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In his memoir ¨Boy. Tales of childhood¨ Roald Dahl describes among many personal events, his origins. His father, Harald Dahl, immigrated to England from Norway around the turn of the century (1900). After the death of his first wife, he took a trip back to Norway in hopes of finding a wife to help him raise his young son and daughter. He married Sofie Magdalene Hesselberg in 1911 and the couple moved to Dahl's home in Llandaff, South Wales. Over the next six years they had five children: Astri, Alfhild, Roald, Else and Asta. Roald was born on September 13, 1916 in Llandaff. Unfortunately Astri, the eldest, died of appendicitis in 1920. Harald Dahl, heartbroken, quickly deteriorated after his daughter's death and he died of pneumonia a few months later. Roald was only 4 at the time. Sofie Dahl, pregnant at the time with Asta, was left with three of her own children, two step–children, a big estate, and her husband's dying wish that his children would be educated in English schools, which he thought the best in the world.
Sofie decided to stay in Wales and carry out Harald's wish. But she wasn't ready to move to England yet. First she moved the family into a smaller, more manageable home in Llandaff and then one–by–one sent each of her children to Elmtree House, a local kindergarten. Roald Dahl and his siblings were raised to be very conscious of their Norwegian heritage. Not only did his mother speak the language around the house, she also read them Norse myths and took them on annual trips to Norway to visit relatives.
When Roald was seven Sofie decided it was time for him to go to a proper boy's school, so she sent him to nearby Llandaff Cathedral School. He spent two years there and his only memories of it are described in Boy – one involves an older boy whizzing by on a bicycle, and the other involves The Great Mouse Plot that earned him and his friends a savage caning by the school's headmaster. This violent incident was what prompted Sofie to withdraw Roald from the Llandaff school and finally send him off to a British boarding school: St. Peter's. Roald attended St. Peter's from ages nine to thirteen, and he was so homesick at first the he even faked the symptoms of appendicitis (which he remembered from Astri and his older half-sister Ellen) to go back home. He eventually adjusted to school life, but he never learned to like it. In Boy he describes savage beatings, sadistic headmasters, prejudiced teachers, and even an abusive dormitory Matron. His nightmarish description though, is somewhat tempered by his concession that his memory of it was "coloured by my natural love of fantasy". Schoolmates remembered him as a tall, soft–faced boy, not especially popular but very close to the few boys who became his friends. He was good at sports like cricket and swimming, but academically he was one of the worst. One of his main hobbies was reading, and some of his favorite novelists were the adventure writers Rudyard Kipling, Captain Marryat, H. Rider Haggarrd, and G.A. Henty. Their books emphasized a kind of heroism and masculinity that would later influence both Dahl's life and his own writing.
By the time Roald was thirteen the family had moved to Kent in England, and he was soon sent off to the famous Repton Public School, a private school with a reputation for academic excellence. He resented the rules there. His account of it in Boy includes fagging (younger boys, "fags", were basically personal slaves to the older prefects, called "boazers"), beatings, the torture of new boys. One particularly scandalous section alleges that a former headmaster of Repton, Geoffrey Fisher (who had subsequently become Archbishop of Canterbury), was a sadistic flogger (a person who whips). According to Dahl, the vicious beatings that this man would deliver, combined with the fact that twenty years later he crowned Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey, made Dahl doubt the existence of God. In Jeremy Treglown's biography, however, he discoveres that Dahl got his dates mixed up. The beatings he was referring to happened in 1933, a year after Fisher left Repton. Dahl might have gotten Fisher mixed up with J. T. Christie, his successor or the dates were not accurate in his memories.
