the visitor was, their stride was as gigantic as their footprints. Closer examination reveals that the footprints are cast in stone and not, after all, transitory clues left by an early morning visitor paying their respects. Follow the footprints down, vainly trying to match the stride, and you will reach a polished granite memorial marked like many others with a small container of silk flowers.
Before you can read the inscription, you will, as likely as not, notice this memorial is not, after all, like many others. For this smooth dark green surface set into the gentle slope is scattered with an assortment of sweets: two damp cellophane wrappers revealing love hearts; a tube of Smarties; some chocolate bars in various stages of disintegration; a toffee or two; and perhaps a note accompanying one or more of the sugary gifts. For these sweets are both gifts and memorials – an ever-changing tributary collage created by the young (and sometimes not so young), who revere and continue to enjoy the everlasting magic and adventure they have been given by the man who now rests in peace in this parish churchyard. The footsteps, guiding the way, belong to the Big Friendly Giant, and they halt almost as if he were standing there, gazing at the inscription carved deeply into the stone:
By the Giant's side, those who choose can see little orphan Sophie; she shared the BFG's adventures, which began in this very village of Great Missenden.
'What happens when a giant dies?' Sophie asked.
'Giants is never dying,' the BFG answered. 'Sometimes and quite suddenly, a giant is disappearing and nobody is ever knowing where he goes to. But mostly us giants is simply going on and on like whiffsy time-twiddlers.'
- The BFG, 19821
Whatever brief moments of imaginative flight one may enjoy, courtesy of the genius of Roald Dahl, when you take time to look behind this most loved, successful and well-known children's writer; when you engage in a modest amount of 'whiffsy time-twiddling', you discover you are in the presence of a true hero.
Before the literary fame which was to transform his life and bring so much reading pleasure to children and adults everywhere, Roald Dahl had already proved himself an extraordinarily intricate, engaging, courageous and inventive character. Frighteningly diverse, he was able to turn his hand to almost anything he cared to and certainly was always able to take control of the most difficult personal situations. Dahl had the drive to pluck and push solutions through the darkest tunnels and out into the light.
To explain this side of Roald Dahl, we need to see him, not as a world famous author, the lone figure in his writing hut, sleeping bag around his legs, board across his lap, yellow pad and sharpened pencils at the ready, but as perceptive inventor, philanthropist, and, when the occasion warranted it, a tenacious fighter and deeply affectionate family man. It is only then that all the rest makes sense, when his legacy is fleshed out beyond the confines of the book cover and film script.
Childhood, Hot-Bottomed Fagging and Chocolate
Before we reach this 'other' Roald Dahl, we need to get to know the boy born in Llandaff, Wales on 13 September, 1916. Harald Dahl and Sofie Hesselberg from Norway had married in 1911. Harald was the co-owner of a shipbroking business in Cardiff. Roald had four sisters but as a three-year-old was faced with two family deaths when his eight-year-old sister Astri died of appendicitis and his father died of pneumonia, both in 1920. His mother, Sofie, was so precious to him. The importance of being loved and not being alone was a theme that was to occur frequently in his career as an author. He was always clear that his mother '....was the absolute primary influence on my own life. She had a crystal-clear intellect and a deep interest in almost everything under the sun. She was the matriarch, the materfamilias and her children radiated round her like planets round a sun.' (Memories with Food, 1991)
Change 'matriarch' to 'patriarch' and we can begin to see in this observation an indication of what Roald himself would become to his own family. His intellect, fired by a vivid imagination, would lead not only to fantastic tales, but to Dahl the inventor, and is beautifully illustrated in the opening to his book of childhood and adolescent memories entitled My Year:
'When I was a little boy, I had a tiny boat made of tin (there was no plastic in those days) which had a very small clockwork motor inside it, and I used to play with it while I was having my bath. One day the tiny boat developed a leak in its hull and it filled with water and sank.
For many weeks after that, I would lie in my bath worrying about whether my own skin would develop a leak in it just as the little boat's hull had done, and I felt certain my body would fill with water and I would sink and die. But it never happened and I marvelled at the watertightness of the skin that covered my body.'
