Roald Dahl - the Cardiff Connection

Tuesday 6 September 2011, 11:40

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Go into any school, in any part of Wales, Scotland or England, and ask the pupils for the names of their favourite authors. Nine times out of 10 Roald Dahl will feature high in the list of responses. The author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches and Matilda remains constantly popular yet, in school, his teachers did not think he had any particular talent for writing. How wrong can you be?

Roald Dahl was born on 13 September 1916 at Villa Marie in Fairwater Road, Llandaff, Cardiff. His parents were Norwegian, his father Harald having given up his previous career as a farmer and come to Cardiff to seek his fortune in the 1880s.

In those days Cardiff was one of the biggest and most important ports in the country, thousands of tons of coal being exported through the docks every year. Add in the fact that Norway had the third largest merchant fleet in the world and a pattern begins to emerge.

Before too long Harald was the joint owner of a large and successful ship broking business, Aadnesen and Dahl. When he married Sophie Magdalene (who came from Norway for the wedding and to settle down with her new husband) the young couple seemed set on the road to success.

Children soon began to arrive: Roald and three sisters. Despite living all their married life in Wales, Harald and Sophie remained very conscious and proud of their Norwegian heritage. Roald was named after the famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the man who had beaten Captain Scott to the South Pole in 1912, and when it was time to christen their new son, the ceremony took place in the Norwegian Church just outside Cardiff docks.

The Norwegian Church had been established in Cardiff in 1868 by the Norwegian Seamen's Missions. It was always more than just a church, being intended as a place where Norwegian sailors who were in port for a few brief hours or days could go to read newspapers and find comfort. Of course, there was the church element as well and the place was also intended to be used by Norwegian expatriates like Harald and Sophie Dahl. They and their family worshipped here regularly and all of their children were christened in the church.

In 1916, when Roald was christened, the Norwegian Church was not in the position or location we see today. Then it was situated on the spot where the Wales Millennium Centre now stands, at the entrance to Bute West Dock. It was an ideal location for the sailors who came regularly to use the facilities.

Churches like this, made of wood and put together almost like flat-pack furniture, were fairly common in most ports at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries - certainly in ports where the Norwegian presence was strong. Swansea had one - it has now been pulled down and remains in storage until, hopefully, it will one day be erected in a new location.

The Cardiff Norwegian Church was well used for many years, before closing in 1974 and falling into disrepair. Thanks to preservationists, the building was saved and moved, piece by piece, to its present site in 1990. Roald Dahl was the first President of the Preservation Trust, a position he held until his death in 1990.

The building has recently undergone a major refurbishment. Now known as the Norwegian Church Arts Centre, it regularly holds exhibitions and workshops - and the fact that Roald Dahl was christened there is commemorated on a large painting and a small plague on one of the walls inside the church.

Dahl's comfortable existence in Llandaff was cruelly destroyed in 1920 when first his sister Astri and then his father both suddenly died. Harald had been on a fishing trip in the Arctic and his death, in particular, must have been both a blow and a shock for the young boy.

His education began in Cardiff. He attended Cathedral School in Llandaff where his chief claim to fame was slipping a dead mouse into a jar of sweets in a shop owned by an unpleasant shop keeper. The boys in the school apparently consigned the occasion to immortality by giving the affair the name of 'The Great Mouse Plot of 1924'. The incident - which Roald duly went on to write about - shows a certain wicked sense of humour but, in his essays and school work, there was little or no sign of the prose style that later made him famous.

After this Roald was packed off to boarding school in England where, again, nobody saw any literary merit in his stories and essays. He used to travel home for holidays on the old Beachley ferry across the River Severn but, despite the excitement of the trip, his time at this school was a very unhappy one. A further period at Repton in Derbyshire further removed Roald Dahl from Wales and for the last past of his childhood and adolescence he spent most of his holidays with relatives in Norway.

Roald Dahl went on to achieve fame as a pilot in the Second World War and, in particular, as one of the most gifted writers ever to pick up a pen. Clearly his literary talent flourished later in his life. He wrote novels, poems and stories, not just for children but for adults as well - his Tales Of The Unexpected are a classic of their genre. He died on 23 November 1990.

Now, every year, Roald Dahl is remembered on 13 September, the date of his birth. Readings and discussions of his work take place all over the country, always well attended and always a source of huge enjoyment for children and adolescents.

As far as Cardiff is concerned, he is remembered in the Norwegian Church Arts Centre and by the naming of a roadway, the Roald Dahl Plass in the recently revamped dock area, in his honour. When he was given the further honour of a 'blue plaque' it was placed, not on the house where he was born but on the wall of the former sweet shop where the Great Mouse Plot of 1924 took place. Roald Dahl would probably have been very pleased.

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    Comment number 1.

    When you suggest that nine-tenths of schoolchildren would rate Dahl among their favourite authors, I'm sure you're right. I did most of my schoolteaching in the far West of Wales, and for many years had in my head the comforting thought that, however restless a First Form class (later we called them Year 7) might get on a Friday afternoon, I could always capture instant attention, could spell-bind them indeed, by offering to read them 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'.

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    Comment number 2.

    Roald Dahl was never part of my childhood. I discovered him when he was introduced to my own children in their junior school years. The BFG was a birthday gift to my daughter. (now 20) Since then we have acquired most of his children's stories, and in time-honoured fashion (in our house), I sneaked the books out of their bedrooms at night after our story-time to find out what happened. I have no doubt whatsoever, that when they themselves have children, the Dahl stories will be high on the agenda, and that they will both want to refresh their memories of the fascinatingly unpleasant characters therein.

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    Comment number 3.

    I, too, used Dahl in my teaching days - and with my own children. It was his Revolting Rhymes that they (my kids) liked - the image of Little Red Riding Hood "whipping a pistol from her knickers" has stayed with them and me!
    I see, from the papers, that his writing shed is under threat. I'm not sure about half a million to repair it, however. What is it, a shed or a palace?

  • rate this
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    Comment number 4.

    And, as regards the half-million to repair his shed, surely the Raold Dahl Estate, given all those books, all those sales, must have substantial funds available?

 

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