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September 20, 2016

Roald Dahl in His Own Words

Posted by Rebecca M

This September marks the 100th birthday of beloved author Roald Dahl. Dahl brought us masterpieces like CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, THE BFG and our favorite bookworm, MATILDA --- all while teaching us the importance of creativity and imagination. In celebration of Dahl, we've been posting some gloriumptious blog posts every Tuesday of September to share with all of you Dahlphiles --- who are fluent in gobblefunk. For our first week, we started by sharing some fun facts about Dahl and his most popular books. Last week, we decided to wish a gloriumptious birthday to the world's best storyteller himself by asking our Kidsreads reviewers and readers to tell us some of their favorite things about Roald Dahl. This week, we're letting Dahl take over to tell us about himself in his own words, using excerpts from MORE ABOUT BOY, the follow up to Dahl's autobiography, BOY. Read below to learn about how Dahl became the legendary writer who we know and love today. Be sure to check back next week for another Dahl-ightful post and, in the meantime, click here to head over to Roald Dahl's official website, where you can learn about upcoming celebrations and events across the country. We're so excited to invite you all into the frothbuggling, whoopsy wiffling, and jumpsquiffling world of Roald Dahl!

How I Became a Writer

I have still got all my school reports from those days more than fifty years ago, and I've gone through them one by one, trying to discover a hint of promise for a future fiction writer. The subject to look at was obviously English Composition. But all my Prep School reports under this heading were flat and non-committal, excepting one. The one that took my eye was dated Christmas Term, 1928. I was then twelve, and my English teacher was Mr Victor Corrado. I remember him vividly, a tall, handsome athlete with black wavy hair and a Roman nose ( who one night later on eloped with the Matron, Miss Davis, and we never saw either of them again). Anyway, it so happened that Mr Corrado took us in boxing as well as an English Composition, and in this particular report it said under English, 'See his report on boxing. Precisely the same marks apply.' So we look under Boxing, and there it says, ‘Too slow and ponderous. His punches are not well timed and are easily seen coming.’

But just once a week at this school, every Saturday morning, every beautiful and blessed Saturday morning, all the shivering horrors would disappear and for two glorious hours I would experience something that came very close to ecstasy.

Unfortunately, this did not happen until one was ten years old. But no matter. Let me tell you what it was.

At exactly ten-thirty on Saturday mornings, Mr Pople's infernal bell would go clangetty-clang-clang. This was a signal for the following to take place:

First, all of the boys of nine and under (about seventy all told) would proceed at once to the large outdoor asphalt playground behind the main building. Standing on the playground with legs apart and arms folded across her mountainous bosom was Miss Davis, the Matron. If it was raining, the boys were expected to arrive and raincoats. It's snowing or blowing a blizzard, then it was coats and scarves. And school caps, of course--grey with a red badge on the front--had always to be worn. But no Act of God, neither tornado nor hurricane nor volcanic eruption was ever allowed to stop those ghastly two-hour Saturday morning walks that the seven-, eight- and nine-year-old little boys had to take a long the windy esplanades of Weston-super-Mare on Saturday mornings. They walked in crocodile formation, two by two, with Miss Davis striding alongside in tweed skirt and woollen stockings and a felt hat that must surely have been nibbled by rats.

The other thing that happened when Mr Pople's bell rang out on Saturday mornings was that the rest of the boys, all those of ten and over (about one hundred all told) would go immediately to the main Assembly Hall and sit down. A junior master called S. K. Jopp would then poke his head around the door and shout at us with such ferocity that specks of spit would fly from his mouth like bullets and splash against the window-panes across the room. 'All right!' he shouted. 'No talking! No moving! Eyes front and hands on desks!' Then out he would pop again.

We sat still and waited. We were waiting for the lovely time we knew would be coming soon. Outside in the driveway we heard the motor-cars being started up. All were ancient. All had to be cranked by hand. (The year, don't forget, was around 1927/28.) This was a Saturday morning ritual. There were five cars in all, and into then would pile the entire staff of fourteen masters, including not only the Headmaster himself, but also the purple-faced Mr Pople*. Then off they would roar in a cloud of blue smoke and come to rest outside a pub called, if I remember rightly, 'The Bewhiskered Earl'. There they would remain until just before lunch, drinking pint after pint of strong brown ale. And two and a half hours later, at one o'clock, we would watch them coming back, walking very carefully into the dining-room for lunch, holding on to things as they went.

So much for the masters. But what of us, the great mass of ten-, eleven- and twelve-year-olds left sitting in the Assembly Hall in a school that was suddenly without a single adult in the entire place? We knew, of course, exactly what was going to happen next. Within a minute of the departure of the masters, we would hear the front door opening, and footsteps outside, and then, with a flurry of loose clothes and jangling bracelets and flying hair, a woman would burst into the room shouting, 'Hello, everybody! Cheer up! This isn't a burial service!' or words to that effect. And this was Mrs O'Connor.

Blessed beautiful Mrs O'Connor with her whacky clothes and her grey hair flying in all directions. She was about fifty years, with a horsey face and long yellow teeth, but to us she was beautiful. She was not on the staff. She was hired from somewhere in the town to come up on Saturday mornings and be a sort of babysitter, to keep us quiet for two and a half hours while the masters went off boozing at the pub.

*Mr Pople was a paunchy, crimson-faced individual who acted as a school-porter, boiler superintendent and general handyman. His power stemmed from the fact that he could (and most certainly did) report us to the Headmaster upon the slightest provocation.

But Mrs O'Connor was no babysitter. She was nothing less than a great and gifted teacher, a scholar and a lover of English Literature. Each of us was with her every Saturday morning for three years (from the age of ten until we left the school) and during that time we spanned the entire history of English Literature from A.D. 597 to the early nineteenth century.

