Insight: Revealing Roald Dahl – warts and all

Roald Dahl's bad temper was perhaps excusable: he suffered almost constant back pain as a result of his plane crash injuries which shortened his fuse. Less so was his philandering, his misanthropy and his anti-Semitism.
Roald Dahl's bad temper was perhaps excusable: he suffered almost constant back pain as a result of his plane crash injuries which shortened his fuse. Less so was his philandering, his misanthropy and his anti-Semitism.
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A FEW years ago – to launch a campaign to save it for the nation – Roald Dahl’s widow Felicity opened up his writing den, a shed in the garden of the family home in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire.

In the run-up to the unveiling, there had been controversy. Transferring it to the nearby museum was going to cost £500,000. How could a tiny outhouse be worth such a phenomenal sum? Then journalists were allowed in and they couldn’t believe what they saw. Here, under layers of dust, was Dahl’s life in microcosm. Alongside the filing cabinets full of early drafts of his work and photographs of children – most notably his daughter, Olivia, who died of measles encephalitis at the age of seven – were the baize board he shaped to fit round his legs in lieu of a desk and a WTD valve, a gadget he developed to treat his baby son Theo who developed hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain) after being hit by a taxi. The polystyrene walls were stained with tobacco and an extra cushion had been propped up on an old arm chair to ease the pain of a back injury sustained when, as an RAF pilot, Dahl crash-landed during the Second World War. Best off all, however, for those attracted to the macabre side of his nature, were a jar of full of spinal shavings and a prosthetic hip bone he used as an impromptu drawer handle.

Dahl was a dramatic, contradictory character; though possessed of a sense of mischief and a capacity for generosity, he was irascible and espoused views that would make Katie Hopkins blanch. At six foot six, he was less of a Big Friendly Giant than a cantankerous, curmudgeonly one, and yet he was a splendid teller of tales with a direct line to children’s imaginations. Some of that was down to never having grown up himself; his obsession with sweets (which inspired Charlie And The Chocolate Factory) and toilet humour (see “whizzpoppers” – farts – in The BFG) lasted a lifetime. But it was also the product of an unhappy childhood.

Having lost his sister and father in quick succession, he was packed off to boarding school, where he felt his life was dominated by malevolent, cane-wielding adults. In his books, the children are the heroes meting out justice to horrible grown-ups, from Aunts Sponge and Spiker (in James And The Giant Peach) to Miss Agatha Trunchbull (in Matilda). Dahl had a love of the gross and an unparalleled playfulness with words. In terms of both taste and language, he broke all the rules; and there’s nothing children like better than anarchy.

Little surprise then that Dahl is one of the most successful children’s authors of all time. His books – which also include Fantastic Mr Fox, Danny The Champion Of The World and The Witches – have sold 200 million copies worldwide and make regular appearances in Top 10 lists whoever compiles them.

As the country embarks on a year of events to celebrate the centenary of his birth, his popularity shows no signs of waning. The release of Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, much of which was filmed on Skye, in June is one of the most eagerly awaited cinematic events of the year. Cardiff, the city of his birth, is launching its own festival culminating in a theatrical extravaganza which will take place on the city streets. A few years ago, it put up a plaque on the site of what Dahl called “the Great Mouse Plot of 1942”. The great mouse plot involved the author and his friend wreaking revenge on the cranky owners of a sweet shop by placing a dead rodent in a jar of gobstoppers.

In Scotland, Itchy Coo will publish The BFG in Scots under the title MFG (the Muckle Freendlie Giant) to coincide with the release of the film. The company has already published three Dahl books: The Eejits (The Twits), Geordie’s Mingin Medicine (George’s Marvellous Medicine) and The Sleekit Mr Tod (Fantastic Mr Fox).

Scots writer Matt Fitt, co-founder of Itchy Coo, says there’s something about Dahl’s work that makes it a pleasure to translate. “It’s visceral, there’s body fluids, it just sits up so beautifully for Scots, with words like manky, minging, honking, greetin’.” Dahl’s inventiveness with words does make it a challenge, though. “For ‘giant skillywiggler’, which is what Mr Twit calls the frog he has dropped into his wife’s bed, I came up with ‘muckle schooshywaggler’,” Fitt says. He has yet to come up with a Scots alternative to Snozzcumber – the loathsome vegetable the BFG is forced to eat.

Though the language may suit being translated into Scots, Fitt believes the appeal of the stories is universal. “It’s non-PC. When I’m reading it to bairns in different parts of Scotland I think: ‘How am I getting away with this?’ because there’s violence, there’s terrible things happening’,” he says. “But they are also incredibly moral, the bad ones get it in the neck all the time. We do like to see folk getting their comeuppance.”

Scottish writer Julie Bertagna says it’s the fact Dahl allies himself with his young readers that makes his stories so attractive. “He is the godfather of naughtiness and he is always ferociously on the side of the child in an often cruel and unsympathetic adult world,” she says. “Kids revel in the way he rebalances the power and punishes the horrible adults in outrageous, hilarious ways. But also, importantly, there’s always a character who reassures the child that there are kind and understanding adults in the world.”

