Roald Dahl’s books have sold over 90 million copies worldwide and still remain popular. However, Dahl once encountered a reader who was severely displeased with his work. On this occasion, he helped his daughter Lucy with her English homework. He wrote a story especially for her, then Lucy copied it out neatly and handed it in. The result? The teacher returned it marked: “C—you could do better.”
D is for Dahl abounds with such interesting facts and was so immensely readable, though lamentably short, that I managed to devour it in about an hour or so. It is clearly written for children and is a hodge-podge of facts, some related to Dahl, his family and friends, some to his children’s books and their characters and objects, some which have no relation to Dahl or his writing. The style is terse and informative, but there is also a postmodern touch which mocks the A-Z format, such as in the first absurd entry ‘Aardvark’. The book features excerpts from little-known writings by Dahl and builds on Dahl’s autobiographies with a quirky overview of the habits and likes of the great man. There is much that is fascinating.
Dahl’s life was filled with larger than life characters, such as Alfhild, Roald Dahl’s eccentric older sister, who drank champagne out of her shoe. He had a guest who was in the habit of lighting his farts at the end of his meal. He was himself invited into the White House as a guest.
The man was also a delightful eccentric himself, much like his older sister. He kept parts of his own body as ornaments on the table in his writing hut. There were parts of his own hip joint and he also kept a glass bottle full of lumps of gristle in a special preserving liquid. He once put his first wife’s coat in the freezer to store it through the summer.
The Dahl that emerges in the book is also the man of invention and creativity. He would mix the strangest ingredients together to create teatime treats for his children, such as delicious bacon and marmalade sandwiches. Then, when he placed the treat on the table, he would nonchalantly say, “This is a secret recipe. A young prince in Dar es Salaam passed it on to me after I saved him from the dreadful grip of a giant python.” Then he would make them promise that they would never tell the recipes to another soul, before sauntering back to his writing hut. Dahl also invented an ingenious method of stretching shoes, to make them more comfortable. If the shoes were too tight, he filled plastic bags with water, put the bags in the shoes and then put the shoes into the freezer. The bags got bigger as ice formed and the shoes s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d.
Among his many other talents, Dahl was also gifted as a painter. He once painted a copy of a Cézanne landscape and hung it on his sitting-room wall. It is said that it fools everyone but the real art experts. This inventiveness and creativity was often applied to the problems of life. When his daughter Lucy and her friends were being bullied on the school bus by a girl called Lizzy, he came up with an inspired plan. He wrote a rhyme and told Lucy to teach it to everyone except the bully. They learned the verse and, when Lizzy next picked on a girl on the bus, everyone sang Dahl’s rhyme. Everyone on the bus—except Lizzy—cheered, chanted, clapped, and sang over and over again. Lizzy the bully didn’t pick on them again.
However, what is interesting, and what adds another dimension to the character of Dahl as a trickster, is that this inventiveness and creativity was sometimes intimately connected with fraud and deceit. For example, Dahl once told his family that he was going to try his hand at ‘cave drawing’. He insisted he needed to be alone to be inspired, and so he decorated a whole wall of the house. His family were very impressed by the results. However, a few weeks later, his wife, cleared out some drawers and found the stencils he had used to produce his “original” works of art.
I already knew that Dahl was an exciting person and someone that one would wish to have in one’s own family. The book gives us more details on how fascinating a family member he would have made. For example, if one were to look carefully at the lawn of Dahl’s home, one would perhaps have seen the word “Hello!” written in yellow letters. Dahl would have told you that this was a message from the fairies. In actual fact, it was one of his little tricks—he would write the words in weedkiller when no one was looking to make his children’s smile. His daughters Ophelia and Lucy loved to see their names written on the lawn in fairy writing.
One of the fantasies of a reader is that he is somehow meeting the person who writes, that there is a ‘meeting’ of minds. And some readers wish to expand on that meeting by meeting the person in real life. Although Dahl is dead and gone, the book allows one to ‘meet’ with Dahl by listing the small details, the strange affinities between one person and another, such as a shared love of orchids or chocolate. Other small details about the man are also captivating. Dahl owned a hundred homing budgerigars—yellow ones, green ones, blue ones, and white ones. He also had a mynah bird that had been taught to say very rude things. The fishmonger was Dahl’s favourite type of shop.
I was drawn to the mischievous side of Dahl’s personality. He particularly liked chess and Scrabble, but wasn’t particularly good at the latter because of his poor spelling. Yet he kept on pulling the highest-scoring tiles from the bag. Why? Because he had learned the feel of the indentations on the highest-scoring ones. If one had been invited into his home, his love of trickery would have been a part of his welcoming. He would probably cook one sausages for supper. Then he would tell you that only he and the queen had those particular sausages. His subversions of authority were also appealing. For example, when he was in the hospital once, Dahl desperately wanted to see his dog Chopper. He came up with a cunning, but unrealised plan to smuggle him onto the premises, even though animals were strictly forbidden.
Perhaps the most interesting facts for me are to do with Dahl’s writing process. For example, Dahl’s perfectionism is evident. It is telling that he was never satisfied with what he wrote, with the exception of Matilda. The role of the bonfire in Dahl’s writing process tells us much about how committed he was to producing the perfect story:
“For every page he was happy with, three or four more pages were thrown away. Once a month—when his large wastebasket was full to overflowing with discarded, scribbled-on, yellow pages—Roald made a bonfire just outside his writing shed. (One of the shed’s white walls was soon streaked with black.) But not everything went up in smoke. Roald hoarded masses of pieces of paper covered with scribbles and ideas.”
Dahl’s inspirations are also carefully worth considering for the aspiring writer. He found inspiration in places other less resourceful writers would simply ignore. For example, he clipped pictures of mouths and eyes out of newspapers and magazines to give him ideas for new characters.
Because Dahl is such a fascinating character, D is for Dahl is also fascinating. There is the interesting relation between Dahl’s own hobbies and the content of his works, such as his hobby of cleaning paintings which he used in his short story ‘Nunc Dimitis’, or his interest in antiques which is utilised in ‘Parson’s Pleasure’, or his love of wine, which is used in ‘Taste’ (the list could go on). There is copious information which it is a delight to rediscover or discover for the first time. Highly recommended reading for the serious scholar, the adult and the child alike.