Thursday, January 26, 2017
My great uncle Roald Dahl
Roald and me
Roald Dahl issued me with a challenge: if you can swim a width of my pool, I’ll buy you the biggest box of chocolates you’ve ever seen.
The pool was an indoor one, a big ugly building at the top of Roald's big beautiful garden at Gipsy House in Buckinghamshire. I was five-years-old and bit scared, but the prospect of those chocolates spurred me on. I practised and practised, splashing and spluttering, working on my doggy paddle for weeks.
When the day of reckoning arrived, off I went. Roald cheered and clapped and when I finally got to the side, flung me a towel and bundled me still in my swimsuit into the front passenger seat of his car. Off we drove to the little newsagent’s shop in the High Street where, true to his word, Roald commanded the plump old lady behind the counter to produce the biggest box of chocolates she had - an enormous Terry’s All Gold.
“So, is it the biggest box you’ve ever seen?” he asked me in the car on the way back. “Yes, definitely,” I nodded happily with a giant smile on my face.
Roald Dahl was my great uncle – my grandmother’s brother on my mother’s side – and one of my father’s oldest friends. I was younger than Roald’s own children but older than his grandchildren, and so I happened to be a child during the years that Roald was writing most of his books.
I grew up watching bestsellers emerge from that famous writing shed and was always eager to read the next one. In a ritual to mark the publication of his book, Roald would solemnly present me with a pristine signed copy of the first edition, hot off the press. When I was seven, The Twits came out. Oh how lucky I felt when he dedicated it to me: 'For Emma'.
It was unimaginably thrilling and even now I am rarely able to leave a bookshop without looking for my name.
However, it is only recently - with my own children starting to read and love books - that I have really started to appreciate the overwhelming reach of his influence. As my childhood memories of Roald become ever more distant, his gift to the world seems to keep growing. So, it feels like a good time to record some of my memories of him.
My grandmother, Else (pronounced Elsa), affectionately known to everyone as Sasa, doted on her older brother Roald. The family all lived within a few miles of each other in rural Buckinghamshire, and my parents, my sister and I lived a couple of fields and villages away.
For many years, my dad drove to Gipsy House religiously every Wednesday evening for ‘snooker night’ with Roald and a handful of chums. They would play for money, and Dad would come home delighted if he won 50 pence. Whenever Roald came to our house he’d always complain about the low ceilings and doorways in our ancient cottage - stooping to get his gangly frame inside.
“Never understand why you have to live in a ruddy doll’s house,” he would mutter every time with more than an echo of the BFG trying to cram himself into Buckingham Palace.
“All of it was fascinating - the giant ball of sweet wrappers, a tattered arm chair, the magical electric pencil sharpener and the gruesome delight with which Roald showed us his hip bone"
Gipsy House was always a rural idyll for us children. Large and rambling, it was set in a generous patch of garden up a narrow country lane and surrounded by hills, fields and woodland. A gipsy caravan, which is still there, took pride of place on the lawn. Painted in pretty blue and pink, we delighted in scampering up the rickety wooden steps – a magic playhouse on wheels.
Tucked behind the aviary and the greenhouse, was Roald’s now famous writing hut. We were shown this private domain just a couple of times. The cheery yellow door and pretty flowers around it belied the dingy, murky interior filled with strange knick-knacks and the smell of tobacco.
All of it was fascinating - the giant, heavy ball of sweet wrappers, a tattered old arm chair, the magical electric pencil sharpener and the gruesome delight with which Roald showed us his hip bone - which he'd kept after a replacement operation. It felt sort of muffled inside, as though silence was demanded and only Roald was allowed to speak.
I was only very vaguely aware of the numerous tragedies that had beset the family in the years before I was born - the death of his daughter Olivia, aged seven, from measles encephalitis; his son Theo’s terrible accident as a baby when his pram was hit by a taxi cab in New York resulting in brain injury; and his first wife Patricia Neal’s brain haemorrhage, causing a stroke that nearly killed her and left her with brain damage.
Today, Roald Dahl's marvellous children's charity specialises in helping children and their families with a variety of illnesses, including acquired brain injury, which affected Roald and his family so deeply. It is fantastic that this has been part of his legacy, too.
However, despite the trauma he experienced, Gipsy House always seemed to me a happy place full of love, kindess and laughter. Roald always in equal parts awe-inspiring, terrifying and exciting - absolutely the kind of person you desperately wanted to please and impress.
He demanded that people (children included, naturally) be ‘sparky’ – he would not tolerate dullness. It was intimidating but also pretty special for this adult to be so willing to treat us kids as real people, with thoughts and opinions that mattered.
As I grew older, I saw less of Roald – inevitably spending little time with my family and more with friends. Nonetheless, when he died in 1990 it came as a shock. I was 17 and he was the first person I ever knew properly to die, ancient and distant relatives not included.
Roald Dahl with wife Patricia Neal and children Olivia, Tessa, and Theo at their home
I had time off school to go to his funeral, which was on a freezing November day. I was overwhelmed by the sadness of it – granny Sasa, Roald’s sister, wrapped me in her arms as we stood in the frosty, mist-shrouded graveyard for the burial.
I could hardly bear to watch as his children, Tessa, Theo, Ophelia and Lucy, all placed their personal tokens in his grave – chocolates, some wine and other treasured items. How on earth would they cope with their loss? I experienced it a few years later when my own dad died, and it was every bit as gut-wrenchingly awful as I imagined.
From the challenge he issued me at the age of five, Roald has always had a profound influence on my life. In fact, he is still challenging me to this day. My husband and I are frequently inspired in the parenting of our two children, aged five and seven, by Roald’s declaration (from Danny the Champion of the World) that “What a child wants - and DESERVES - is a parent who is SPARKY!” - an inordinately difficult maxim to live up to.
Roald still appears regularly in my dreams with his wry chuckle, twinkling eyes and well-worn cardigans. He breathed a touch of the extraordinary into my childhood, like the BFG blowing wondrous dreams in through windows, and for that I will always be grateful.
By Emma Pearle