A tendency towards the weird and the scatological was not confined to Dahl’s children’s books: some of the early stories he wrote for the New Yorker proved too sexually out-there for its tastes and ended up in Playboy. And almost everyone who grew up in the eighties remembers shuddering to Tales Of The Unexpected – the creepy TV series based on his short stories.

When Donald Sturrock was asked by Dahl’s family to write a biography after the author’s death in 1990, the idea was that it should redress the impression of him as obnoxious left by an earlier book by Jeremy Treglown. But despite Sturrock’s attempts to capture his charisma, there was little he could do to hide his flaws. Dahl’s bad temper was perhaps excusable: he suffered almost constant back pain as a result of his plane crash injuries which shortened his fuse. Less so was his philandering, his misanthropy and his anti-Semitism. “There’s a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity,” he told a journalist in 1983. “I mean there is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”

He also had a disgust for the human body; many of his books feature people who are too short or too fat or too lean, although, in The Twits, he says: “A person who has good thoughts cannot be ugly” which suggests he is using physical ugliness as a metaphor for inner ugliness.

Named after polar explorer Roald Amundsen, Dahl was born in Llandaff in Cardiff to Norwegian parents in September 1916. But in 1920, his sister, Astri, and his father, Harald, died, leaving his mother, Sofie Magdalene, with five children – Roald and two more sisters, plus two girls from Harald’s first marriage – and another one on the way. At the age of eight, Dahl went to a boarding school in Weston-super-Mare and then to Repton School in Derby. His literary genius was not yet apparent, with his stories receiving a lukewarm response from his teacher. At Repton, the boys would occasionally act as tasters for the nearby Cadbury factory. Though school was miserable, many of his summers were spent on a Norwegian island full of folklore about witches and trolls.

After leaving school, Dahl went to work for Shell, but as war approached he joined the RAF and became at first a flying ace and then, after being invalided out, an intelligence officer based in Washington, where he is said to have bedded a succession of wealthy women. His first published writing was A Piece Of Cake, an account of his flying experiences, written for author CS Forester who was aiding the British war effort. After the war, he began writing short stories for various publications.

In 1953, Dahl married Hollywood star Patricia Neal and they bought Gypsy House in Great Missenden although they also spent a lot of time in New York. But in 1960, everything began to fall apart. First, when Theo was just four months old, he was hit by a taxi on a Manhattan street, then, in 1962, Olivia died, and finally, in 1965, Neal suffered three cerebral aneurysms at the age of 39, when she was carrying their fifth child. The stroke robbed her of much of her speech and movement.

Dahl responded to these catastrophes with a mixture of resilience, determination and control freakery. There is much to be admired about the way he set about developing the WTD valve which was used to drain fluid off Theo’s brain and the way he kept on writing to cover the cost of escalating medical bills. But the way he treated Neal – bullying her back to physical health so she could resume her career – is discomfiting, even if it worked. Neal, who hated him much of the time, was eventually grateful and went on to be nominated for an Oscar for her role in The Subject Was Roses in 1968. But there were those who believed Dahl was jealous of her higher profile and enjoyed having her needy and subservient. According to his daughter Tessa, Dahl also made her feel as if she couldn’t live up to Olivia.

During the sixties, Dahl was writing screenplays, such as those for the films You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as well as some of his best-known children’s books. But the books didn’t enjoy huge success until the release in 1971 of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, which Dahl hated.

Now they began to sell in their millions, a trend that only intensified when he began collaborating with the illustrator Quentin Blake. Despite this, Dahl’s humour didn’t improve; he antagonised everyone, including his Jewish editor, Robert Gottlieb, who – despite the money and prestige Dahl brought the company – eventually sent him packing.

Though Dahl continued to care for Neal, he embarked on an 11-year affair with Felicity Crosland, whom he finally married after divorcing Neal in 1983. According to his family, his love for Felicity mellowed him and led to softer stories, such as The BFG. On the other hand, as he got older, Dahl’s pain increased and early drafts of Matilda, published in 1988, were rejected because Matilda was just too horrible.

So, Dahl had many faults, but his children’s books still throb with gripping plots, unforgettable characters and positive messages. In every one, there are sentences that stay with you and his obsession with the sensual means he is able to describe not only the foulness of Mr Twit’s beard, but also the pleasure of crawling through a tunnel of dripping peach.

Today, Dahl’s creative legacy continues to triumph over criticisms of his character. Children still turn up to sneak a peek at Gypsy House, the books are available in 59 languages and UK sales alone stand at 50 million.

A couple of years ago, a survey by American education company Renaissance Learning suggested his books were now more popular with adults than children. But Dahl’s formula – the timid young hero prevailing against the world – remains a winning one. And the centenary, which has brought a new Dahl-related app and the Spielberg film, looks set to whet the appetite of a new generation. “Above all, watch the glittering world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places,” Dahl wrote in his last book, The Minpins, which was published posthumously. A hundred years after his birth, the eyes of those who love Dahl’s work are still peeled for literary treasure. «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1