Today is Roald Dahl day, celebrating the work of the author who was born on this day in 1916, so I've celebrated with Wormy Spaghetti, of which more later... It is also the 50th anniversary of James and the Giant Peach, one of his best-known children’s stories (and one which is, I think, very weird indeed – if you’re not familiar with it, read it, then tell me what you think). Dahl’s life and writing are well documented, so I’ll just give a brief resume.
He was born in Cardiff to Norwegian parents; his father and a sister died when he was only three, and he was sent to boarding school where, apparently, he was beaten and was very homesick and miserable. During the Second World War he served in the Royal air Force, and later he married actress Patricia Neal with whom he had five children. When she suffered burst cerebral aneurysms he helped her learn to talk and walk again: but it wasn’t the only tragedy to hit the couple - a son was injured in road accident, aged just four months, and suffered from hydrocephalus for a time, while a daughter died at seven from measles encephalitis. Dahl and Neal were married for 30 years, but he divorced her in 1993 to marry Felicity ‘Liccy’ Crosland.
I am too old to have read Dahl’s books as child – and, to be honest, I am not sure I would have appreciated them. However, I had plenty of opportunity to study them with my daughters, who loved them, especially The BFG, The Witches, Matilda, The Enormous Crocodile, and The Twits, which is my own personal favourite, though I also love Esio Trot, which is a wonderfully touching love story (most unlike Dahl really). Mention should also be made of Quentin Blake’s quirky illustrations, for it’s hard to imagine the books without the pictures: Dahl and Blake are as perfect a partnership as AA Milne and EH Shepherd or Louis Carroll and John Tenniel.
Some adults may find it hard to understand the appeal, but Dahl could weave a story which captured children’s imagination and held their attention. He understood their fascination with the gruesome and bizarre, as well as their enjoyment of silly jokes and nonsense words and rhymes. There is no middle ground in his books: good and bad are clearly defined and everything is somehow larger than real life. They make no effort at realism: they are more akin to fairy tales, or Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter stories, or even Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales. But they allow children to explore their emotions, whether it’s anger at the adult world with its senseless rules or laughter at jokes and tricks.
Dahl also wrote short stories for adults, which are too dark or my taste, and was involved in screen writing for a time -he worked on the Bond movie You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, where he was responsible for creating the terrifying Child Catcher.
Following his death in 1990 he has become even more popular, and there is now a Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden, the village where he lived for some 40 years, which celebrates his life and works to promote literary education, encouraging children to read and write, which has got to be good. There’s also Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity.
But there has been criticism today, as his granddaughter, the model and cookery writer Sophie Dahl launched a new appeal for funding to preserve the shed where he wrote. A phased development is planned, which involves moving the inside of the shed, which contains many of Dahl’s possessions, to the museum. So far £250,000 of the £500,000 needed has been raised, but a further half a million is required for the second stage, which would see the development of educational resources and interactive displays.
Critics have questioned whether it is right for the public to be asked for contributions to this kind of project at a museum which charges entry fees, especially in the current financial climate.
Anyway, I marked Roald Dahl Day by ignoring such controversy and cooking Wormy Spaghetti from Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes, which was well-used when The Daughters were small, but has lain on top of the kitchen cupboard for years. In case you’re wondering, the dish is mentioned in the Tweets and is essentially spaghetti with a home-made tomato sauce, and very tasty it is too... I had two helpings!
In fact it was so good that tomorrow I shall make Strawberry Fudge, Krokan Ice Cream and Hot Frogs...