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Archive for the ‘Donald Sturrock’ Category

I’ve been aching for a good book of letters the last few years and then came across two excellent volumes within weeks of each other.  One was Love in the Blitz by Eileen Alexander (which I shared excerpts from here and here), the other Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother edited by Donald Sturrock.

Like so many children, I grew up reading Dahl’s children’s books and having them read aloud to me but it was his two volumes of autobiography – Boy and Going Solo (both now available from Slightly Foxed) – that have stayed with me the longest.  In these letters, we see many of the same events but through Dahl’s eyes at the time rather than as an adult looking back.  Thanks to excellent editing work by Sturrock (Dahl’s biographer) we also see how much of what Dahl was writing as a child was already fiction.

The letters begin when Dahl is nine, writing home to his mother from boarding school.  Sofie Magdalene Dahl had lost her eldest daughter and husband only a few weeks apart when Roald, her only son, was small.  Left a wealthy widow with four children of her own and two step-children, she was clearly a strong personality and the four decades-worth of letters in the volume testify to the strength of her relationship with her son.

Throughout his school years Dahl would paint an at times rosy or at worst benign portrait of a place he loathed and found to be full of violence and cruelty.  Sturrock ascribes this in part to the censorious practice of teachers being able to review students’ letters home but it is intriguing when compared to Dahl’s frankness about so many other things.  Dahl swears jollily from a young age and his mother must have shared his scatological sense of humour as it continues well into adulthood.  The only sadness in reading this book is in not having Sofie Magdalene’s side of the correspondence but even without it you can get some glimpses of her in the trusting, companionable way her son writes to her.

After finishing school, Dahl joined Shell Petroleum and was sent to Tanganyika where his letters attest to a steady work- and busy social-life:

I’m a bit drunk so you won’t get much of a letter.  I had meant to write to you this afternoon because I knew I should be drunk by the evening because we had a darts match on.  But someone asked me to go bathing in the Indian Ocean, so I did that instead & said well I’ll write my letter after dinner. […] Then we had a darts match against the Gymkhana ‘A’ Team in this house – it was only finished ½ an hour ago, & a great deal of liquor was consumed by all concerned.  You see the result in my handwriting for which many apologies, but the alternative is that I wait until I’m sober & miss the bloody mail & you’ll probably think I’ve been eaten by a rhinoceros or a white ant or something equally dangerous.

Though not yet thinking of a writing career, you start to see during these years snippets and images that would not be out of place in his future books, like this portrait of a fellow passenger sailing to Africa:

There’s a man sitting near me (a fat one), who is almost unconscious from the heat.  He’s flowing over his chair like a hot jellyfish – and he’s steaming too.  He may melt.

That image just begs for a Quentin Blake illustration, doesn’t it?

When the war begins, Dahl enlisted in the Royal Air Force and, as anyone who has read Going Solo will surely remember, eventually crashed his plane in the desert.  Sturrock’s interjections here are vital, comparing the facts to the fictions Dahl presents to his mother – and pointing out how rarely Dahl’s future descriptions of the crash would correspond to the truth of it.

Later in the war, Dahl finds himself posted to America as an attaché where it becomes frankly fairytale-esque.  He is instantly successful as a writer, finds himself working with Walt Disney, spends a weekend with the Roosevelts, and generally meets everyone.  And, for once, it’s all the truth.  (This reminds of me of The Irregulars by Jennet Conant, which looks at the intelligence work Dahl was doing while in America.  I had it on my shelf for years without ever reading it but wish now I had it readily to hand!)

The letters tail off after the war, with only a few spanning the decades until his mother’s death in 1967, not out of any cooling of the relationship but from the happy explanation that they were so often together during that period.  They were tumultuous years for Dahl – the dramatic injury of his son who was struck by a car as an infant, the death of his daughter, the traumatic aneurysms suffered by his wife, the actress Patricia Neal, which left her initially unable to walk or talk, and the establishing of a wildly successful writing career – but it is best to look to Sturrock’s biography detailed coverage.

This was just the book I was looking for this year.  Dahl’s letters are bright, funny and trusting, knowing that his correspondent is the most supportive person he will ever have.  They’ve left me wanting to reread his own books but especially to read Sturrock’s biography as he did such a wonderful job selecting and introducing the letters in relation to Dahl’s extraordinary life.

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