The highs and lows of a Reading Champion

30th November 2001 at 00:00
QPR footballer Clarke Carlisle has been taking time out to visit his hero Roald Dahl's famous writing den. Geraldine Brennan reports

Queens Park Rangers footballer Clarke Carlisle has at least two things in common with his childhood hero Roald Dahl - a passion for books and a dread of low ceilings.

At 6ft 4in, centre-back Clarke is the tallest QPR player. He just fitted into Dahl's legendary garden-shed writing den in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. The author himself, who died in 1990, was the same height (he shrank from 6ft 6in) and his customised writing chair, desk and leg rest are still in place.

As a football-mad child who spent Saturdays watching his father Mervyn play semi-professionally, Clarke still found time to devour Dahl's books. Last week, in his role as a Reading Champion inspiring boys and men to read through work with Westminster libraries, he had the chance to see work in progress on the Dahl archives and check out the shed.

It's all just as he left it: his overflowing ashtray and his jar of yellow pencils sit alongside bizarre Dahl-esque treasures, including the femur from his hip replacement and the jar containing discs removed from his spine. The dull metal ball (between tennis and golf size) looks like a sinister body part, but it's only the foil wrappings from years of Kit Kats: Dahl was a three-a-day man, his widow Felicity (Liccy) Dahl told Clarke.

"He crossed the lawn at 10 o'clock every morning and wrote until lunchtime. He read in the afternoon and played billiards in the evening with our builder Wally, who was his model for The BFG."

Dahl wrote in pencil on yellow legal pads; his manuscripts are being scanned into an electronic archive (with nicotine stains chemically removed). Visitors to the planned Roald Dahl Museum and Literary Centre near his home (the family has acquired an early 18th-century coaching inn and donated half the pound;3 million needed for conversion), will be able to read the pages that didn't make it into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and try a replica of the shed for size.

Clarke was signed by QPR in August 2000 after playing with England under-21s, but injured his cruciate (knee) ligament last February.

He is combining physiotherapy and training (he hopes to be playing again in early spring 2002) with his reading promotion work, and maths and politics A-levels at Hammersmith College, which QPR apprentices attend.

He left Balshall grammar school in Leyland, Lancashire, where he was head boy, with 10 GCSEs. He wanted to pursue his football career - he had already played for Lancashire under-15s.

"I knew I would only have one chance at football. I wanted a trophy cabinet like my dad's."

Twenty more Reading Champions will be announced on Monday. The National Reading Campaign's roll of honour includes a prison officer, a community policeman and a street sweeper who is training to be a union learning representative alongside Ian Hicklin, a teacher at Alford primary school, Lincolnshire.

FEFocus, 33

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