Roald Dahl: The story of a man who made his home in Buckinghamshire
PUBLISHED: 12:08 13 September 2016 | UPDATED: 12:29 13 September 2016
September marks the 100th anniversary of author Roald Dahl's birth. Sandra Smith tells the story of the man who made his home in Buckinghamshire
A trainee position at Shell Oil followed by a posting to East Africa’s Dar-es-Salaam isn’t a natural forerunner to international literary status. Nor, indeed, is a stint as an RAF pilot, let alone an air attaché role at the British Embassy in Washington DC.
But then what relevance has normality when exploring the career of Roald Dahl? This prolific writer, who made Buckinghamshire his home and was famed as much for his gripping adult suspense as hilarious children’s stories overflowing with invented vocabulary, nurtured a fiery imagination fuelled by his eclectic career mix. Copious notes detailing anything which sparked interest or amusement were recorded in ‘Ideas books’. Not surprising, then, that experiences dating as far back as African adventures and even school days influenced his work.
Dahl was born on 13 September 1916 in Llandaff and christened at Cardiff’s Norwegian church. Family holidays were often spent in his parents’ native country and, although the writer considered himself to be ‘Very English’, the Scandinavian quality of unconventional edginess surfaces throughout his work.
A lifelong fondness for chocolate was initially cultivated at Repton School where Cadburys sent boxes of confectionary for the boys to taste and guess the ingredients. When he left in 1934, Dahl was keen to travel and his position with Shell and exploits in Africa later infiltrated his Going Solo stories.
He then trained as a pilot with the RAF despite the challenge of squeezing his 6’ 5” frame into a cockpit. After being posted to Libya, a plane crash resulted in six months’ recuperation, an unwasted experience reinvented in the short story, A Piece of Cake.
Whilst working in the US, the Saturday Evening Post published his first paid story in 1942. Then his childhood tale, The Gremlins, caught the eye of Walt Disney and earned him an invitation from Eleanor Roosevelt to the White House.
His first marriage, to Hollywood actress Patricia Neal, took place in New York. The couple toured Europe during their honeymoon and in 1954 purchased Little Whitefield Cottage, later renamed Gypsy House, in the valley of the Misbourne River.
A purpose built hut, set in the grounds amid fruit trees, served as Dahl’s writing den for several decades.
Tales of the Unexpected, first aired in 1979, remain memorable for their capacity to excite and alarm in equal measure.
The drama of each half hour episode is heightened by unpredicted, sometimes unsavoury, twists making them compelling viewing. Also during this period many of his now famous children’s books were published, including Fantastic Mr Fox, and Danny, Champion of the World whose garage was inspired by the petrol pumps which still exist at 64 High Street.
Around this time Dahl began a collaboration with Quentin Blake. The two men worked together on The Enormous Crocodile and the illustrator’s lively artwork soon became synonymous with the writer’s characters. Their friendship endured, yet the illustrator still recalls the challenges: “I could never guess what he was going to think of next, but it always turned out to be something amazing to draw.”
His first marriage ended in divorce, but his 1983 union with Felicity Crosland coincided with one of his most productive eras, Along came George’s Marvellous Medicine, The Twits and The BFG, the latter now a Stephen Spielberg film. Matilda also hit the bookshelves and, as an award winning musical, continues to entertain audiences around the world.
Many local places either featured in, or stimulated, his children’s fiction. Great Missenden Library was regularly visited by Matilda whilst her mum played bingo in Aylesbury; the High Street’s timber framed Crown House instigated The BFG’s norphanage; and stories created for his own children during frequent visits to Hobbs Hill Wood later morphed into The Minpins.
Roald Dahl’s death in 1990 neither stemmed readers’ enthusiasm nor tempered ongoing theatrical and cinematic versions of his stories. No wonder the popularity of an imaginative and family friendly museum, situated in the heart of Great Missenden never wanes.
Inside the former 16th century coaching inn chocolate doors lead to the first of three galleries where recordings by the author relate key moments of his life. Here, and throughout, are screens to touch and dressing up opportunities, trunks of school uniforms, family photographs, BFG clues and The Minpins ruler.
Roald Dahl’s Writing Hut is surely the most poignant exhibit. The upright chair includes his felt covered writing board with personal mementoes, telephone and walking cane all within arm’s reach. A cobbled courtyard includes birch trees which are indigenous to Norway. Café Twit and Miss Honey’s classroom – previously stables – encourage both grown ups and children to plunge into the magical world of Dahl whilst an array of books, toys and gifts, from frobscoffle popcorn to Willy Wonka toys, are temptingly displayed in the shop.
To mark the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth events continue throughout 2016 with his home town transformed into City of the Unexpected and, on 17 September, Great Missenden’s listed building becoming The Museum of the Unexpected. It’s the sort of gloriumptious merriment which reflects the author’s creativity, as Luke Kelly, grandson and Managing Director of Roald Dahl’s Literary Estate, concludes: “This extraordinary year celebrates Roald’s unique imagination, beloved characters and unforgettable stories. As well as the things you now know about, be prepared for many surprises and treats along the way.”
*Gloriumptious - A lovely word from Gobblefunk, the descriptive language used by Roald Dahl. Other examples include Swatchscollop (disgusting food) Oompa-Loompa: the small people who worked at Wonka’s factory; and Whoopsy-splunkers for something fantastic.
Bucks County Museum & Roald Dahl Children’s Gallery
Explore Roald Dahl’s connections to Buckinghamshire. Using the County Museum’s vibrant collections and images from the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre archives, visitors of all ages can discover the people and places behind Roald Dahl’s stories in an enchanting woodland setting. Free admission, runs until 7 January 2017.
Bucks County Museum is also home to the fantastic Roald Dahl Children’s Gallery, where hands-on exhibits are inspired by stories and museum objects. Investigate minibeasts inside the Giant Peach, explore sound with the BFG, crawl along Fantastic Mr Fox’s tunnel, see the Twit’s upside-down room and discover inventions with Willy Wonka. You can freeze your own shadow, magnify fleas and be transported by chocolate television.
The museum is at 9 Church Street, Aylesbury, HP20 2QP and you can discover the county’s rich heritage here. There is also a gift shop, café and walled garden to enjoy. From the museum take a stroll around the delightful Aylesbury Old Town, with its Tudor and Georgian buildings around the historic St Mary’s church.
Check opening times carefully as the gallery is not open every day. For more info call 01296 331441 or visit buckscountymuseum.org.