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Roald Dahl: A life filled with adventures and sorrows

by | Sep 13, 2020 | Blog, News

Roald Dahl is a name known to almost everyone, no child would have grown up without reading novels such as James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Roald Dahl was and is still loved by many to this day regardless of how time and societies have changed and evolved, his work still captures the mind and heart of many readers.

Born on September 13th, 1916 in Llandaff, South Wales, Dahl parents were Norwegian and settled in Wales in 1880 and was named after the Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen. Amundsen was a national hero in Norway at the time and was the first person to ever reach the South Pole. Dahl spoke Norwegian when he was at home with his family. The entire Dahl family did so.

Dahl had to deal with tragedy at a young age when his sister and father both died in 1920. His seven-year-old sister, Astri, died from appendicitis and weeks later his father Harald died of pneumonia at the age of 57 while on a fishing trip in the Antarctic.

Roald Dahl did not excel as a student, he disliked the rules that the school forced on him and was often times extremely restless. His teachers did not think he was a particularly talented writer. In fact, one of his English teachers wrote in his school report, “I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended.”

Once Dahl graduated from Repton in 1932, he went on a hiking trip to Newfoundland in Canada. After his hiking tour was finished, he got a job with Shell Petroleum Company and worked in exotic locations like Kenya and Tanzania. He continued to work for Shell Oil until 1939 when he decided to join the Royal Air Force. He trained in Nairobi, Kenya and went on to become a fighter pilot during World War II. As a fighter pilot, Dahl was serving time in the Mediterranean before he crashed his plane in Alexandria, Egypt. He sustained a serious skull injury as well as injuries to his hip and spine. In 1942, Dahl became a British diplomat, and was appointed as assistant air attaché at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. But he did not like being a diplomat though, and he later said: I’d just come from the war. People were getting killed. I had been flying around, seeing horrible things. Now, almost instantly, I found myself in the middle of a pre-war cocktail party in America.

During the war, Dahl was recruited as a spy for MI6. He was recruited by the Canadian spymaster, William Stephenson, who was known by the codename “Intrepid”. Dahl provided MI6 with intelligence from Washington, working alongside Ian Fleming who would later become the creator of James Bond.

During his time in Washington D.C. Dahl met the author C.S. Forrester, who encouraged Dahl to pursue a writing career, and so he began publishing stories in the Saturday Evening Post and The New Yorker. Finally in 1942, Roald Dahl wrote his first children’s story titled, The Gremlins. Unfortunately, the story didn’t gain the popularity that Dahl was hoping and he returned to writing adult fiction.

On July 2, 1953, Dahl married the American actress Patricia Neal. The wedding took place in New York City and the marriage lasted 30 years. The very same year he also published a collection of short stories titled, Someone Like You. It took a long time for Dahl to establish himself as reputable children’s author. In 1961, James and the Giant Peach was published, and was an instant success among critics and the general public. Three years later Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published, which was inspired by his childhood; as the chocolate maker Cadbury’s used to taste-test their chocolate bars at Dahl’s school, and he used to dream that he would invent a new chocolate bar and win praise from Mr Cadbury.

It is claimed that Dahl spent around four hours every day writing stories from his garden shed! He was incredibly creative and came up with more than 500 new words and character names. Such as the Oompa-Loompas and scrumdiddlyumptious from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and snozzcumbers and frobscottle from the BFG.

Oxford University Press even created a special Roald Dahl Dictionary, featuring almost 8,000 real and imaginary words which he loved to use.

Many of the characters and stories created by Dahl were inspired by the people and places around him. The foxes’ home in Fantastic Mr Fox was inspired by a huge tree which grew outside Roald Dahl’s home in the village of Great Missenden, in England. It is thought that the grandmother in the book The Witches was based on Roald Dahl’s mother, Sofie. He even named one of the main characters in the BFG after his first grandchild – Sophie; an author and former model. Out of all his stories, Roald Dahl said that The BFG was probably his favourite. James and the Giant Peach was originally going to be called James and the Giant Cherry. It was changed from a cherry to a peach because Dahl said a peach is “prettier, bigger and squishier than a cherry.”

A few of Dahl’s favourite authors were Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens and English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. He was friends with Ernest Hemingway. The two were photographed together in London in 1944. It isn’t known why the two met – at the time Dahl was a first-time author with The Gremlins while Hemingway was a world-famous author.

Dahl passed away from a blood disease on November 23, 1990 at the age of 74. He enjoyed growing orchids, collecting art, drinking wine, playing snooker and racing greyhounds which explains why he requested to be buried with all of his favourite things: snooker cues, a bottle of Burgundy, chocolate, HB pencils, and a power saw.

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