by Nur Hussein, staff writer
Beloved children’s author Roald Dahl was born 98 years ago today, in Wales. He lived a full 74 years before he passed away in 1990, and in those decades he gave us wonderful and magical books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The Witches, The BFG, and more.
Dahl’s parents were Norwegian immigrants, hoping to build a life in Britain. Dahl’s first school was Llandaff Cathedral School which he attended from ages seven through nine. After an incident where Dahl and his friends put a dead mouse in a jar of candy at the local candy store (to prank the owner, a “loathsome” old lady named Mrs. Pratchett), Dahl was caned by the headmaster and, as a result, his mother transferred him to an English boarding school, St. Peter’s, because his parents felt English schools were the very best.
At St. Peter’s he would encounter horrible schoolteachers and caning again. He was also very homesick at boarding school, and he once pretended to have appendicitis so he could be sent home (at home, his physician found this out pretty quickly upon examination but told the school he had a stomach infection, as long as Dahl promised not to pull a stunt like that again).
When Dahl was 12, his mother asked whether he would like to go to one of two public schools; Marlborough or Repton. Dahl decided he would go to Repton, purely on the basis that it was a lot easier to pronounce. There he encounted prefects (whom Dahl called “Boazers”) who bullied the younger kids, and one of the many punishments Dahl had to endure was warming the icy toilet seats during winter. Dahl recounts that he “must have read the entire works of Dickens” during those seat-warming sessions.
While in school, Dahl had the opportunity to taste-test Cadbury’s chocolate bars. Cadbury’s sent samples to schools for kids to taste and they had to give feedback to the company who would use their suggestions to improve their products. This experience led Dahl to dream up the plot to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
After school, Dahl went right to work. He wished for a job that could take him to adventure and faraway places, so he worked at the Shell Petroleum company. His job led him to Africa, and when World War 2 broke out, he joined the British Royal Air Force. The early part of his service and training was in Africa, and he was assigned to No. 80 Squadron that flew obsolete planes called Gloster Gladiators. He once managed to accidentally crash his Gladiator, giving him a fractured skull and blinding him temporarily. He recovered in a Royal Navy hospital in Alexandria, where he fell in love with a nurse named Mary Welland while he couldn’t see. When he recovered his eyesight, he found that while she was beautiful, she did not match the fantasy that he had imagined while he was blind, and his infatuation evaporated.
After the war, Dahl married his first wife, Amerian actress Patricia Neal. He had five children with her, and their marriage lasted 30 years. They divorced in 1983, after which Dahl married Felicity Crosland, and they were married until Dahl’s death in 1990.
Dahl’s first published work, A Piece of Cake, was a story about his wartime adventures which included his airplane crash ordeal. It was originally published under the title Shot Down Over Libya (a title invented by the publisher, who thought it would be more “dramatic” despite the fact Dahl wasn’t shot down at all).
His first children’s book was a tale called The Gremlins, based on air force folklore that blamed “gremlins” for things that went wrong with aircraft. Dahl wrote a total of 17 children’s stories, plus three more books of poetry for children. Most of his stories have grotesque humor and villainous adults, partly due to all the abuse he suffered in boarding schools as a child. Apart from his career as a children’s book author, he also had a successful parallel career as an author of adult fiction.
Very recently, a lost chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was found and subsequently published by the Guardian (you can read it here). It was originally omitted for being a little too edgy for the tastes of editors of the time, as it is about naughty children being chopped and pounded into fudge.
Dahl’s books were a huge influence to my childhood. Through them, I experienced the joy of magical worlds, the fun of grotesque humor and the delight of neologisms (I loved the fact that he just made up words – it felt like it was breaking the rules of writing which my stern teachers were so uptight about!). I miss Roald Dahl, as does the rest of the literary world.
Nur is a tinkerer of programmable things, an apprentice in an ancient order of technomages. He enjoys fantasy, sci-fi, comic books, and Lego in his spare time. His favourite authors are Asimov and Tolkien. He also loves Celtic and American folk music. You can follow him on twitter: @nurhussein