LOVE FROM ROALD
Roald Dahl’s letters to his mother span half a lifetime: from boarding school to fghter-pilot training, from Hollywood to the White House, his extraordinary skill as a storyteller is harnessed to bring back a vanished world. Now collected in a book edited
Roald Dahl is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest ever children’s writers. Yet it was only in his 40s that he attempted to write a book for children, and for many years he appeared to have no aspirations to become a writer at all. He ascribed his change of gear to a ‘monumental bash on the head’ he had sustained as a fghter pilot in 1940. Crashing his plane in the Libyan desert had not only given him something to write about, but the head injuries had, he believed, changed his personality, liberating his desire to write. The observation was perhaps disingenuous. For while Dahl showed little interest in writing to earn his living until 1942, he had been practising his craft in another context: writing letters to his mother, Sofe Magdalene.
More than 600 in total, they span 40 years, beginning in 1925 – when Dahl, then nine, was sent to boarding school – and ending in 1965 – two years before his mother’s death. She kept each one through wartime bombings and house moves. In his memoir of childhood, Boy, Dahl described how he discovered them.
‘My mother… kept every one… binding them carefully in neat bundles with green tape, but this was her own secret… In 1967, when she knew she was dying, I was in hospital in Oxford having a serious operation on my spine and I was unable to write to her. So she had a telephone specially installed beside my bed in order that she might have one last conversation with me. She didn’t tell me she was dying nor did anyone else for that matter because I was in a fairly serious condition myself at the time. She simply asked me how I was and hoped I would get better soon and sent me her love. I had no idea that she would die the next day, but she knew all right and she wanted to… speak to me one last time. When I recovered and went home, I was given this vast collection of my letters…’
Sofe Magdalene was born in Oslo in 1885. In 1911 she met Harald Dahl, a widower 20 years her senior, and became engaged. They moved to Cardif, where he was joint owner of a shipbroker, and within fve years she had given birth to four children – Astri (who died aged seven from peritonitis), Alfild, Roald and Else. Asta followed after Harald’s death in 1920.
Roald Dahl was his mother’s pride and joy. Most of his letters to her were written before 1946, when his frst collection of short stories was published and he returned from America to live with her. They provide a fascinating account of his boarding-school days, of his time in Tanganyika (now part of Tanzania), of his training as a fghter pilot, and of how he saw action in Greece and Palestine. They chronicle his time as a diplomat in America, too, as well as how his writing career began.
St Peter’s, Weston-super-Mare October 13, 1929
Dear Mama Thanks awfully for the Roller skates, they are topphole. Were they the largest pair? At full stretch they ft toppingly, but if my feet grow much more they won’t ft. We skate on the yard; we had a fne time last night after tea; You see, the chaps who haven’t got pairs, pull you. At one time I had eight chaps pulling me with a long rope, at a terrifc lick, and I sat down in the middle of it; my bottom is all blue now! We also have ‘trains’; you get about ten chaps to pull, and with a long rope, and all the roller-skaters hang on to each other, and go around; but if one chap falls all the ones behind him come on top of him! The yard is getting quite smooth now… By the way, I had a birthday present from Marshali [a family friend] yesterday. It was a thing called a ‘Yoo Yah’ which runs up and down on a string, but is very hard to work. It is very fascinating, but she confessed that it was bought at Woolworths; and she said that it was the craze there. I show you when I get home… Love from Roald
The Priory House, Repton, Derby January 18, 1930
Dear Mama I don’t suppose that you will get my postcard before this letter, it is Sunday tomorrow. It’s topping here, I don’t have to fag for the frst fortnight, and I have a desk in a very decent chap’s study, K Mendl. I am in Lower four, B, Mr Carter’s form, and I believe by a fuke I’m top of it in Maths; All the chaps here are very decent, both Mr and Mrs Jenkins, being exceedingly decent; (Mr Jenkins is always called Biggs.) The dormitories are called ‘Bedders’ and the school shop sells everything from an unsophisticated piece of bacon fat, to the school blazer. That reminds me, I have got all my footer things, and straw hat; my house colour is black and blue, the hat-band being something like this: The white stripes are really blue, and the bit flled in is black. I think Priory is easily the nicest house of the whole 9. All the houses being totally separate buildings, and a good way apart from each other…
The best bit of it is we are allowed to go anywhere we like when nothing is happening. This afternoon I went for a walk over the felds and over a stream called the ‘Stinker’. Tonight we are cooking our own supper, sausages etc.
