Review - Books - A big unfriendly literary giant

19th November 2010 at 00:00

Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl

By Donald Sturrock

Harper Press


Like many teachers, I am indebted to Roald Dahl. Carefully chosen stories from Kiss Kiss and Someone Like You have enlivened many an English lesson with a difficult class on a wet afternoon, with the children squirming in disgust as the rat-catcher bites off the rat's head or the Man from the South claims yet another little finger for his collection.

These early adult stories are a gift to secondary classrooms, just as there can barely be a primary school in the country where at any given time a Roald Dahl book is not the subject of study or the treat at the end of a busy day. In English children's literature, Dahl is ubiquitous, despite winning only one major award in his lifetime. Teachers and librarians have every reason to love him.

Admiration for someone's work, however, is not sufficient reason to devote a substantial chunk of time to reading their biography. Notoriously, writers' lives are often a great deal less interesting than their books. In Dahl's case, I am happy to report, this is not so. "Rarely has a writer lived such an extraordinary and eventful life," writes Donald Sturrock towards the end of this engrossing book. Dahl's life was simply as extraordinary as his work.

The basics of it are well-known: the air crash during the war that damaged his back permanently; the diplomatic service posting to Washington; the adult stories; the children's books written in the shed at Gipsy House in Great Missenden. But that outline is only the tip of a big and not always friendly iceberg. Dahl was as opinionated as he was gifted; as difficult as he could be kind; as obdurate in negotiating royalties and terms as he could be individually generous; as ruthless in his professional life as he was devoted to his family.

Readers of Dahl's first autobiography, Boy, might think they know all about his early years, but he is an unreliable and at times irresponsible narrator. The famous caning scene may have taken place, but it was not Geoffrey Fisher, the man who went on to be Archbishop of Canterbury, who administered the punishment. Fisher had left Repton, Dahl's boarding school, by that time. Was it a lapse of memory? Possibly. But it makes a better story to attribute the savage beating to the man who later crowned the Queen.

In fact, despite his experiences at Repton, Dahl's rather wild and undisciplined childhood seems to have been full of practical jokes and pranks, my favourite of which is replacing the tobacco in his future brother-in-law's pipe with goat droppings.

As an air attache in Washington, Dahl experienced the high life, mixing with film stars and seducing glamorous actresses. He was effectively an intelligence agent in those years, but he was also keen to make a name for himself as a writer of adult material. His pet project was his involvement with Walt Disney in a proposed film about the little creatures blamed by RAF pilots for the malfunctioning of their planes. The resulting book, The Gremlins, was a success, but the film was never made.

These years gave him a taste for success and glamour. "He had mixed with statesmen, movie stars, writers and business men, and tasted extremes of wealth and luxury," writes Sturrock. They were tastes that never quite left him, as the later purchase of 1,000 cases of fine 1982 claret seems to confirm.

Dahl was at his most appealing and heroic when vulnerable and wounded, and the tragedies that haunted his life were immense. His son Theo suffered brain damage after a traffic accident; his beloved daughter Olivia died at the age of seven; his first wife, the Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal, suffered a brain aneurysm and was for a time unable to move or speak; and his step-daughter developed a fatal brain tumour. In response to Theo's condition, Dahl devised a valve for draining fluid from the brain that is still in use today. His programme of intense stimulation for his wife's condition defied medical opinion at the time but is now recognised as ground-breaking.

And then, of course, came the children's books and the creation of characters that are now some of the most famous in children's literature. These are Dahl's legacy to the world and their creator is more than well served by Sturrock's immensely readable biography. Dahl was a remarkable and distinctly larger-than-life character. This book is a meticulous account of a flawed but often marvellous life lived to the full; it makes for riveting reading.

The verdict: 1010


Donald Sturrock worked at the BBC for 10 years as a writer, producer and director. Since 1992 he has been artistic director of Roald Dahl's Marvellous Children's Charity (formerly the Roald Dahl Foundation). He directed the world premiere of Fantastic Mr Fox, an opera based on Dahl's book, and his latest opera libretto is The Golden Ticket, based on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

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