I can still remember hearing the news that Roald Dahl had died, because at the time I was the perfect age to be a fan of his work. Just a few months before I had seen him interviewed on children’s television show ‘Blue Peter’ and one of his last works, ‘Matilda’, had been a Christmas present the previous year.
Dahl left not one but two autobiographies: ‘Boy: Tales of Childhood’ (1984) and ‘Going Solo’ (1986), which at times sound almost as unbelievable as the works of fiction for which he became famous.
He was born in Wales on the 13th of September 1916, to a Norwegian couple, Harald and Sofie Magdalene Dahl. When he was three one of his older sisters, Astri, died of appendicitis, and just a few weeks later his father also passed away. Although it must have been tempting to return to Norway, Magdelene chose to remain in Wales with her surviving children, in part to honour her late husband’s wish that their children should have what he viewed as a ‘superior’ British education.
But Dahl’s schooldays were not a happy period. At the age of eight he was sent away to St. Peter’s boarding school at Weston-super-Mare, England, where he was horribly homesick, and things only became worse when he moved on to secondary school at Repton School in Derbyshire. This was the age of corporal punishment as well as the public-school tradition of ‘fagging’, where senior boys would treat the younger boys as virtual slaves, bullying them mercilessly. Dahl’s teachers appear to have had no suspicion that they were teaching a boy who, in 2008, would be placed 16th in The Times’ list of ’50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945’, with one writing in his school report that “I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended.”
Dahl’s saving grace was his sporting prowess: he was six feet six inches tall, and captain of the school’s fives and squash teams. Repton School was also a testing ground for Cadbury chocolates. The company would periodically send boxes of new products to be tasted by the boys, and this experience would provide inspiration for Dahl’s second children’s book, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’
After finishing school, Dahl worked for several years for the Shell Oil Company, and for a time was stationed in Kenya and Tanzania. With the outbreak of WWII, he joined the RAF as a pilot (in spite of the difficulty of fitting his tall frame into a cockpit), and flew missions over Africa and, later, Greece. However, in late 1941 he developed severe headaches and blackouts and was invalided back to England, where he was recruited into the Diplomatic Corps and sent to Washington D.C. as an assistant air attaché at the British Embassy.
Following the War, Dahl returned to England but still spent time in America and married an American actress Patricia Neal in 1953. They went on to have five children. Although Dahl was already writing for adults it wasn’t until he became a father than he began writing for children, with his first children’s book, ‘James and the Giant Peach’, published in 1961. A year later tragedy struck when his eldest daughter, Olivia, died of measles encephalitis. As a result, Dahl would later become a strong supporter of immunisation. Neal and Dahl divorced in 1983, and he subsequently married Felicity Crosland.
Dahl continued writing throughout his life, always in a shed at the bottom of his garden in Buckinghamshire. His children’s books are almost always darkly comic, fantastical and subversive, showing characters who are good, clever, and brave triumphing over stronger, stupider opponents. However, ‘good’ is not always the same as ‘law-abiding’: ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ steals shamelessly, and Danny’s father in ‘Danny the Champion of the World’ is a poacher. He delighted in language, making words like ‘scrumdiddlyumptuous’ up freely as he needed them.
Dahl died on the 23rd of November 1990 of a blood disease, and is buried at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire.
A full list of Dah’s many books can be found here.
I often tell children that ‘Matilda’ was the first chapter book that I read from beginning to end in one day (Christmas Day, 1989): do you have a favourite Roald Dahl title? What did you love about his books?