Our study is called the Gramophone Study and has a large gramophone and heaps of records. It is jolly good; it’s singing away just behind me now. Please tell Else and Asta not to forget to feed my mice. I don’t at present want a cake, but I’ll let you know when I do. Love from Roald PS I forgot to tell you, I sleep in a comparatively small bedder; seven chaps in it.
‘Please tell Else and Asta not to forget to feed my mice. I don’t at present want a cake, but I’ll let you know when I do’
The Priory House, Repton, Derby June 3, 1934 Dear Mama Thanks awfully for the fgs & biscuits etc. Those fgs will keep me going in more sense than one for quite a long time. They’re jolly good; but one fellow in the study, who claims to have licked an Arab’s foot said he recognized the taste on the surface of his fg. I said: ‘not really’, and he answered ‘No, on second thoughts perhaps they were Italian’s feet.’ At the moment all the fags are busy behind me devising cunning traps to catch mice alive. The study is being invaded by mice, they are eating our cakes & apples and everything except the good old fgs. One fellow has put sawdust on top of treacle, and he swears that the mouse will think that it’s terra frma, will walk thereon & will stick. But our latest device is a basin (my wash basin) greased all around with Priory butter (guaranteed to kill any animal after the second dose); and in the middle of the basin stands a piece of choice plum cake, a chunk of the very cake on which the mice have been feasting for the last week – so they are bound to like it! We maintain that the mice won’t be able to get out, but it only remains to be seen whether they are fools enough to go into it. Love Roald
In 1934, aged 18, Dahl became a probationary member of staf with the Asiatic Petroleum Company, later to become a part of Royal Dutch Shell. His mother, ‘desperate’ at what she saw as his lack of ambition, sent of to have his horoscope professionally read. The psychic predicted Dahl was going to be a writer. Sofe Magdalene kept that information to herself.
In 1938 Dahl was posted to Af r ica, to Tanganyika. He was the most junior of the three-man team running a coastal oil terminal in the capital, Dar es Salaam. For much of his time there he lived with two colleagues, Panny Williamson and George Rybot. They shared a spacious villa inhabited by various pets, including the tick-infested Dog Samka and two cats, Oscar and Mrs Taubsypuss. The latter was immortalised 34 years later as the American president’s cat in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.
The Dar es Salaam Club November 3, 1938 (Thursday evening)
Dear Mama …I get woken up by my boy at 6.30 – he brings tea and an orange (a marvellous orange tasting quite diferent to anything you’ve ever had – they’re grown locally & cost about 2d a dozen, often much less I believe). I eat my orange & drink my tea – that is after the boy has removed the enormous bloody mosquito net that is suspended about 6 feet above you & tucked in under the mattress on all sides. Then I walk out onto my beautiful white verandah in my pyjamas & have a look at the harbour & the coast. Marvellous view. You look through a grove of coconut trees – all with bloody great coconuts on them – across the harbour where you get all the usual sort of stuf – mangrove swamps, mango trees, mangelwurzels and even mangles. Then my boy comes in & says ‘bathee baridi’ which probably means ‘your cold bath is ready’ – So I say ‘homina gani’ which means ‘what the hell’ & go in & have a bath. Come back & fnd suits & shirts & ties socks etc, all beautifully laid out for me, so I put them on. Go down & have breakfast, then drive to work in the Company’s Buick with Joram Carey – who sleeps in the next room to mine – get to work at 8.00. Lunch 12/2pm & golf or tennis or squash or swimming or sailing at 4pm…
Drink bills come to about 2/300 shillings a month [there were about 20 Tanganyikan shillings to the British pound] – that is the average – & it looks as though mine may be a bit above the average this month – but as I said before – don’t get excited, I’m not becoming a toper.