Not all memories of Repton were bad, though. Dahl fondly recalls in Boy that "every now and again, a plain grey cardboard box was dished out to each boy in our House, and this, believe it or not, was a present from the great chocolate manufacturers, Cadbury". Inside were twelve new chocolate bar inventions that the boys were asked to sample and critique. Dahl and his schoolmates took this very seriously, and Roald used to dream of working in a chocolate company's inventing room. He said in Boy, "It was lovely dreaming those dreams, and I have no doubt at all that, thirty–five years later, when I was looking for a plot for my second book for children, I remembered those little cardboard boxes and the newly–invented chocolates inside them, and I began to write a book called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory".
While Dahl hardly excelled as a student, his mother offered to pay for his tuition at Oxford or Cambridge University when he graduated. Dahl's response was: "No thank you. I want to go straight from school to work for a company that will send me to wonderful faraway places like Africa or China.". And that he did. After Dahl graduated from Repton in 1932, he went on an expedition to Newfoundland. Afterward, he took a job with the Shell Oil Company and after 2-year training in Englad he was posted to Tanzania, Africa, where he remained until 1939.
Going Solo,a memoir describing those years, talks about many of the exciting adventures Dahl lived through, including the time a green mamba entered his friend's house and the snake-catcher had to be called in. Another time a lion carried off a native woman, and Dahl's subsequent account of her rescue was printed in an African newspaper and became his first published work.
Soon, because of the World War 2, all the Englishmen in the territory were rounded up and transformed into temporary soldiers, responsible for containing the German population. This experience prompted Dahl to formally join the Royal Air Force and learn to fly warplanes. In November 1939 he drove cross–country to Nairobi, Kenya to enlist and was awarded with the rank of Leading Aircraftman. After eight weeks of basic training and six months of advanced flying instruction, the RAF deemed him ready for battle.
Unfortunately Dahl's very first venture into combat territory resulted in a crash in the Libyan desert in 1940. He was flying an unfamiliar airplane (a Gladiator) and was supposed to join 80 Squadron in the Western Desert. Unfortunately the co–ordinates he was given were incorrect, and he suddenly found himself losing both daylight and fuel in the middle of nowhere. He was forced to attempt a crash landing, praying for luck that he didn't get. The plane crash left him with serious injuries to his skull, spine and hip. The Gladiator slammed into the sand at over 75 miles an hour. Dahl's head struck the reflector and fractured his skull, pushing his nose in and blinding him for days. He managed to pull himself from the burning wreckage and was later rescued by 3 soldiers from the Suffolk regiment. Following a recovery that included a hip replacement and two spinal surgeries, Dahl was finally deemed fit to resume flying duties again in the spring of 1941.
80 Squadron was now engaged in the tragic RAF campaign in Greece, and after rejoining them Dahl was soon thrust into the desperate routine of trying to stay alive. On his first trip up, he encountered six enemy planes and managed to shoot one of them. The next day he shot down another over Khalkis Bay. His victory was short–lived, though, as the German Messerschmitt fighters swarmed down upon him and he barely made it back to the base alive. Over the next four days he went up twelve more times, fighting against incredible odds and miraculously making it back to base each time. On the 20th of April the Germans discovered the camp and ground–strafed it, but luckily they didn't hit any of the seven remaining aircraft. Dahl and the other man in 80 Squadron fought for many more months, and their battles are described in Going Solo.
Dahl began to get blinding headaches (from his earlier accident) he was invalided back home to Britain in 1941. He wasn't there for long. Through his friendship with artist Matthew Smith, he became acquainted with some important men in the British government and Dahl was transferred to Washington, D.C to help with the British War Effort as "assistant air attache." Some experts believe Dahl was secretly working as a spy for the British Secret Service under William Stephenson ("Intrepid"). Dahl himself boasted as much during interviews later in life. It's an intriguing possibility.
One of Dahl's first duties in America was to get close to as many well–placed people as possible. Newspaper–owner Charles Marsh was one of these, and he and Dahl struck up an immediate friendship. Another duty was to help create a kind of British propaganda to keep America interested in the war and sympathetic to Britain's effort. Famous English author C.S. Forester asked Dahl to tell him his own story, so that he could write it up. Dahl thought it easier to put something on paper himself, and the result was so good that Forester decided not to change a thing. The finished story appeared anonymously in The Saturday Evening Post in August 1942 under the title ¨Shot Down Over Libya¨.
