- Written by: Nicholas Leahy
- Published: October 1980 issue of Starburst Magazine
The Oxford dictionary defines a troll as a supernatural being, a giant, or a friendly but mischievous dwarf from Scandinavian mythology. Meet the author Roald Dahl, and you may well prefer the definition of a mischievous giant. Six foot six, with wrinkled eyes, a bald, ostrich egg-shaped head, and a casual, sardonic voice, this is the man who writes the short stories that are the basis for the television series, Tales of the Unexpected. A selection of British and American theatrical talent have performed eight of his works, and after those eight more were screened. . . and now eight more. The series is such a success that the producer has now run out of Roald Dahl short stories to produce. Could he write eight more right away? No. The first lot took thirty years to write. In that time he has written short, sharp tales in which often pompous, difficult people have met their nemesis in a number of exotic and strikingly unpleasant ways. He has also vastly entertained children with his books, James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Magic Finger, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, Fantastic Mr Fox, and Danny, The Champion of the World. His books of stories include Someone Like You, Kiss Kiss and Switch Bitch. He has recently published his first full-length adult novel called My Uncle Oswald, about a hero very close to his heart who discovers that the finest aphrodisiac known to man is a Sudanese beetle, and begins to cultivate them for profit. Perhaps a nauseating, refreshing film in time?
Meanwhile, on television, many of the actors who were in the first series returned to play victims and torturers in these little tales of revenge. Julie Harris, Elaine Stritch, Susan George, Joan Collins, and
Jack Weston submitted themselves to more punishment. Sir John Mills, Gloria Grahame, John Alderton and Ron Moody had their first brush with this bizarre author. Roald Dahl has always had a literate poison pen for the unusual, as demonstrated in the kind of stories that were dramatized in the first series. In Lamb to the Slaughter, starring Susan George, a young wife murders her husband by clubbing him to death with a frozen leg of lamb. She then cooks it and serves it to the policemen who come to investigate, who unknowingly eat and dispose of the murder weapon. In Dip in the Pool Jack Weston played Mr Botibol, a venal tourist on an ocean liner, who stakes all his money on the auction pool, where the passengers bet how far the ship will travel by noon the following day. Betting on low mileage, having heard a confidential bad weather report, the weather changes and he must find a way to slow the ship down. He throws himself overboard to provoke a time-consuming rescue operation, but no one notices and he drowns. In the second series this character returned in another story, as Roald Dahl has his favourites, and takes place before this sad event and is called Mr Botibol’s First Love, which turns out to be . . . music. Sounds normal, but it couldn’t be. In his children’s stories, young and old alike meet unlikely fates. In perhaps the best-known, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willie Wonka, the wizard-style sweet-maker has an awkward child pushed down a rubbish shute by some squirrels, who consider her a bad nut. Her equally awkward parents want to know where the shute goes. “Why, to the furnace, of course”, replies Wonka. When the mother starts to scream, he says: “Don’t worry, there’s always a chance that they’ve decided not to light it today”. When reading his books, you must try to care as little about the characters as the author does, as there is no telling what may happen to them.
Dahl was born in South Wales in 1916, of Norwegian parents. After public school, he went on an expedition to explore Newfoundland, and then joined the Shell Company, working for them in Tanganyika. The Second World War arrived, and he joined The RAF as a fighter pilot, and served in Greece, Palestine, Libya and Syria. Wounded in the head, he was transferred to The British Embassy in 1942 as an air attache. There he was wounded in the head in quite a different way. He became a writer. C.S. Forester, the author of the Hornblower books, had been asked by The Saturday Evening Post to interview anyone who had seen active service. He found the ex-pilot at the Embassy and took Dahl, then twenty-six, to lunch. Distracted by the meal, Forester found it hard to take notes, so Dahl said he would write something down for him that evening. He went home and wrote a short story called A Piece of Cake, an account of how he was shot down in The Libyan desert. Forester liked it so much that he gave it unaltered to his agent, and The Saturday Evening Post bought it for a thousand dollars, and asked for more. Roald Dahl had taken off on a different career. He wrote twelve short stories, all about flying, in America, which were later published as a book called Over to You. Since that meeting, he has never stopped writing. In that lucky moment, he found his life’s work.
Mr Dahl’s cave is a large, white farmhouse in a Buckinghamshire village, which he shares with his wife, the American actress Patricia Neal, plus one son and three daughters. There he is prepared to be an affable interviewee, who gives away as little about himself as possible. On the main door are two borrowed signs reading “Trespassers will be shot at first sight, and if practicable, interviewed afterwards.”. And “Thieves Beware: Our poultry are marked and the marks registered”. It is the same mordant humour as in the writing. Before, during and after becoming widely rich and famous, he and his family have suffered tragedy. His son was brain injured while still very young, a daughter died of measles at the age of five. His wife, shortly after winning an Oscar for best actress for her performance opposite Paul Newman in the film Hud in 1963, suffered a massive stroke from which she very painfully recovered. And he is crippled with arthritis.