I was glad to hear that we get paid full salary since leaving London on the Boat, so at the end of October I got a chit from the bank saying that Nairobi had just paid 935 shillings to my account (about £47) which was the salary which had apparently accrued to me. Damn lucky too – it’ll just see me out nicely, what with club entrance fees, new white suits, white shirt and goodness knows what else – expensive topees and mosquito boots – both of which one must have. The mosquito boots are long black leather boots going up to your knee (like riding boots), you have to wear them in the evenings to diddle the mosquitoes who, for some unknown reason, are particularly partial to ankle…
I’m going to buy a car soon, with my next allowance. I can’t possibly buy one out of my salary, living is so bloody expensive. As a matter of fact it needn’t be, but it’s the way that you have to live. I believe you could live here very cheaply if you wanted to.
Gold fake cigarettes are Shs 1/80 for 50 (100 cents in a shilling – no pounds) & you can get damn good cigarettes, full size, at Shs 1/20 for 50 or even 1/- for 50. Fruit costs next to nothing, but there’s no fresh milk, it all has to be boiled – like us.
8am Friday: Knew I’d forgotten something – Xmas presents – you ask what I want – well – what the hell do I want. Don’t know. I’ll sign a few more of these damned invoices & things and then think again… Of course I know what I want. Large, good photos of all of you… Love to all Roald
On September 3, 1939, Britain declared war, and Dar es Salaam began to fll up with soldiers. At frst Dahl had enlisted as a special constable, but in November he drove to Nairobi to join the Royal Air Force and train as a pilot. He later recalled being transfxed by a family of elephants he encountered on the way: ‘They are better of than me, and a good deal wiser. I myself am at this moment on my way to kill Germans or be killed by them, but those elephants have no thought of murder on their mind.’ PO Box 1221, Nairobi November 14, 1939 (Tuesday) Dear Mama I believe I missed the mail, but that was because I was on my way to Nairobi, where you will see I now am. I didn’t come up by plane because there wasn’t one going, so I got on our little coastal tanker last Thursday morning and had a lovely trip to Mombasa, arriving there on Friday morning. We didn’t call anywhere on the way, but just went through Zanzibar harbour to let them know who we were. I slept on the deck and also distinguished myself by catching a large barracuda (fsh) from the back of the boat for the evening meal. Got on the train at Mombasa on Friday evening at 4pm, had dinner, went to bed and woke up to fnd we were chugging along through the plains of Kenya about 4000 feet up. Looking out of the window while having my breakfast I saw
‘It looks as though [my drink bill] may be a bit above average this month – but don’t get excited, I’m not becoming a toper’
literally hundreds of buck and antelope of all sorts, a herd of zebra, ostriches, bufalo and best of all four enormous girafes and a baby girafe so close you could almost lean out of the carriage window and touch them. The country was nothing to look at just a bare brown grassy plain with a few leafess trees, but once I caught a glimpse of Mt Kilimanjaro in the background, and very fne it looked, with its pointed snow covered peak.
Anyway, arrived at Nairobi station at about 9.30am and George Rybot was there to meet me. We drove to the ofce which is a magnifcent building. All the rooms are parquet foored and panelled, and everyone is connected to everyone else with these Dictograph things by which you can talk to anyone you like. At 11 o’clock I was up at the aerodrome having the stifest medical test I’ve ever had in my life. I held my breath for 2 minutes; blew a column of mercury up a tube till I thought I was going to burst; lifted trays up to eye level without letting the long wobbly things balancing on them topple over – (you stand a fountain pen or an unsharpened pencil on a piece of wood and try to lift it up high and put it down again with one hand). The most incredible instruments were produced for testing eyesight and all sorts of nervous reactions, and I weighed 14.00 stone and measured 6ft 5¼ inches.
Ultimately I passed with fying colours and was classed as 100% ft to fy. The result is that I must report at the aerodrome (RAF headquarters) at Nairobi on the 24th November – 10 days’ time, when together with a few other blokes I will be made an aircraftman on the princely salary of Shs 5/per day, and be put through an 8 weeks fying course. After that, if one has shown an ability to fy, we are sent to some God-forsaken place in Egypt called —, where still more fying experience is gained, and fnally in about 4 to 6 months from now to join the RAF Middle East Command in Cairo. Now I don’t know what you think about all that, but personally I think it all sounds fairly exciting and interesting and a bloody sight better than joining the army out here and marching about in the heat from one place to another and doing nothing special. Furthermore one learns to fy free, which is a very great commercial asset in these days. It would certainly cost one about £1000 to obtain a ‘B’ licence. So much for what I’m going to do, but I’ll let you know more about it later; but I’m certainly looking forward to 8 weeks in Nairobi… Lots of love to all Roald
Dahl loved fying. But in September 1940, on the way to his frst day on active ser vice, he got lost over the Libyan deser t at night, crash-landing his Gloster Gladiator and sufering severe head injuries. The crash was the key event in Dahl’s life. For the first time he tasted mortality. He went to a hospital in Alexandria to recover, where he remained for several months, before f ly ing in action in Greece and Palestine.