The story was introduced as a "factual report on Libyan air fighting" by an unnamed RAF pilot "at present in this country for medical reasons." Of course, the "factual" part might have been a little bit of a stretch. As mentioned previously, Dahl's crash was actually caused by lack of fuel and wrong directions, not from any enemy shooting. Much later, when this discrepancy was pointed out to him, Dahl claimed that the story had been edited and misleadingly captioned by magazine editors looking for a more dramatic tale.
Of his early writing career, Dahl told New York Times book reviewer Willa Petschek, "As I went on the stories became less and less realistic and more fantastic." He went on to describe his foray into writing as a "pure fluke," saying, "Without being asked to, I doubt if I'd ever have thought to do it."
Sometime later he wrote a story called "Gremlin Lore" about the mythical creatures that supposedly sabotaged RAF planes. Since he was a serving officer, Dahl was required to submit everything he wrote for approval by British Information Services. The officer who read it, Sidney Bernstein, decided to pass it along to his friend Walt Disney, who was looking for War–related features for his fledgling film company. In 1942 Disney decided to turn Dahl's story into an animated feature called The Gremlins.
Problems immediately began to surface with the project. What did Gremlins look like? How could Disney copyright a name already known (and invented) by countless RAF pilots? Should the film be satirical or purely fantastic? Beyond these concerns, audience enthusiasm for the film began to wane as the War dragged on. Ultimately the project was scrapped, though Disney did put together a picture book in 1943 entitled Walt Disney: The Gremlins (A Royal Air Force Story by Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl). This book, published by Random House in the United States and by Collins in Australia and Great Britain, is extremely rare and is considered a prize by any serious Dahl collector. It was his first book.
Dahl went back to writing macabre and mysterious stories for adult readers. By the fall of 1944 he had a literary agent, Ann Watkins, and he had published a number of stories in American magazines. While Dahl, like any young writer, was trying out styles, he was also making sure each story contained some overt propaganda for the War effort.
In 1945 Dahl moved back home to Amersham, England to be near his mother, Sofie. He enjoyed the rustic country life, making friends with some of the working–class men in the village. Among them was a butcher named Claud Taylor, who would later be immortalized in the "Claud's Dog" series of stories. Meanwhile, in 1946 Reynal and Hitchcock published Over to You, a collection of Dahl's war stories. It was released in England soon after by Hamish Hamilton. The book received mixed reviews but was ultimately successful enough to prompt Dahl's next effort: a full–blown novel about the possibilities of nuclear war.
The novel Dahl wrote, Sometime Never, was published in the United States in 1948 by Scribner's, and in England a year later by Collins. There's no easy way to put this: the book was a total flop. It was almost an adult version of the Gremlins story, beginning with the Battle of Britain and continuing on to the end of the world. Despite its utter failure, the book is remarkable for being the first book about nuclear war to be published in the United States after Hiroshima.
In the years following Sometime Never, Dahl renewed his friendship with American Charles Marsh, helping the newspaper man amass a valuable collection of British art and antiques. Dahl also helped his mentor set up a charity known as the Marsh's Public Welfare Foundation. In return, Marsh set up a trust in Dahl's name and invested thousands of dollars in a Dahl–family forestry operation in Norway.