- My Year, 1993
This was a boy who, aged nine, created a Conker Practising Machine, capable of taking on six conkers at a time. A boy who, excited by his Christmas gift of a Meccano outfit, decided not to follow the many examples of what marvels you can construct, but to create something that had never been built before and, more than likely – by any stretch of the Meccano imagination – has not been built since. By stretching a wire from the roof of his house, over the top of a footpath to a nearby fence (around 100 yards), he was able to use the special grooved wheel and metal struts to make a device capable of speeding down this sloping wire with a hanging cargo of five used Heinz soup cans – cans now filled to the brim with water. A string leading back to his eager hand would tilt the water out when jerked and, ideally, when passing over innocent pedestrians on the footpath.
'Soon two ladies dressed in tweed skirts and jackets, and each wearing a hat, came strolling up the path with a revolting little Pekinese dog on a lead. I knew I had to time this carefully, so, when they were very nearly but not quite directly under the wire, I let my chariot go. Down she went, making a wonderful screeching-humming noise as the metal wheel ran down the wire and the string ran through my fingers at great speed.
Bombing from a height is never easy. I had to guess when my chariot was directly over the target, and when that moment came, I jerked the string.
The chariot stopped dead and the tins swung upside down and all the water tipped out. The ladies, who had halted and looked up on hearing the rushing noise of my chariot overhead, caught the cascade of water full in their faces. It was tremendous. A bull's-eye first time.'
– My Year, 1993
This one priceless example contains many of the traits of the adult Roald Dahl we are about to uncover: inventive intellect, doing something no one else has done, practical joking, perceptive timing, risk taking and bombing.
He survived a tough boarding school education, fraught with bullying but glistening with sporting success, particularly boxing – it seems a contradiction that this tall 'soft-faced' lad, who could box and play a good game of cricket and was excellent at squash, would become such a bullies' victim. But for bullies read 'Boazers' – these were 'career' bullies, part of the English public school system which thrived on the rules and rituals of 'fagging'. Perhaps we could even credit this bizarre system for encouraging his mind to ponder and wander, while warming the Boazers' frost-covered outside toilet seat. He recalls Boazer Wilberforce's pearls of wisdom on taking charge of a satisfactorily winter-warmed seat prepared by Dahl, 'Some Fags have cold bottoms, and some have hot ones. I only use hot-bottomed Fags to heat my bog seat. I won't forget you.' (Boy, 1984)
What we can credit to his time at Repton is a love and amazing knowledge of chocolate. Inside the complex imagination of that teenage boy, who knows exactly when the seed was sown for the later creation of one of his most famous literary and film successes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? The famous Cadbury chocolate factory, in an ingenious marketing initiative for its day, would send new chocolate bar creations for the boys of Repton to taste, test and comment on. Dahl had found his forte and recalls a dream, 'I used to picture a long white room like a laboratory with pots of chocolate and fudge and all sorts of other delicious fillings bubbling away on the stoves, while men and women in white coats moved between the bubbling pots, tasting and mixing and concocting wonderful new inventions.' (Boy, 1984)
In this dream, Roald would go on to create the most miraculous chocolate taste in the world. From that time onwards, he kept his love of chocolate honed and always maintained that school history lessons would be better served by teaching the names, not of kings and queens and their reigns, but of chocolate bars and the dates they were created.
The clues are steadily emerging to understand this man's remarkable persona. A man of great practicality and adventure, Dahl opted for a real challenge rather than reading for a degree and at 17 joined the Public Schools Exploring Expedition to Newfoundland. Here was adventure, excitement and danger, wandering into uncharted territory, blank spaces on existing maps - perhaps he might find a gold mine, he thought.
He didn't, and in September 1934, aged 18, he joined the oil giant, Shell. Languishing in the London office, he was frustrated knowing that others were exploring the world on Shell's behalf. His patience was rewarded, however, when after four years of tolerating this (and many chocolate bars later - he turned their wrappings into a giant silver ball, a surreal calendar of being office-bound), he was posted to Dar es Salaam. Camera always by his side, Dahl used the opportunity to store up experiences that would come tumbling out later in his writing days. It is no coincidence that the tarantula in a friend's shoe and the green mamba sliding across the floor would be fodder to his hugely successful adult writings such as Tales of the Unexpected.
