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

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Love From Roald - Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Let­ters to his Mother (John Mur­ray, £20) is avail­able from the Tele­graph Book­shop for £16.99 plus £1.99 p&p (0844-8711514; books.tele­ It is also avail­able as an e-book

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

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