“Mr Dahl could tell and write a good yarn but he certainly was a boozy, misogynistic, misanthropic git in the flesh.” (Anon).
Asked by the family to write a biography of Roald Dahl (1916-1990) presents the author with a challenge in selecting and interpreting the facts. Dahl was an enormously talented author of children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, while at the same time having a number of less than desirable personal and personality traits. Rather than list these flaws, which can best be grasped by reading David Sturrock’s excellent biography of Dahl (Simon and Schuster, 2010), following are some of the ingredients which are associated with Dahl’s career as a writer. I don’t think it is a formula which can or needs to be repeated, but some may see similarities with other writers.
Any biography of Dahl has to include his Norwegian parents, his birth in Wales and education at English boarding schools with their disciplinary features which included beating, bullying and buggery, plus fairly spartan living conditions. Dahl survived all of these because he was a big boy, six foot six inches when a grown up, and was not the focus of older boys, or even masters, when he was young. He was also good at sports especially rugby, squash and fives (a form of handball played in a squash type court). He did not attend university.
Dahl’s size brings to mind the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch where pupil Cook is to be beaten by housemaster Moore for stealing some shoes. After a scolding by Moore, Cook points out that “while you are older and wiser than me, I am bigger than you,” and Moore ends up congratulating Cook.
At the start of WW2, age 23, Dahl joined the RAF and learned to fly. His plane crashed in the North African desert leaving him alive, but badly burnt and requiring extensive plastic surgery. Amazingly this does not show up in later photographs. Much of the rest of the war was spent as a junior RAF officer doing public relations at the British Embassy in Washington, where he met President Roosevelt and played tennis with Vice-President Wallace.
His relationship with the British Ambassador, Lord Halifax, who had been sent there by Churchill to remove him from Whitehall, was strained. Halifax had been a contender with Churchill for prime minister in 1940, and had previously wanted England to make a deal with Hitler. Given the number of Americans who at the start of the war were pro-German, and the reluctance of many in the US to assist the U.K. financially and with weapons, Halifax seems like an odd choice for ambassador. Churchill was more astute in dealing with the Germanophile Duke of Windsor, by sending him as Governor of the Bahamas from 1940 to 1945. Dahl’s role in Washington was writing PR pieces on behalf of England and attending social gatherings.
While Dahl was accomplished with his pen, he was, from an early age, active and popular with the ladies. He married twice, first in 1953 Patricia Neal (1926 – 2010), the American star who in 1963 won the Best Actress award for her role in Hud. They had five children, one of whom died age seven, and another who suffered brain damage after being hit by a taxi in New York. Neal suffered a stroke in 1965 from which she recovered with Roald’s help and was able to continue her career. The marriage ended in divorce in 1983. Dahl had taken up with Felicity Crosland whom he married in 1983 and who survived Dahl’s death in 1990.
His penmanship (actually he used pencils), while accomplished from an early age, took time to generate much money and it was not until his children’s books took off from the 1960s, and some became films, that he had the funds to pursue the lifestyle that he craved. That included collecting and appreciating wines, gambling, greyhound racing, travelling and meeting important people, especially in the US and UK.
If this combination of personality, interests, behaviour and so on are the necessary ingredients for the creativity that produces books which have such wide appeal to children and many adults, then it seems to be something that happens fortuitously rather than being created.
Dahl was/is an enormously successful author of childrens books. Aside from his own talents, his interaction with the publishing industry is instructive. He worked closely with agents, publishers, editors, artists and publicists to shape and market his written work. While the author often gets most of the credit and public acclaim, it is because he or she has a team of people that helps to produce and distribute the final work. This is not unlike theatre, film, dance and music. David Sturrock’s Dahl is a fine case study of how it can all fit together in the case of publishing. Fortunately for today’s audience much of Dahl’s work is available in some form via the internet. A Roald Dahl museum in Great Missenden, UK, is extremely popular…..especially with children.