He believed that he had emerged from the accident a diferent person. Whether he underwent a psychological change as a result of the trauma is impossible to tell, but it undoubtedly gave him something powerful to write about.
He returned to England and in 1942 was living with his mother in Buckinghamshire. One evening in London, over dinner at the gentlemen’s club Pratt’s, his raucous energy got him a job ofer. He was asked to work for the RAF at the British embassy in Washington, where Lord Halifax was ambassador. His job title would be assistant air attaché, and he would be charged with using his charisma and experience to bring the American public behind the war efort.
80 Squadron RAF, HQME, Alexandria June 20, 1941
Dear Mama I had to have my photo taken the other day for an RAF pass. Here’s a copy [below]. Sorry about this note, but at present we’re operating from a very obscure place, and such things as writing paper are difcult to come by. I shot down another JU88 and a French Potez last week over the Fleet, who as you will have heard over the wireless are operating up here. It’s pretty hot, but there’s lots of every kind of fruit about – I expect you envy us there. But what a lot of fying. For the frst 3 weeks we never stopped – you see there weren’t many of us. Ground strafng, escorting, intercepting, etc etc. Some days we did 7 hours a day which is a lot out here, where you sweat like a pig from the moment you get into the cockpit to the moment you get out.
I’m writing this in a fg grove. Have a fg – there are lots here. Hope you are all OK. Not getting any letters. Lots of love Roald
British Embassy, Washington DC May 13, 1942
Dear Mama … As far as I can see I may be coming into large sums of money over here for those RAF stories our British press people are getting me to write. My frst one – a short thing of about 4000 words was sent up by CS Forester to the biggest agent in New York, and reply received yesterday. I was told that these agents are tough indeed and spend their lives sending stories back to aspiring authors with a polite or often an impolite chit of nonacceptance. However they said about mine ‘It is remarkable – if he wrote it himself, he is a natural writer with a superior style; It will certainly sell’!! which shook CS Forester even more than it shook me. He said he’d never had a note like that from his agents in his life, and he gets $1000 for a short story. I’ll let you know what happens.
They are trying to make me write a book re Middle-East RAF, also a play for Hollywood – but I’ve told them I won’t run before I can walk. I’ll send you a copy of the frst one
‘I shot down a JU88 and a French Potez last week over the Fleet, who as you will have heard over the wireless are operating here’
shortly; it’s called ‘A Piece of Cake’ and is just about getting shot down. It’s really purely in my line of duty, because they say it does a lot of good with the American public.
I move into my little house ($150 a month) on Friday next – the 15th May. I shall only be able to aford a half time servant I think – someone to come in and make the bed and wash clothes and dishes etc. Anyway I don’t want a cook, because I’ve got to go out to most meals.
I’ve made about four speeches in the last 10 days. One in New York, two here in Washington and one in Newark, New Orange [Jersey]. I don’t know what they were like – they sounded pretty awful to me, but everyone was very polite and stood up and clapped loads at the end – then started asking countless questions. I’ve had my photos of Greece and Syria made into lantern slides, so they can be shown on a screen if necessary.
The average size of the rather po-faced cod-eyed audience is three to four hundred – usually at a dinner. I get myself a little pissed before I start and that makes things a lot easier.
The only thing was, I told a party of rather staid Freemasons, in a happy moment that, ‘someone had his balls sheared of because he had his fnger in!’ Whereas I meant to say ‘he was reprimanded for inefciency’. They pissed with laughter, as the President said afterwards, ‘The Diplomatic Corps has a language all of its own.’ Talking about Diplomatic Corps, I have a special number plate on my car which says DPL in large yellow and black letters. It gets you a lot of places. Yesterday it got me into the White House in a hurry…
May 14th next morning: My story has been sold to the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ for 300 dollars which is about £76, which will help pay for some of my car – half in fact…
Apparently the Saturday Evening Post is the widest read magazine in America with a circulation of about 4 million. I am told that it’s every author’s ambition to get a story therein…
Sounds funny to me because I didn’t think it was anything special… Must stop. Lots of love Roald
November 27, 1942
Dear Mama Well, I’ve been to Hollywood and come back; and had the most amazing time.
