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Roald Dahl: the man behind the magic

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Laura Chamberlain Laura Chamberlain | 14:20 UK time, Monday, 22 November 2010

Tuesday 23 November 2010 marks the 20th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest children's writers to have heralded from Wales - Roald Dahl.

Dahl was born on 13 September 1916 in Llandaff, Cardiff to Norwegian parents Harald and Sofie Magdalene. His acquaintance with Wales may have been brief, but his time spent at the family's sprawling Victorian farmhouse, Ty Mynydd in Radyr, sparked Dahl's love of the natural world and countryside, and was regarded by the Dahl children as a kind of rural paradise. The family also spent holidays at the seaside resort of Tenby on the Pembrokeshire coast.

Dahl briefly attended Llandaff Cathedral School in Cardiff before his mother sent him to St Peter's boarding school in Weston-super-Mare, and then to Repton School in Derbyshire when he was 13. Sofie Magadalene eventually moved the family from Wales to Bexley, Kent in 1927.

Roald Dahl, with his pet goat Alma, outside his home Gipsy House © RDNL, courtesy of The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre

Roald Dahl, with his pet goat Alma, outside his home Gipsy House © RDNL, courtesy of The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre

While I could bombard you with a list of mundane facts about how his bestselling books continue to delight both children and adult bookworms to this day, I'm not going to.

Having recently read the latest biography published about the author, Storyteller: The Life Of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock, I'm going to share a couple of the lesser known stories from the life of this intriguing man. Sturrock was asked to pen the book by Dahl's daughter Ophelia, and was given access to private papers and letters.

Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock cover jacket. Image © HarperCollins Publishers Ltd

Image © HarperCollins Publishers Ltd

Life in the RAF, and as a secret agent

At six foot five, Dahl wasn't a conventional height to fit into the cramped cockpit of a Hawker Hurricane, or any other aeroplane used by the RAF. But his love of flying, and his exceptional ability, promised a great career in the service.

After completing his training, Dahl faced his first action serving in World War Two. In September 1940 he had to journey from Fouka in Algeria to meet his squadron, at a secret location in the North African desert.

Perhaps due to his relative inexperience, Pilot Officer Dahl failed to navigate his way to the base and airstrip, and as the darkness approached he had no option but to attempt a forced landing. The attempt was unsuccessful. His Gloster Gladiator had hit a boulder on descent at 80 miles per hour, and Dahl hit the front canopy of his cockpit and was seriously injured.

He was discovered two miles away from 80 Squadron's base. His overalls were so badly burned and his face so disfigured that he was almost unrecognisable as an RAF officer, and was initially mistaken by the doctor at the base for an enemy Italian.

This plane crash was to plague Dahl's health for years to come. He suffered frequent headaches and even blackouts after the accident, and suffered with chronic back problems - and resultant spinal operations - for the majority of his adult life.

Yet his exuberance towards flying, and the notion of it being a source of freedom and liberation, is present in many of his works - for example in Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator, or James' flight in the peach. It also spurred him onto recovery after his accident, retaining the hope that he would fly again despite his horrific injuries.

Dahl, eventually invalided from his flying duties in the RAF, also fell into the world of espionage while working as an assistant air attaché in Washington. In a role used to promote the British war effort in America (and counter to Nazi propaganda), Dahl found himself ensconced in the world of the British Security Coordination (BSC) - which represented both branches of the British secret services in the USA: MI6 and the Special Operations Executive.

During this period of his life he spent time socialising with, and gleaning information from, the president, Franklin D. Roosevelt - whose wife Eleanor was a fan of his literary work. He also found himself in circles that included Hollywood actors, authors and influential American celebrities, and would have known of another BSC member, and later writer, Ian Fleming. (Dahl would later write the screenplays for two films loosely based on Fleming's work: the James Bond film You Only Live Twice and children's favourite Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.)

Family tragedies

The Dahl family - Roald, his wife - the actor Patricia Neal, and their young children Olivia, Tessa and baby Theo - divided their time between Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire and New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s, due primarily to Neal's acting commitments.

Dahl, though, was tiring of this division. He began to loathe and also fear New York, thinking it a dangerous place, and wished to spend his time solely in England. His attitudes towards the city seemed almost prophetic, as his only son was to be involved in an horrific road accident in December 1960. Listen to a clip taken from BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week programme recounting the accident:

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The baby's skull shattered. It was a miracle that he survived, but months of hospital visits and ill health for were to follow, as cerebrospinal fluid had built up in Theo's head, pressing on his brain and causing him to go blind.

The internal drainage tube set up to drain the fluid blocked, and continued to do so repeatedly in the following months. Dahl identified that a defective valve was causing the problem, and set about creating a better alternative with paediatric neurosurgeon Kenneth Till and Stanley Wade, an expert craftsman/engineer. Together they created the Dahl-Wade-Till valve, which was first fitted successfully on a child in 1962. Before it was superceded it was used on almost 3,000 children.

Just two years later the Dahls were rocked by another tragedy. In November 1962, Dahl's eldest daughter Olivia contracted measles. It escalated to measles encephalitis, a rare inflammation of the brain, and she died at the age of just seven. In a chilling parallel, Roald's eldest sister Astri had also died at seven, having never recovered from a burst appendix and the resultant peritonitis. Both Roald and his father Harald had each lost their dearest child.

More heartache was to follow. In February 1975, while three months pregnant and filming John Ford's Seven Women, Dahl's wife Pat suffered a stroke and three masssive haemorrhages. She was in a coma for three weeks and the situation looked bleak. But Pat regained consciousness, and from then on the author was relentless in his actions to help his wife's recovery, determined to get her back to fitness and back into acting.

Roald Dahl in his writing hut, circa 1990 © Jan Baldwin, courtesy of The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre

Roald Dahl in his writing hut, circa 1990 © Jan Baldwin, courtesy of The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre

From reading Sturrock's biography, I've learnt that Dahl was a complicated man. Argumentative and volatile, he was an incredible storyteller, was extremely generous (he loved giving gifts) and often loved the company of children more than adults. As Donald Sturrock himself puts it:

"He was like a firework: unpredictable, volatile and exciting. He could delight you, but he was  dangerous, too. Get too close and you would likely be burned. However indignant and hotheaded he might appear, his intemperateness could rapidly be defused by humour or kindness. You never quite knew what he would do next."

Let us know your thoughts on Roald Dahl - and what your personal favourite book by the author is. For me, it has to be the wickedly funny, and perhaps grotesque, The Twits.

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