Less unexpected was the declaration of war in 1939. Now 23, Dahl immediately joined the Royal Air Force in Nairobi. Here, with difficulty, he bent his lanky frame into the cockpit of a Tiger Moth and learnt to fly over the Kenyan Highlands. His Meccano bombing ingenuity as a boy now saw him flying over the Iraqi desert; no empty soup cans filled with water this time, but real weapons as he spent six months learning to shoot, navigate and dive-bomb. Later, trying to land an unfamiliar plane - a Gloster Gladiator - for re-fuelling, he crash-landed and was engulfed in flames. Dahl had fractured his skull but managed to escape serious burn injuries. He was, however, temporarily blinded and remained swollen and in great pain for some time. With characteristic determination, he pushed to fly again with the now much depleted 80 Squadron and this time he would see action and emerge a hero. During April, 1941, flying a Hurricane, he took part in raids over Athens against the invading Germany military, resulting in dog-fights during which he succeeded in downing several enemy aircraft. Dahl is credited in the official records with having shot down six enemy aircraft which, in a hectic period of five weeks solid fighting, was of heroic status. He no doubt would have notched up more but blinding headaches from his earlier crash saw him reluctantly invalided out. Here were more experiences for the author inside waiting to emerge.
Dahl's American Adventures
Following his heroic feats as a pilot, Dahl became bored. His imagination required feeding and so began an intense interest in collecting modern art. His boredom was staved off through this new passion and the celebrity network it encompassed.
Then a new posting came through. Dahl was appointed Assistant Air Attaché to the British Embassy in Washington, a post that would also connect him to the British Intelligence Services. His imagination would never go hungry again.
Dahl loved Washington and the celebrity party circuit in the States and women in particular loved him back. He was an injured fighter pilot hero, young, lanky, handsome, very witty, connected to the secret services, albeit very loosely, and he had tales to tell.
All RAF pilots were familiar with gremlins - they waited until you were airborne and then out they would gleefully come, as this extract from 'Song of the Gremlins', attributed to the RAF Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, testifies:
White ones will wiggle your wingtips
Male ones will muddle your maps
Green ones will guzzle your Glycol
Females will flutter your flaps
Pink ones will perch on your Perspex
And dance pirouettes on your prop
There's a special middle-aged Gremlin
Who'll spin on your stick like a top'.
During this time he became acquainted with the famous novelist CS Forester of Captain Hornblower fame, who encouraged Dahl to write about his experiences. The result was his first foray into professional authorship with 'Shot Down Over Libya', which appeared anonymously in the US magazine Saturday Evening Post in August 1942. But Dahl hooked a far bigger fish when his knowledge of gremlins reached the ears of a certain Walt Disney and now Hollywood was keen to meet this extraordinary story teller.
Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia were to give way to lightweight propaganda and training movies during these war years, but now Disney wanted Dahl's gremlins. Except they weren't Dahl's gremlins; they belonged to the RAF who, to a man, claimed they existed. Gremlin lore as recounted by Dahl reached the bizarre stage of Disney attempting to confirm actual sightings, descriptions and even accent. It was a masterpiece of a spoof with Dahl pulling as many legs as he could. When Disney's animators at Burbank tried to capture their likeness, Dahl told them, 'I am very glad to see that you had no definite views about Gremlins not wearing bowler hats, but their omission in your drawings did cause a little trouble.' Disney titles for the project ranged from 'Gremlin Gambols' and 'Gay Gremlins' to 'We've got Gremlins'.
'Stalky', as Walt Disney called Dahl, was in his element, living an expenses-paid life in Hollywood and pulling so many legs it's a wonder Burbank didn't collapse. In the event, the film was never made but the story was published as a picture book in 1943 entitled, Walt Disney: The Gremlins (A Royal Airforce Story by Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl).
The author inside had finally made his debut – this was Roald Dahl's first book. He signed with a literary agent and articles came tumbling out for the likes of Harpers, Cosmopolitan and The Ladies' Home Journal.
Dahl was on his way to fame, fortune and Great Missenden but there were many tragedies to overcome on the way. The story is continued in Part Two.