Ahead of Roald Dahl Day, and on the anniversary of his birth, Suzanne Harrington celebrates the life of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author and his fantastic literary journey dedicated to entertaining children.
It all came out of a garden hut in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire.
Giants, twits, creeps, and stinkers.
Monstrous school teachers, evil aunts, greedy idiots, terrible parents, terrifying grannies.
Oompa Loompas and fantastic foxes. And children — brave, truthful and good hearted — unless they had names like Verucca Salt or Augustus Gloop, in which case they were destined for the Bad Egg Chute.
Roald Dahl, born 100 years ago on September 16 (Roald Dahl Day is Deptember 13) , wrote for adults too — My Uncle Oswald, Kiss Kiss, Switch Bitch, Tales of the Unexpected, lots more — but it’s his books for children which continue to enthral.
You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy the exuberance of the children’s victories over his vilest adults — Matilda, Charlie, James, Danny, Sophie are ordinary children having extraordinary adventures, often hampered by hideous grown ups.
They always succeed in the end, unless they have displeased their creator, in which case they are force-fed chocolate cake, hurled out windows, or incinerated by witches. Enid Blyton would have choked on her ginger beer.
Dahl’s influence remains extensive. Steven Spielberg is a fan. Cinemas are currently showing his adaption of The BFG, the kind hearted giant who befriends a character called Sophie, named after Dahl’s first grandchild.
One of Spielberg’s earlier movies, 1984’s Gremlins, was also loosely based on Dahl’s first children’s book.
Gremlins was published in 1943, while Dahl was still a fighter pilot — technical problems in the cockpit inspired the idea of mischievous creatures intent on causing mechanical mayhem.
Such is Spielberg’s admiration for the writer, who died from leukaemia in 1990, that he dismissed Dahl’s reported anti-Semitism — the author made some ill- advised comments to the New Statesmen in 1983 — as absurd.
Nobody could write books as big hearted as Dahl’s and have that side to them, Spielberg said.
Noted poet and anti-racist campaigner Michael Rosen, who wrote Fantastic Mr Dahl, has described the Norwegian author as “my hero”.
For children’s authors, being compared to Roald Dahl is the everlasting gobstopper of glory. Think Mr Gum, Lemony Snicket, Squirrel Boy.
However, it is David Walliams who is his most obvious literary heir, an accolade compounded by Quentin Blake, Dahl’s long time collaborator, illustrating Walliams’s books.
Walliams, whose work is now read by more school-age children than that of JK Rowling, is an unashamed fan, having devoured Dahl’s books as a boy and admitted they were so good they almost put him off writing any himself.
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory … made me want to give up writing,” he once told an interviewer.
“It was perfect.”
Dahl’s influence on Walliams is huge. Mr Stink’s disgusting beard is very Mr Twit, as are the mad grannies and sympathetic children who people his novels — but Dahl’s brand of joyful grotesquerie remain unmatched.
Aside from knowing that he had Norwegian roots we might assume that Roald Dahl only ever lived in his garden shed, writing all day in pencil on a specially constructed tray from his favourite armchair.
As a kid, I thought his first name was a misspelling of ‘Ronald’.
There he created his inimitable characters and made up language — he called it Gobblefunk – which this year has been honoured by the Oxford University Press with the Roald Dahl Dictionary, and contains 8,000 nouns and verbs like snozzcumber, trogglehumper, fluckgungle and scrumdiddlyumptious.
(He wrote the screenplay for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, his Child Catcher a perfect example of Dahlian horridness).
We would, however, be wrong in thinking that he spent his whole life in that shed.
Before heading to his famous writing place — now a museum — Roald Dahl lived an extraordinary life, full of glamour and tragedy and what often sounded like make-believe.
Born to Norwegian parents in Wales in 1916, his father died when he was three; he spent summers with his hugely influential grandmother in Norway, before going to boarding school aged nine in England. He hated it.
He did, however, find inspiration for characters like the monstrous Miss Trunchbull (below), although in his letters home to his beloved mother Sofie Magdalene, he never complained about how unhappy he was, or how brutal school life was.
Instead, he sought to entertain her. Writing lewd, funny, macabre and utterly original letters which his mother kept, tied up in green tape for decades, and recently published as Love From Boy, edited by his biographer Donald Sturrock — gave us an unparalleled glimpse into the nascent author’s head.
Literally. Dahl was so charming and smart that he was recruited by M16 from his job as fighter pilot during the war, and sent to work alongside Ian Fleming as an intelligence officer.
Feted in the salons of the rich and fabulous in New York, Dahl was a prolific seducer of older, wealthy women, his agenda to further British interests in America during the war years.
In contrast with the ration books of Britain, he was intoxicated by the material abundance of the US, and not overly keen on the “pre-war cocktail party” he had been landed in.
However, he rallied, and was promoted to wing commander.
Before his stint in the US, Dahl had lived in colonial luxury in Tanzania, working for Dutch Royal Shell, and drinking himself insensible with the other ex-pats.
Until, in 1940, he crashed his plane into the Libyan desert and almost died, something which Sturrock identifies as “undoubtedly the key event” in Dahl’s life.
Writing to his mother, he played it down with classic English understatement, mentioning only a broken nose. He played everything down, and believed that human relationships were predominantly sexual rather than emotional, resulting in a lot of hurt feelings.
After his “monumental bash on the head”, Dahl began writing in earnest — short stories and novellas, initially published in the New Yorker.
He married Oscar-winning American actress Patricia Neal in 1953, with whom he had four daughters and a son. They moved to the house in Great Missenden in 1954, where tragedy struck.
In 1962, two years after the publication of James and the Giant Peach, Dahl’s seven year old daughter Olivia died of measles. He dedicated his 1982 book, The BFG, to her memory.
Dahl and Neal divorced in 1983 after a 30-year marriage during which he helped nurse both she and their son Theo back to health from a life-threatening illness and car crash.
He married Felicity Crosland, an aristocratic English woodcarver, but died seven years later.
As James and the Giant Peach launched Dahl as a children’s author, he followed in 1964 with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – inspired by his time at boarding school when the local Cadbury factory would give the school boys free samples in return for feedback.
Dahl had fantasised about becoming a chocolate inventor like Mr Cadbury.
Instead, after a pre-writing life lived extraordinarily, he became the most beloved children’s author of our time, delighted millions of kids, and selling millions of copies of Matilda, The Twits, Danny Champion of the World, The BFG, The Witches, George’s Marvellous Medicine, Fantastic Mr Fox, and books upon books of poetry to make children laugh.
Even kids who don’t read will read Roald Dahl.
Fiendish, funny and frightening, we cannot put him down.
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