I think I told you in my last letter 2 weeks ago that I had a frantic telegram from Walt Disney, saying that he was all set to start work on the Gremlins [Dahl’s frst children’s book, about mischievous mythical creatures that sabotage RAF plans] – so with everyone’s permission in an ofcial capacity I boarded an American Airlines plane Wednesday evening, the 11th Nov at 8.30pm in the evening. It’s the hell of a way across America – about the same as across the Atlantic only a bit further, and I kept having to put my watch back one hour in every fve. At dawn on Thursday we were over Arizona on the Mexican border, and fnally got into Los Angeles at about midday Thursday (about 14 hours’ trip). I was met by Jimmy Bodrero, Walt’s number one artist, and taken to the Beverly Hills Hotel, and after a bath and a shave was driven out to the studio and ushered up to Walt’s room. He has two secretaries outside – one called Dolores who has been with him for 20 years – and his room itself is very magnifcent with sofas, armchairs, a grand piano and Dolores serving cofee or drinks the whole time.
He said he wanted to get an illustrated book out right away, based on my story, and would I sit down and write it. He would give me all his best artists to work with, and anything else I wanted. And, oh, by the way, I’ve put a car at your disposal the whole time that you’re here.
I said thank you very much and followed Jimmy down to an enormous room where a half a dozen of his best artists were waiting with pencils poised to be told what a Gremlin looked like. I’d already told them that the ones they drew in Cosmopolitan Magazine to go with my article were lousy.
So we set to work. I wrote and they drew. As soon as I’d fnished a page, it was typed out in the pattern they wanted, sometimes with the type going slantwise across the page and sometimes squiggly. Then they drew pictures all around it, and now and again a full colour picture for the opposite page.
And could they draw. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. Walt has gathered together there about 80 artists, any one of whom could be placed amongst the fnest 6 drawers of pure line pictures in the world – Jimmy Bodrero, Freddie Moore, Bill Justice and a whole fock of others. When they choose to do a picture out of hours for a client, they sell it for about 1000 dollars.
So all the frst day we worked. Then there was a party for me which Walt had arranged at which I think I met most of Hollywood in one evening.
Charlie Chaplin came in and pretended to be a Widget all around the room, and all the rest of them arrived trying to be some sort of a Gremlin or other. Greer Garson, Dorothy Lamour, Spencer Tracy, Bill Powell etc etc. And I must say they were all very nice. There weren’t many English – Basil Rathbone and Reggie Gardiner were the only ones I can remember. There was a very beautiful dame called Phyllis Brooks (who is at present co-starring with Ginger Rogers in some new flm) who I thought was a great deal better than the rest, and made it my business to organise for the rest of my stay.
Well that was a good party, but next morning, and every one after that, I was up at six, then ½ an hour’s drive out to the studio at Burbank, and work on the book until 6 in the evening, with probably a couple of hours each day in conference with Walt on the actual flm script. He plans to make it the biggest flm he has yet made – with real actors and actresses – in Technicolor, with the Gremlins,
‘I believe [my time in Hollywood] is going to do quite a bit of good for the ever-present question of Anglo American Relations…’
Fifnellas and Widgets actually drawn on to the photographs. It’s a new experiment.
He’s the most amazing type. He doesn’t draw at all, and can’t very well anyhow; but he runs everything and the people in the studio worship him. He’s quite an erk and when he gets excited always gets his grammar wrong with ‘’E don’t do this,’ or ‘’E don’t do that.’ When Mary Blair, the only woman artist there, and incidentally one of the fnest exponents of colour in the world, brought him her picture for the outside cover of the book he didn’t like it.
‘Goddammit, Mary, I have to buy the stories, direct the pictures, produce them, but son of a bitch I’m buggered if I’m going to draw the illustrations as well.’ At which Mary said, ‘Don’t be a bloody fool, Walt; I’ll do you another.’ And she did.
