Today is the birthday (1916) of Roald Dahl best known for his children’s books which have become very popular films, but also as a short story writer and poet, not to mention Second World War flying ace and MI6 agent who rose to the rank of (acting wing commander), and ardent activist for multiple causes, particularly childhood diseases. He was born in Wales to Norwegian parents, hence the very unBritish name. Despite his Norwegian background he fits squarely in a very long line of English children’s authors with eccentric imaginations (and personalities) bordering on the clinically insane. I’ve posted on many of them in the past including such luminaries as Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie, C.S. Lewis, et al – not to mention Douglas Adams who wrote for adults but in the same loony, but brilliant, vein. In the limited space I have here I want to focus on Dahl’s personal life as an avenue into his writing. I’ll start with a poorly remembered anecdote I read years ago.
Dahl had very particular writing habits which I will get to in a minute. One day he got a call from the local police while he was at work writing, informing him that his young son (maybe 12 years old) had driven the family car down to the local village to buy sweets but couldn’t get it started to get back home. Dahl was royally pissed off, not because his underage son had stolen the family car, but because his writing routine had been disturbed. I find this story most endearing, and indicative of the man. He was quite willing to forgive his son for the misdemeanor, in fact he admired his inventiveness. After all, he was trying to honor his father’s need for solitude whilst writing – but he wanted sweeties and thought he had found a way. Dahl was just ticked off because his son’s plan backfired and, in consequence, inconvenienced him. He was tempted to get his son on the phone and instruct him in how to start the car so that he could get back to work. The thing is that Dahl wanted children to have happy childhoods, and most of this stems from the fact that his was miserable.
If I can be overgeneral for a moment I’d like to contrast English fantasy heroes with US ones. US comics and movies are replete with adult superheroes, such as Batman, Superman, Captain America, et al, fighting evil with SUPER power, whereas English novels have heroes who are either children (Barrie, Lewis, J.K. Rowling), or weak little people (Tolkein’s hobbits), who gain the day through ingenuity, courage, and integrity rather than brute strength. There we have the perfect metaphor for the world we live in today. The US spends more on the armed forces and weaponry than the next top 10 military nations in the world – COMBINED – yet loses out, decade after decade, to much smaller and weaker nations, and has done so since the Second World War. First there was Korea, then Vietnam, and now we have Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria . . . and on and on. Yet they never learn. Trump is calling for a yet bigger military budget to “rebuild” the country’s forces. All it took in 2001 to completely cripple the country, and send shock waves of fear to every corner, was a few determined men (armed with box cutters) who had some rudimentary flight training and plane tickets. When I need help with a giant problem, give me Matilda over Captain America every time. Will Goliath ever learn that he’s going to lose to David time and time again?
Dahl’s childhood is painstakingly detailed in his autobiographical Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984) which gives great insight into how and why he became the writer he was. Dahl was named after the Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, and his first language was Norwegian, which he spoke at home with his parents and his sisters Astri, Alfhild and Else. In 1920, when Dahl was 3 years old, his 7-year-old sister, Astri, died from appendicitis. Weeks later, his father died of pneumonia at the age of 57. With the option of returning to Norway to live with relatives, Dahl’s mother decided to remain in Wales, because Harald had wished to have their children educated in British schools, which he considered the world’s best.
Dahl first attended the Cathedral School, Llandaff. At the age of 8, he and four of his friends (one named Thwaites) were caned by the headmaster after putting a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers at the local sweet shop, which was owned by a “mean and loathsome” old woman called Mrs Pratchett. This was known among the five boys as the “Great Mouse Plot of 1924”. Dahl later glorified gobstoppers, a perennial favorite of English schoolboys, in “Everlasting Gobstopper” and later in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Thereafter, he transferred to a boarding school in England: St Peter’s in Weston-super-Mare. Dahl’s parents had wanted him to be educated at an English public school and, because of a then regular ferry link across the Bristol Channel, this proved to be the nearest. His time at St Peter’s was an unpleasant experience for him. He was very homesick and wrote to his mother every week but never revealed to her his unhappiness. Only after her death in 1967 did he find out that she had saved every single one of his letters, in small bundles held together with green tape.
From 1929, he attended Repton School in Derbyshire. Dahl had unhappy experiences of the school, describing an environment of ritual cruelty and acting as personal servants for older boys (fagging) along with terrible beatings. These violent experiences are described in Donald Sturrock’s biography of Dahl. There are, of course, strong echoes of these darker experiences in Dahl’s writings and his hatred of cruelty and corporal punishment. According to Boy: Tales of Childhood, a friend named Michael was viciously caned by headmaster Geoffrey Fisher, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury and went on to crown Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Dahl was never seen as a particularly talented writer in his school years, with one of his English teachers writing in his school report “I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended.” One has to wonder to what degree his boyhood creativity and imagination were lost on brutish idiots.