These years in England had been profitable ones for Dahl, but he came to miss the sophistication of New York life. As the 1950's began, Dahl finally began to see some money from stories sold to Collier's and The New Yorker. He applied for and was granted a permanent American visa, and soon found himself taking up residence with the Marsh family back in the Big Apple. He slid easily back into the circuit of celebrity parties, and it was at one of these functions in 1951 that he met his future wife, 10 years younger actress Patricia Neal. Patricia Neal's most scandalous claim to fame, however, was her long affair with Gary Cooper, her co–star from The Fountainhead (King Vidor, 1949). The affair with Cooper began two years earlier, in 1947, and by 1950 Cooper's wife had found out and joined the battle. On one occasion, Treglown reports, Neal received the following telegram: "I HAVE HAD JUST ABOUT ENOUGH OF YOU. YOU HAD BETTER STOP NOW OR YOU WILL BE SORRY. MRS. GARY COOPER." Eventually Mrs. Cooper got her way, but not before her husband had made Pat pregnant and persuaded her to have an abortion. Guilty and scared, Neal called off the relationship.
Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal were married on July 2, 1953 at Trinity Church in New York,the same year that Someone Like You was published,
Patricia Neal won an Academy Award for her role in Hud in 1961. The marriage lasted three decades and resulted in five children, one of whom tragically died of measles (sarampion) in 1962. He wrote a touching letter 26 years later in favor of vaccination.
Dahl told his children nightly bedtime stories that inspired his future career as a children's writer. These stories became the basis for some of his most popular kids' books. In his New York Times book review interview he said about writing books for children " You have to keep things ticking along. And if you think a child is getting bored, you must think up something that jolts it back. Something that tickles. You have to know what children like."
Neal suffered from multiple brain hemorrhages in the mid-1960s, some say Dahl stood by her through her long recovery, some that he became exceptionally cruel with his remarks about and to her, as he despised the fact she became so dependent on others. He could not stay completely faithful in middle age. He took up with the wealthy heiress and mother of Anderson Cooper, Gloria Vanderbilt, gamely coaxing her into the bed he shared with Neal while she shot another film on location. He was finding women were still extremely attracted to him even in his advanced age. Patricia Neal made a friend out of a young woman, Felicity Crosland, who worked for David Ogilvy's advertising agency, but the moment she saw Patricia's husband, it was all over. When his daughter Tessa found out about the affair, she became another way of hiding the relationship from Patricia. Everyone who criticized Dahl for cheating on his wife was excommunicated from his good graces. The Dahl family even vacationed with Crosland, and in Stephen Michael Shearer's biography of Neal, he describes a moment where Felicity gave Neal a triumphant look in a women's bathroom, gloating over the theft of her husband. While she did eventually put the pieces together - the little love notes, the glances between the two - the marriage continued until 1983, with Roald begging his wife to allow him to continue seeing Crosland.
The couple would eventually divorce in 1983. Soon after, Dahl remarried to Felicity Ann Crosland, his partner until his death in 1990.
After suffering an unspecified infection, on November 12, 1990, Roald Dahl was admitted to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, England. He died there on November 23, 1990, at the age of 74. He was buried in Great Missenden. Over his decades-long writing career, Dahl composed 19 children’s books and nine short story collections. He also wrote several television and movie scripts.
Dahl first established himself as a children’s writer in 1961, when he published the book James and the Giant Peach. The book met with wide critical and commercial acclaim. Three years later, Dahl published another big winner, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Both books were eventually made into popular movies. A film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factorywas released as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in 1971, and an originally titled remake of the film, starring Johnny Depp, was released in 2005. The movie version of James and the Giant Peach was released in 1996.
In addition to James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl's most popular kids' books include Fantastic Fox (1970), The Witches (1983) and Matilda (1988).
Despite their popularity, Dahl’s children’s books have been the subject of some controversy, as critics and parents have balked at their portrayal of children’s harsh revenge on adult wrongdoers. In his defense, Dahl claimed that children have a cruder sense of humor than adults, and that he was merely trying to appeal to his readers. Other critics have accused Dahl of portraying a racist stereotype with his Oompa-Loompa characters in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
This text is a fusion of two great biographies from:
Picture from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/7931835/Roald-Dahl-was-a-real-life-James-Bond-style-spy-new-book-reveals.html