Roald's big shed

28th February 2003 at 00:00
A venue dedicated to the work of Roald Dahl is taking shape in the author's home village - and there's room for suggestions from teachers, pupils and other fans of Willy Wonka and the rest. Geraldine Brennan visits the site of a unique resource where ideas rather than chocolate will soon be rolling off the production line

What, no chocolate factory?" was the response when Roald Dahl's executor, Amanda Conquy, told her children about the latest project to use his life and work to inspirational effect.

"What can you say? Well, I'm sure we'll get some chocolate in there somewhere, and we might give out golden tickets on the way in, but we've no plans for a chocolate factory as such."

She could have said: "We've got seven different Dahl manuscripts for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that you can see for the first time - will that do?" But they might have said no. When you're braced for a vast, unruly virtual focus group of children and teachers to throw their ideas at you, it's best to ask the right questions.

The Roald Dahl Museum and Literature Centre in the author's home village of Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, is due to open in November 2004. Key staff such as curator Sue Davies have already been appointed but the education officer is still to come, as is the writer-in-residence (a series of writers and illustrators, in fact, who will truly be in residence, living above the premises for weeks or months at a time).

The network of 18th-century buildings stretching several houses deep from the high street has at various times included a bank (the safes are still there), stables, a pub, a hairdressing salon and a meeting hall, still housing scenery from a long-forgotten play. It looks dishevelled but is bursting with potential, even if you're not an estate agent. Between the deceptively modest entrance and the Chiltern hills will lie a resplendent celebration of Dahl's books and life, and the power of words generally.

The pound;3.7 million project has been in serious development since the site came up for auction in 1995, with pound;2 million coming from the Dahl family and more from fundraising - including a dinner at Chequers, two miles away, hosted by local weekenders the Blairs - with pound;700,000 still to go.

The project is separate, on paper at least, from the work of the Roald Dahl Foundation, the grant-giving trust set up after Dahl's death in 1992. But literacy ("one of Dahl's crusades", says Amanda Conquy) is one of three areas supported by the foundation (the others are haematology and neurology) and Dahl was especially committed to spreading the word to reluctant readers. The centre is in that spirit.

On the architects' plan, a space that is currently a tumbledown stable with a ladder to a hayloft is labelled "experiential room". This is possibly the most important room apart from wherever they decide to keep the chocolate; it's where children will come to be inspired by activities from a schools' "menu". No "revolting recipes" will be served here; instead there will be confections of wordplay, storytelling and props. Not so much a chocolate factory as an ideas factory, in which the product will be children reading and writing.

Ted Wragg, professor of education at the University of Exeter and an adviser to the Roald Dahl Foundation, has been watching the project grow.

"This place could be a catalyst for change," he says. "People are ready to return to creativity and make it part of the literacy strategy." He sees potential, too, for work on visual literacy; besides showing the work of Quentin Blake, Dahl's illustrator, the centre will give its full attention to ways of telling stories with images.

Teachers who grew up on Dahl are now seeing the books engage their pupils.

"At first, children loved him because he was subversive. He belonged to the children, and teachers and parents were wary of him," says Amanda Conquy.

"Those children are now teachers and parents." No surprise that Dahl was voted the nation's favourite author by children and adults in 2000. His books, from Fantastic Mr Fox for new readers to The Nimpins and Tales of the Unexpected for moody teenagers, are a gift to teachers.

When Dahl's books generate the biggest ideas, Ms Conquy is never far away.

A former publisher, she is director of the foundation and now trustee and company secretary of the forthcoming centre. She has known the Dahl family all her life; she grew up in Great Missenden and went to the Gateway nursery and Godstowe prep with Tessa Dahl (daughter of Roald, mother of Sophie). She went into publishing and became editorial director at Heinemann. While she was on maternity leave, Dahl asked her "out of the blue" to be his executor. After his death from leukaemia two years later, she gave up publishing to work full time for the Roald Dahl Foundation and now lives locally again.

Before the high street site was acquired, Ms Conquy and the Dahl family had been mulling over ways to preserve the massive Roald Dahl archive, "one of the best of the 20th century", soon to be accessible for the first time thanks to years of digital archiving.

There are three or more complete handwritten drafts for every book; those seven different opening pages of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in the course of which the original nine children visiting the factory are whittled down to five; the unpublished dictionary of 274 new words he invented for The BFG (see cover image). It's an imaginative goldmine whether you're a children's literature scholar, a teacher planning key stage 3 literacy, a seven-year-old or the seven-year-old's grandmother.

"Dahl was an amazing self-archivist," says Ms Conquy. "He kept everything and so did his mother. He went to boarding school at seven and wrote to his mother every week. She wrote back every week and we've got it all. We've got the entire period covering Boy and Going Solo (his autobiographical works) in letters." And he saved all his school reports, notorious for casting doubt on his writing ability. "That in itself is great to show children when you want to persuade them they can have a go - that they are all writers. He kept diaries and wrote letters for a large part of his life without perceiving himself to be a writer at all."

So how to make the most of all this and devise a menu to tickle teachers' palates? As well as the 4,000 teacher subscribers to www.roalddahl.com, Sue Davies is drawing on local focus groups of teachers and adult learners ("adult learning and family learning is very important to us"). And the centre is looking for ways to reach its wider community ("we're 20 minutes from Slough and 25 minutes from Southall, and we have ideas for projects with Asian families").

In a recent brainstorming session at the University of Exeter's education department, a team from the centre met reader in primary education Alan Peacock, who advises venues such as the Eden Project and Resource in Bristol on the effectiveness of their schools programmes, tracking school groups during and after visits and following up what has been retained or developed.