Hard to find a sense of humour, after all that, of any complexion, black or white. This history makes introspection of any kind painful for him, so he confines intellectual activity, he freely admits, to the fantasy employed in the solitary process of writing. For living, he seeks escape in simple companionships, and the pleasures of his collection of paintings, fine wines and orchids. When interviewed he will reliably divert attention away from himself. He speaks casually but precisely, although the sentences are terse. They are not wasted as they sometimes cost effort if he is in hidden pain. Their manner is public school circa 1930, replete with period slang like “good egg”, and “smashing”, punctuated by mild swearing. He does not sound innocent or ineffectual in their use. He was an unhappy child at Repton school, so it would be a mistake to think that he is an establishment product, however old-fashioned some of his attitudes undoubtedly are.
If anything is likely to rouse his contempt, it is people who appear to him to belong to any establishment. As he says, wearing a cardigan in his country kitchen.
“I hate pompous people. Can’t stand ’em. When I see them in their suits and bowlers with umbrellas, dreadful. I love to send them up. I’ve got this thing about men with little beards and moustaches at the moment. It’s vanity. You know what a mess they get into when they get colds, they can’t keep them clean. It’s not a man’s job to look in the mirror. Let women do that all they want. That’s not what a man’s job is”.
What is a woman’s job, I ask? “Whatever they can do, but they rarely do it as well as men”. Arguing this point proves futile. He seems determined to see women in a romantic, restricted light. Would he give a woman an equal half share as an intellectual companion? “Yes, I would” he says. But as he subtly dominates the conversation, changing subjects smoothly and firmly immediately he loses interest, then this is a privilege rarely accorded even to a man.
Happily, at this stage he knows that I know what he is doing, as he smiles in passing the cheese to foil answering another question. But the man is revealed as he talks to a neighbour about their mutual affliction, arthritis. His eyes cloud with bitterness at their plight, even while offering her genuine sympathy at the unfortunate bond between them. “You’ve got a thin frame”, he tells her, “so you’ll just have to live with it. One day, you tell yourself that the pain is not going to go away, so you just think **** it. I see some old fellows hopping around the village, but they’re lucky. I’ve had two hip operations and three back operations, although the last one wasn’t too good, it ****** up. I’ve got a steel pin in each hip. I lie down between one and four every day to rest. You live with the pain, but it’s very tiring, sometimes it comes over me”
The only visible signs are the arms stiffly held back, the stick for walking in the garden, and the occasional fatigue and impatience. He has a lot of time for simple human distractions, such as swopping professional stories with a writer, or tales of country affairs with local people he knows well, who come to call. He responds well to their undemanding attention and cares for them.
He is very much a countryman, with his four dogs, a goat named “Alma” after the part Patricia played in Hud, his old, fashionless clothes, his battered briefcase, his estate car, and his rambling home and garden. When he writes, he goes to an old shed at the bottom of the garden, which is lined with plywood inside, even blocking up the window, and puts a baize green board on his lap as he sits in an armchair and picks up a pencil. A secretary comes in most mornings to type up the result.
It is strange to look at him in what must to him be a special place, so totally devoid of any comfort. All aesthetic reactions must be directed around his own mind as he works, without any aid from his environment, shut in as he is like that. “When I write, it flows”, he says. “At the moment. I’m not working, so I feel restless. I’d like to get started again”.
Any discussion about his work means reflection and attention upon himself, so he only says “It’s just a joke. A good bit of fun”. It is a lot more than that to have taken up so much of his life. He admits that it is an escape, that he seems to prefer not to understand. When he writes about people, he does not attempt to imagine to himself with their feelings, but confines himself to objective observations. “Everyone says watch the eyes, it’s all in the eyes, but I watch the mouth. The mouth says it all. It communicates everything”, he says: looking at me neutrally, as I try not to smile too broadly. “It shows lasciviousness”.
This I take to be a general remark. He is proud of his reputation, and says, “What interests me is how I can do both, adult fiction and children’s fiction. No one’s ever done it before with this success. It’s easy for me, one or the other. I’m interested in how I can do that. I can reach children. They haven’t learnt to be civilised. I was telling a group of them in a school hall about a man who had a wife who wanted to be revenged on him, so she took a pile of worms and poured tomato sauce over them, and put cheese on top of them on toast, and served them to him as spaghetti. When they moved he said to her. This can’t be spaghetti, it moved’. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘It’s a new kind’, and she showed him the tin, called swishy spaghetti. So he ate them, and then she told him what it was, and the children shrieked. They loved it. They haven’t learnt yet to be disgusted. They’re still animals”.
On the other hand he and they could just be into sadistic fantasies. He wouldn’t think so. But whether you have repressed or ratified basic instincts, Roald Dahl will do his best to disturb them. He likes to shock people as regularly as possible.
What makes him angry, I ask? “Pomposity, and human incompetence, in a broad way”. A fairly broad base for misanthropy. But he is affectionate to his kind of people, reticent about private displays of endurance and courage, and generous like a thoughtful child with food and toys that he has been able to buy as a famous adult.
Avuncular and autocratic, the shadows across his life are there in his work. Not personally stated, but transmuted into cruel games of fate upon the unsuspecting. “Life is cruel” he says casually, but with more conviction than most, and he writes accordingly. As he led me up the garden path, a real one, to drive me back to the station, his tall figure led me into the dark . . . But I’ll leave those stories to him.