Newcomers to the class were given for keeps a slim blue book called simply The Chronological Table, and it contained only six pages. So six pages were filled with a very long list in chronological order of all the great and not so great landmarks in English literature, together with their dates. Exactly one hundred of these were chosen by Mrs O'Connor and we marked them in our books and learnt them by heart. Here are a few that I still remember:

A.D.     597     St Augustine lands in Thanet and brings Christianity to Britain

            731     Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

            1215   Signing of the Magna Carta

            1399   Langland’s Vision of Piers Plowman

            1476   Caxton sets up first printing press at Westminster

            1478   Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

            1485   Malory’s Morte d’Arthur

            1590   Spenser’s Faerie Queene

            1623   First Folio of Shakespeare

            1667   Milton’s Paradise Lost

            1668   Dryden’s Essays

            1678   Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

            1711   Addison’s Spectator

            1719   Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe

            1726   Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels

            1733   Pope’s Essay on Man

            1755   Johnson’s Dictionary

            1791   Boswell’s Life of Johnson

            1833   Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus

            1859   Darwin’s Origin of Species

Mrs O'Connor would then take each item in turn and spend one entire Saturday morning of two and a half hours talking to us about it. Thus, at the end of three years, with approximately thirty-six Saturdays in each school year, she would have covered the one hundred items.

And what marvelous exciting fun it was! She had the great teacher’s knack of making everything she spoke about come alive to us in that room. In two and a half hours, we grew to love Langland and his Piers Plowman. The next Saturday, it was Chaucer, and we love him, too. Even rather difficult fellows like Milton and Dryden and Pope all became thrilling when Mrs O'Connor told us about their lives and read parts of their work to us aloud. And the result of all this, for me at any rate, was that by the age of thirteen I had become intensely aware of the vast heritage of literature that had been built up and England over the centuries. I also became an avid and insatiable reader of good writing.

Dear lovely Mrs O'Connor! Perhaps it was worth going to that awful school simply to experience the joy of her Saturday mornings.


**Re-posted with permission from The Roald Dahl Literary Estate

© Roald Dahl, Reprinted with permission from Penguin Young Readers and the Roald Dahl Literary Estate


The Meccano Chariot

As I write, I am remembering something I did during the Christmas holidays when I was either nine or ten, I can’t be sure which. For Christmas that year I had been given a fine Meccano set as my main present, and I lay in bed that night after the celebrations were over thinking that I must build something my with my new Meccano that had never been built before. In the end I decided I would make a device that was capable of ‘bombing’ from the air the pedestrians using the public footpath across our land.

Briefly my plan was as follows: I would stretch a wire all the way from the high roof of our house to the old garage on the other side of the footpath. Then I would construct from my Meccano a machine that would hang from the wire by a grooved wheel (there was such a wheel in my Meccano box) and this machine would hopefully run down the wire at great speed dropping its bombs on the unwary walkers underneath.

Next morning, filled with the enthusiasm that grips all great inventors, I climbed on to the roof of our house by the skylight and wrapped one end of the long roll of wire around a chimney. I threw the rest of the wire into the garden below and went back down myself through the skylight. I carried the wire across the garden, over the fence, across the footpath, over the next fence and into our land on the other side. I now pulled the wire very tight and fixed it with a big nail to the top of the door of the old garage. The total length of the wire was about one hundred yards. So far so good.

Next I set about constructing from the Meccano my bombing machine, or chariot as I called it. I put the wheel at the top, and then running down from the wheel I made a strong column about two feet long. At the lower end of this column, I fixed two arms that projected outwards at right angles, one on either side, and along these arms I suspended five empty Heinz soup tins. The whole thing looked something like this: [sketch].

I carried it up to the roof and hung it on the wire. Then I attached one end of a ball of string to the lower end of the chariot and let it rip, playing out the string as it went. It was wonderful. Because the wire sloped steeply from the roof of the house all the way to the other end, the chariot careered down the wire at terrific speed, across the garden and over the footpath, and it didn’t stop until it hit the old garage door on the far side. Great. I was ready to go.

With the string, I hauled the chariot back to the roof. And now, from a jug I filled all the five soup tins with water. I lay flat on the roof waiting for a victim. I knew I wouldn’t have to wait long because the footpath was much used by people taking their dogs for walks in the wood beyond.

Soon two ladies dressed in tweed skirts and jackets and each wearing a hat came strolling up the path with a revolting little Pekinese dog on a lead. I knew I had to time this carefully, so when they were very nearly but not quite directly under the wire, I let my chariot go. Down she went, making a wonderful screeching-humming noise as the metal wheel ran down the wire and the string ran through my fingers at great speed. Bombing from a height is never easy. I had to guess when my chariot was directly over the target, and when that moment came, I jerked the string. The chariot stopped dead and the tins swung upside down and all the water tipped out. The ladies, who had halted and looked up on hearing the rushing noise of my chariot overhead, caught the cascade of water full in their faces. It was tremendous. A bull’s-eye first time. The women screamed. I lay flat on the roof so as not to be seen, peering over the edge, and I saw the women shouting and waving their arms. They then came marching straight into our garden through the gate at the back and crossed the garden and hammered on the door. I nipped down smartly through the skylight and did a bunk.

Later on, at lunch, my mother fixed me with a steely eye and told me she was confiscating my Meccano set for the rest of the holidays. But for days afterwards I experienced the pleasant warm glow that comes to all of us when we have brought off a major triumph.


**Re-posted with permission from The Roald Dahl Literary Estate

© Roald Dahl, Reprinted with permission from Penguin Young Readers and the Roald Dahl Literary Estate