His advice is to admit unlimited adults free with school groups but ensure adults and children are prepared for what they will see and absorb. His team has learned that, without mediation, more often than not "children do not take on board what the museum intends. We've followed children round all day without a question being asked of them. They don't read information, they can press buttons and be none the wiser, but to a teacher looking into the room they seem occupied. Schools need to be clear what they want to achieve before, during and after the experience."

Penni Tearle, assistant director of Exeter's Telematics Centre, which develops "creative use of ICT in learning", is excited by the potential of the digital archive. "The trick is to use technology to add to the sense of wonder and engagement, otherwise you have a lot of digitised material sitting there waiting for someone to bring it out."

Bremner amp; Orr, the design company that created the Roald Dahl Children's Gallery at the Buckinghamshire County Museum in Aylesbury in 1995, specialises in realising the Dahl brand of wonder and engagement. The gallery, which shows the museum's collection through the prism of Dahl characters - wildlife in Fantastic Mr Fox's tunnel; insects in James's giant peach - won the 1997 Gulbenkian Award for most imaginative education work. Its creators are now working on the Discover "story building" centre for children in Stratford, east London.

Designer Mick Orr, who taught throughout the 1970s and 1980s (secondary school and teacher training) and worked on design and creative arts curriculum development, recalls: "We were competing with the first Dahl film when we opened in Aylesbury. We were trying to assail all the senses and fire the imagination with an environment you could not possibly reproduce in school."

In the new Roald Dahl centre, either the books or the life will directly inspire rather than frame the content, but a similar quality can be expected in the interactive displays by Bremner amp; Orr (the team includes literacy specialist Pamela Harbutt). The ever-expanding list of options includes something on flying (Dahl flew Hurricanes in the Second World War - writing about his experiences later for New York's Saturday Evening Post launched his new career); something on limericks, which he loved; something that plays with the concept of the "Great Automatic Grammatizator" in his short story of writing novels by very early computer; something to explore the 34 languages in which he is published (he dreamed in Norwegian and studied Swahili).

Even his lesser-known passions will be represented. He was a prize orchid grower ("We'll have some in the courtyard," says Sue Davies). And a keen billiards player ("We'll have to give that some thought").

Teachers and children can add their building blocks to the edifice and their interpretation to the centre's mission statement: "Celebrating the written word and the fun and importance of literacy and lifelong learning."

As Ms Conquy says, Dahl would have stood for nothing less.

"From the start we knew it had to be fun and it had to be a centre of inspiration. We have been determined that there should be no inkling of there being a shrine to Roald; he would have hated that, as he would have hated anything boring or adult-ish."

Dahl is buried in a simple grave in the hilltop parish church; the family home, Gipsy House, is closed to the public although the garden and its maze, adorned with text from the books, is open for charity several days a year. But a replica of the writing hut in the Gipsy House garden is likely to be the centrepiece of a section on writers and how they write, from Dylan Thomas's garage to Philip Pullman's shed.

Dahl's methods were set in stone. Every morning he folded his 6ft 4in frame into a customised writing chair with a leg rest, adjusted his reading lamp by draping a towel to balance it and covered his legs with a Norwegian sleeping bag before picking up a yellow pencil and yellow-lined legal pad.

He snacked on KitKats and rolled the tinfoil wrappers into a ball which turned black over time.

The exploration of this and other writing lives will lead children to think about where and how they are best able to write, but it's possible they will write little in their hour-and-a-half visit. "We're offering a place where you'll be seeing and doing things that will stimulate you to write, but that might not happen until you're back at school," says Sue Davies.

Once back from Great Missenden, children should be better equipped to answer from experience those perennial (but ever-fascinating) questions to visiting authors: "how do you write?" and "where do you get your ideas from?" Sue Davies has a simple but perfect scheme (still very much in theory) for entrance tickets that double as mini-notebooks, in which visitors of all ages will jot down ideas during their visit (the ideas notebook is another classic writer's habit Dahl adopted).

She hopes every visitor will leave something behind, "such as a comment card, a postcard to Dahl or a word for our story of the day", and take something away - "ideas, inspiration, memories of the best chocolate cake ever, and a snippet or two of new knowledge".

Visit the teachers' section at www.roalddahl.com for teaching ideas compiled by Prue Goodwin of the National Literacy Centre

What do you want?

The Roald Dahl centre is asking teachers: what would you and your pupils like to experience at the centre? What would you expect to get out of a class visit? Email your ideas to dahlcentreideas @roalddahl.com. World Book Day (March 6) is a good opportunity to brainstorm.

Ted Wragg asked Year 5 and 6 pupils and staff at Redhills combined school, Exeter, what they would like to find there. Some of them won't be disappointed.

* First drafts of all his books Kelly Burns, 11

* A golden ticket Rhys Brown, 11

* The beer jug with a fake eyeball and the worms in the spaghetti from The Twits Rachel Gill, 11

* A fun house in the shape of the BFG Rebecca Crocker, 10

* All his awards and the costumes and props from the films Liam Clarke, 10

* The wallpaper that tastes like fruit from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and a game where you have to find the bottle with George's Marvellous Medicine Katie Cainey, 10

* The bugs from the giant peach, and the music that Roald Dahl liked listening to Sinead Perry, 10

* The flying elevator and how it works Luke Bennett, 10

* Life-size characters Dawn Hulland, literacy co-ordinator

* His desk and writing materials from his shed Lynda Whish, teacher

* There were multiple votes for original Quentin Blake artwork, photographs of Roald Dahl and his family and pets, and Willy Wonka's Oompa-Loompas as guides.

See World Book Day highlights, page 25

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