By Sunday we all thought we needed a bit of a rest, so Jimmy took me up north to stay the day with his family in Santa Barbara – or rather I took him in the car Walt had lent me.
Santa Barbara is a lovely place. Blue skies, and blue seas, and we lounged around drinking with the local citizens, and talking to Jimmy’s two children. Then we bathed in the Pacifc, because I said it was about the only ocean I haven’t bathed in, and drove back to Hollywood and so back at 7.30 next morning…
Finally we got the book fnished in a week, and it is being published in late January, which is apparently quick work. I’ll send you one as soon as it comes out. And I had to go back to Washington. I held a party in Phyllis Brooks’ house to which all the types came, and a fellow called Hoagy Carmichael (who composed Stardust and many others, and has the biggest house I’ve ever seen) played rude RAF songs on the piano which were sung with great gusto by all concerned. This was Monday – 23rd Nov and at 11.30pm we drove out to the aerodrome where I just caught my aeroplane back to Washington. Walt gave me four books, Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi and Fantasia, all signed and with best wishes, and I got some of the artists who created the original characters in them to draw inside the covers.
Jim Bodrero gave me one of the best large watercolours he has ever done, which is really something, considering he is the best artist in the Studio. It’s of two galloping mules with two wonderful Mexicans on their backs, and it really is a lovely picture.
Anyway now I’m back – and that was Hollywood. The most exciting thing about it was working for Walt (who calls me Stalky because he can’t pronounce Roald). I believe the whole thing is going to do quite a bit of good over here in furthering the ever-present question of Anglo American Relations… Lots of love to all Roald
Washington DC August 28, 1943
Dear Mama This morning I was woken up at 7 by a peculiar tapping noise which seemed to be going on and on in the room, accompanied by squeaks. I sat up in bed and saw, sitting on the ground a very old, a very very old grey squirrel. He was bouncing up and down on his hind legs and protesting vigorously at something or other at the same time. I said, ‘What do you want,’ but he didn’t answer. So I got up and went down to the kitchen to get him something to eat. He followed me down and sat on the top of the open door watching. I gave him some toast which he wouldn’t have – then a sort of mouldy potato chip which he held in both hands and nibbled, but threw away almost at once. At last I found some walnuts and he sat down and began to eat. Now he pays regular visits, and his name, by the way, is Sigismund the Squirrel. I am very glad to hear that the raspberries were good. I have a keen personal interest in them… Lots of love to all Roald
Box 55 Terminal A, Toronto July 7, 1945
Dear Mama Seeing Niagara Falls made me want to pee. This job will take 2–3 months after which hope to make trip home. Love to all Roald
Dahl returned from America early in 1946, aged 29. He moved in with his mother and his youngest sister, Asta, at Grange Farm, a remote homestead near near Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire.
He and the actress Patricia Neal were married in New York in the summer of 1953. They honeymooned in Europe, eventually arriving in England, where they stayed with Sofe Magdalene for several weeks, before returning to America in the autumn. The following year, they came back to England and bought a cottage near his mother in Great Missenden, which he later renamed Gipsy House. It became his home for the rest of his life.
Sofe Magdalene died in 1967. Dahl paid a moving tribute to her in the cookbook he wrote with his second wife, Felicity, shortly before his death in 1990: ‘She was the matriarch, the materfamilias, and her children radiated around her like planets round a sun. In some families children rebel and go as far away as possible from the parents, especially after they are married, because mothers-in-law are not always popular in the household. But with Mama’s children and their marriage partners there was a genuine desire to keep this remarkable old parent within reach.’
‘I sat up in bed and saw, sitting on the ground a very old, a very very old grey squirrel. He was bouncing up and down’
Above Dahl and Walt Disney with toys inspired by The Gremlins. Below Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and friends photographed by Dahl, 1943
From top Dahl during RAF training, Nairobi, 1939; a Hurricane hit by German ground strafng, Greece, 1941. Dahl had fown it the previous day; in 1941
Above Dahl on board the HMS Nova Scotia on his way to Newfoundland in 1934. Below Dog Samka was one of his companions in Dar es Salaam
Above Dahl with Patricia Neal and their children Olivia and Tessa in Norway, 1958. Below Dahl’s mother, Sofe Magdalene, with his son, Theo, 1961