Cel­e­brat­ing the work of the leg­endary Roald Dahl.

As Steven Spiel­berg brings to the big screen, Luke Dormehl looks at how a Master of the Macabre be­came one of our great­est chil­dren’s writ­ers

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Ex­ceed­ingly tall, with long spindly fin­gers and a pen­chant for spend­ing his time in a writ­ing shed in his gar­den show­cas­ing, among other items, a glass vial con­tain­ing gluti­nous pieces of his spine and a large metal ball com­prised of the wrap­pers of hun­dreds of choco­late bars, Roald Dahl could eas­ily have been a char­ac­ter in one of his own books. One of his pub­lish­ers once dubbed him the “Master of the Macabre”. While not a straight­for­ward hor­ror writer by any means, this de­scrip­tion does jus­tice to an au­thor who didn’t just craft a string of suc­cess­ful chil­dren’s block­buster nov­els about evil witches, child-munch­ing giants and tele­ki­netic young girls, but also lent his zany wit to dozens of adult short sto­ries and a hand­ful of great movie and TV scripts – from adapt­ing his friend Ian Flem­ing’s You Only Live Twice and Chitty

Chitty Bang Bang to play­ing a bit-part in the

cre­ation of Grem­lins.

Dahl was born in 1916, in Cardiff, Wales to Nor­we­gian par­ents. His fa­ther, a busi­ness­man named Har­ald Dahl, died of pneu­mo­nia when Roald was just three. Although death is gen­er­ally treated un­sen­ti­men­tally in Dahl’s writ­ing, it is fas­ci­nat­ing to note how many of the char­ac­ters in his books come from bro­ken homes in which one or both par­ents are dead. So­phie in The BFG, the un­named nar­ra­tor in

The Witches and James in James And The Gi­ant Peach all share the trait of start­ing the book with­out their bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents. The note of parental aban­don­ment in his work is even stronger when you con­sider that Roald’s fa­ther died just three weeks af­ter Dahl’s older sis­ter: his fa­ther’s noted favourite. Char­ac­ters such as Matilda Worm­wood in Matilda are cru­elly passed over in the af­fec­tion of her par­ents in favour of her brother.

De­spite th­ese seem­ingly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal fea­tures in his work, how­ever, Dahl was re­port­edly as sur­prised as any­one to hear of their ex­is­tence. “He ab­so­lutely de­tested analysing his own work,” says Don­ald Stur­rock, for­mer friend of Dahl’s and the au­thor of the bi­og­ra­phy Sto­ry­teller: The Life Of Roald Dahl. “I once asked Roald about the fact that many of his char­ac­ters come from bro­ken homes. He said, ‘Oh no, I don’t do that. Other writ­ers do, but I don’t.’ When I pointed out to him the over­whelm­ing ev­i­dence that he did, in fact, do that he was com­pletely shocked. He said, ‘You’ve rather caught me out there.’”


Dahl had an un­happy time at board­ing school, which is de­scribed in his quasi-fic­tion­alised mem­oir Boy. Dur­ing World War II he served in the RAF as a fighter pi­lot and, later, as a diplo­mat at the Bri­tish Em­bassy in Washington, DC. Dahl’s wartime ex­pe­ri­ence formed the ba­sis of his first pub­lished story: a 1942 piece for an Amer­i­can pub­li­ca­tion called the Satur­day Evening Post con­cern­ing a near-fa­tal plane crash he had been in. He liked to claim he was paid $1,000 for writ­ing the piece, which took him all of five hours to do. In fact, he was paid $300 for it, which added up to $187.50 af­ter tax and agent de­duc­tions. Re­gard­less, he had found his call­ing. In the fu­ture there would be far less need to ex­ag­ger­ate his earn­ings.

Dahl’s mag­a­zine story for the Evening Post was fol­lowed by his first chil­dren’s book, The

Grem­lins, which was based on folk­loric fig­ures who, leg­end had it, were re­spon­si­ble for the me­chan­i­cal faults on board planes. While not a di­rect lin­eage, Dahl’s book pop­u­larised the idea of “grem­lins”, which four decades later led to Joe Dante’s 1984 hit movie, Grem­lins.

From there, Dahl be­came known as a writer of twisted short sto­ries for adults, of­ten with fiendish and bawdy el­e­ments – and reg­u­lar twist end­ings. At one point, his sto­ries were turned down by the fic­tion editor of the New

Yorker on the grounds that they were, “a lit­tle too un­pleas­ant for our general read­ers”. A typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of one of his short sto­ries from this time is Taste, con­cern­ing a wa­ger regarding whether or not a wine con­nois­seur can guess

Roald Dahl, one of Bri­tain’s great­est genre writ­ers.

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