By Patrick Walsh
Like many children of my generation I grew up hooked on the writings and stories of Roald Dahl. My parents purchased a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for me just after I was born. Today, over 30 years later, I still have it, even if it is very battered from multiple readings. The BFG was one of the first books I read myself, marking another point on my development as an obsessive reader. In my mind’s eye the author of these works was a cross between the chocolate-making genius, Willy Wonka, and the dream blowing BFG, an older man full of mischief but still retaining a reassuringly grandfatherly air in the manner of Charlie Bucket’s tale-spinning Grandpa Joe. As I grew older my image of Dahl changed, but not because I realised the often grotesque and sinister element evident in his writings, an element which would cause teachers, parents and librarians, especially librarians, to rail against the popular author. Instead the appearance of his rightly celebrated volumes of memoir Boy and Going Solo which captivated me and so many other readers across the globe introduced me to a more real-life Dahl. These volumes with their brilliant, and often poignant, descriptions of his childhood, adolescence and early adulthood culminating in his turbulent career as an RAF fighter pilot in World War II introduced a whole new Dahl to me, and I assume most of my fellow readers.
These two volumes, aimed at an audience of all ages, and read by children and adults alike – in a time pre-Harry Potter when this was less common – however, left a blurry line between Dahl the heroic flying ace and the author of James and the Giant Peach. Going Solo ends with Dahl arriving back in a blitzed London from the Mediterranean theatre of war in 1941, where he had been invalided out following the continuing ill effects of a crash landing in the Libyan desert almost a year earlier. We as readers still awaited the appearance of Dahl the story-spinner. Dahl’s wartime experiences and their influence on his development as a writer are explored in Donald Sturrock’s recent biography Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl which together with Jennet Conant’s The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington formed much of my Christmas reading.
Dahl’s pre-war experience working for Shell Oil in British East Africa (now Tanzania) did not suggest a latent literary career. Indeed it could be posited that the war released previously hidden talents. Here of course he was not alone; amongst the other members of a sometimes shadowy British presence in Washington was one Ian Fleming. He would later borrow from his experiences the ideas that informed his celebrated James Bond novels (one of which, You Only Live Twice was incidentally adapted by Dahl for the big screen). Dahl too used his wartime exploits in his writing. His first short story A Piece of Cake, which dramatised (and exaggerated) his crash landing in the Libyan desert, was intended as a propaganda piece to encourage Americans to support the war effort. Similar motivations lay behind a project to produce a book and a novel based on the Gremlins, mythical creatures who had become legendary amongst RAF pilots like Dahl. The Gremlins project attracted a lot of attention for its author bringing him into contact with a diverse range of influential Americans including Walt Disney and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Dahl’s literary endeavours also earned the praise of the American literary establishment, with Hemingway amongst his early fans. Perhaps more importantly in the short term his popularity as a writer, together with his charm and good looks, made him not only a useful member of the British diplomatic staff in his official role as assistant air attaché at the Washington embassy, but also as an agent provocateur working for more shadowy elements of the British government. His exploits as a member of the secret British Security Coordination (BSC organisation) are explored in detail in Conant’s book which concentrates on Dahl’s secret career as a British spy in FDR’s Washington. These adventures are also charted in Donald Sturrock’s biography, which places greater emphasis on Dahl’s ability to charm himself into the most powerful circles in Washington. Here his close friendship with vice-president Henry Wallace stands out, though in time Dahl would help ensure that the Russian speaking left leaning, idealistic, Wallace was dropped from the Democratic ticket in 1944. Had he remained as vice-president, he and not Truman would have replaced Roosevelt later that year, and perhaps the course of twentieth century history might have been very different?
Dahl’s espionage work only encouraged his pre-existing tendency to spin stories. It was now part of his job, and one he clearly relished. His enthusiasm waned somewhat as the end of the war neared. His role in the downfall of his tennis partner, Wallace, played a part in this, while Sturrock suggests that Dahl may have become uncomfortable with some of the less glamorous aspects of his government service. It was all well and good going to bed for one’s country but other more sinister aspects of the secret agent’s career were possibly less attractive. These included his part-commission to write the official history of BSC in the immediate aftermath of the war. History writing was not to Dahl’s taste, and neither was the remote Canadian outpost where he was supposed to be working. As soon as he could, in 1946 Dahl resigned his commission and returned to civilian life. His first short story collection Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying was published in the same year, to positive reviews. This only encouraged his determination to continue writing upon his return to England. It was not however plain sailing from here on, as Sturrock’s superb biography makes clear. His first novel, Sometime Never: A Fable for Supermen, a bleak pessimistic fantasy creation was critically and commercially panned. Its author retreated into the bosom of his family, and rural England, where he continued to write short stories, before in the late 1950s on the advice of his agent, Sheila St Lawrence turning to children’s literature. The rest as they say is history.