Dahl was exceptionally tall for his era, reaching 6 feet 6 inches as an adult. During his years at Repton, Cadbury, the chocolate company, would occasionally send boxes of new chocolates to the school to be tested by the pupils. Dahl dreamt of inventing a new chocolate bar that would win the praise of Mr Cadbury himself: inspiration for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964).
Throughout his childhood and adolescent years, Dahl spent the majority of his summer holidays with his mother’s family in Norway, and wrote about many happy memories from those expeditions in Boy: Tales of Childhood. He served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, in which he became a flying ace and intelligence officer, rising to the rank of acting wing commander. His rise to prominence as a writer began after the war in the 1940s.
Dahl married American actress Patricia Neal on 2 July 1953 at Trinity Church in New York City. Their marriage lasted for 30 years and they had five children.
On 5 December 1960, his four-month-old son, Theo Dahl, was severely injured when his baby carriage was struck by a taxicab in New York City. For a time, he suffered from hydrocephalus and, as a result, his father became involved in the development of what became known as the “Wade-Dahl-Till” (or WDT) valve, a device to alleviate the condition. The valve was a collaboration between Dahl, hydraulic engineer Stanley Wade and London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital neurosurgeon Kenneth Till, and was used successfully on almost 3,000 children around the world.
In November 1962, Olivia died of measles-induced encephalitis at age 7. Her death left Dahl “limp with despair” and gave him a feeling of guilt that he could not do anything for her. Dahl subsequently became a vocal proponent of immunization and dedicated his 1982 book The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) to his daughter. After Olivia’s death, Dahl lost faith in God. While mourning her loss he had sought spiritual guidance from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher (of schoolboy caning fame), but became dismayed when Fisher told him that although Olivia was in Paradise, her beloved dog Rowley would never join her there. Dahl wrote: “I wanted to ask him how he could be so absolutely sure that other creatures did not get the same special treatment as us. I sat there wondering if this great and famous churchman really knew what he was talking about and whether he knew anything at all about God or heaven, and if he didn’t, then who in the world did?”
In 1965, Patricia Neal suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms while pregnant with their fifth child, Lucy. Dahl took control of her rehabilitation and she re-learned to talk and walk, and even returned to her acting career, an episode in their lives which was dramatized in the film The Patricia Neal Story (1981), in which the couple were played by Glenda Jackson and Dirk Bogarde. Following a divorce from Neal in 1983, Dahl married Felicity “Liccy” Crosland.
Roald Dahl died on 23 November 1990, at the age of 74 of a rare cancer of the blood, myelodysplastic syndrome, in Oxford, and was buried in the cemetery at St Peter and St Paul’s Church in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. According to his granddaughter, the family gave him a “sort of Viking funeral”. He was buried with his snooker cues, some very good burgundy, chocolates, HB pencils and a power saw. To this day, children continue to leave toys and flowers by his grave.
Before giving a recipe let me return to his writing habits which were suitably meticulous and eccentric. Dahl had a “writing hut” in his garden where he worked from 10:30 to noon every morning and 4 to 6 every afternoon, timing the routine precisely. He wrote only with US materials, sent to him periodically from New York: number 2 yellow pencils with attached erasers and yellow legal pads. He calculated that he wore down a pencil about every 2 hours, so he started the day with 6 sharpened pencils which he kept on a jar on his desk. He started each day with 6 so that he would not have to interrupt his writing with sharpening. He constantly wrote and rewrote because, like Oscar Wilde, he was extremely exacting about word choice. This led to a constantly overflowing waste-paper basket which he would periodically empty, burning the papers in a bonfire. As a result, we have little insight into his writing process. His secretary, Wendy, turned his finished manuscripts into typescripts for publication. As a writer I will say that this is an incredibly dangerous way of writing. How many tales are there of writers losing precious manuscripts by leaving them on a train or having them destroyed by accident? Make copies people !!!!
I think that in honor of James and the Giant Peach a peach cobbler recipe is in order, but bear in mind that Dahl’s favorite lunch was Norwegian prawns with lettuce and mayonnaise washed down with a gin and tonic and followed by a chocolate bar. You can do a lot of things with peaches, but James and the Giant Peach links the US and England, and so does peach cobbler, a Southern recipe that is like an English fruit batter pudding – but not. It’s a magic recipe in a way, with the batter starting out on the bottom, but ending up on top.
½ cup unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar, divided
1 tbsp baking powder
1 cup milk
4 cups fresh peeled and sliced peaches
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
Pre-heat the oven to 375°F.
Melt the butter in a 13- x 9-inch baking dish.
Combine the flour, 1 cup sugar, baking powder, and a pinch of salt in a mixing bowl. Add the milk and stir with a wooden spoon until the dry ingredients are just moistened. Pour the batter over butter without stirring.
Bring the remaining 1 cup sugar, peach slices, and lemon juice to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Immediately pour them over batter without stirring.
Bake at 375° for 40 to 45 minutes or until golden brown.
Cobbler can be served hot straight from the oven or cold. It is commonly served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.