Love from Boy: Roald Dahl's Letters to His Mother

Love from Boy: Roald Dahl's Letters to His Mother

by Donald Sturrock

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Overview

From the author of The BFG, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and many more beloved classics—a whimsical, witty, and revealing collection of the legendary children’s author and writer Roald Dahl's letters written to his mother, from early childhood through Dahl’s travels to Africa, his career in the Royal Air Force, his work in post-war Washington, D.C., and Hollywood, and the books that made him a literary star.
 
Roald Dahl penned his first letter to his mother, Sofie Magdalene, when he was just nine years old. The origins of a brilliantly funny, subversive, creative mind were evident in boarding school, and as he entered adulthood, his penchant for storytelling emerged in his missives home from Africa, where he was stationed by Shell Oil, and then the desert camps of the Royal Air Force. His skills were sharpened after a plane crash in Egypt landed him in Washington, D.C., where his cheery letters home were cover for his work in the British Secret Service, along with gossipy updates on his spontaneous rise in Hollywood and his budding New York literary career.
            His mother was, in many ways, Dahl’s first reader, and without her correspondence he might never have become a writer. Sofie Magdalene kept every letter her son wrote to her (sadly, her own side of the correspondence did not survive). It was she who encouraged him to tell stories and nourished his desire to fabricate, exaggerate, and entertain. In these letters, Dahl began practicing his craft, developing the dark sense of humor and fantastical imagination that would later produce his timeless tales. The author of James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and The BFG, Dahl is known by millions the world over today. But, writing candidly to the person who knew him best, Dahl was as singular a character as any he created on paper. Assembled by Dahl’s authorized biographer Donald Sturrock, Love from Boy is a remarkable collection of never-before-published writing that spans four decades and chronicles the remarkable, unpredictable life of its author. While Dahl’s books remain bestselling favorites for all ages, Love from Boy provides an unprecedented glimpse of the author through his own eyes—a life punctuated by tragedy, creative stagnation, unexpected fame, and fantastic adventure.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780698151208
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/06/2016
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 41 MB
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About the Author

Donald Sturrock is a British documentarian and the artistic director of the Roald Dahl Foundation, where he has created orchestral works and operas for children based on Dahl’s stories. He is the author of Storyteller, the authorized biography of Dahl. Sturrock lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2016 Roald Dahl and Donald Sturrock

School, on the whole, was not a happy experience for Roald. In the summer of 1925 Sofie Magdalene removed her eight-year-old son from the Cathedral School in Llandaff, Cardiff, because the headmaster had savagely beaten him. Perversely, she then dispatched him to an even more Spartan educational establishment across the Bristol Channel, in Somerset. She told Roald that she was doing this because she had promised her dying husband that she would not return to Norway until she had given all their children an English boarding-school education.

Roald would later vividly recreate his life at St Peter’s School, in the run-down seaside resort of Weston-super-Mare (or Weston-super-Mud as he often described it), in his memoir of childhood, Boy. He would also use the experience in a more fantastical light in his final children’s novel, Matilda. Though a glorious piece of exaggerated invention, Crunchem Hall – whose terrifying headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, dominates the book – bears some striking similarities to St Peter’s, both in appearance and in the rules of its scary headmaster, Mr Alban J. Francis, which foreshadowed those of the Trunchbull. Never argue. Never answer back. Always do as I say.

St Peter’s had been founded in 1900 and was housed in a three-storey gabled building, constructed largely out of local stone and blanketed in Virginia creeper. It was surrounded by playing fields, allotments and tennis courts. Around eighty boys, aged between eight and thirteen, were billeted there. Classrooms were on the ground floor, below bleak, uncomfortable dormitories. Apart from the matron – who ruled the dormitory floor and prowled the corridor ‘like a panther’ – the staff was entirely male. Roald would later describe the school as ‘rather like a private lunatic asylum’.

The headmaster was the asylum’s chief villain, with his gold- rimmed front tooth, shark-like grin and hair slicked down with so much pomade that it ‘glistened like butter’. Roald’s best friend at school, Douglas Highton, recalled him as ‘absolutely brutal . . . a beastly cane-happy monster’, who ‘seemed to enjoy beating little boys on the slightest pretext’.21 And it was at St Peter’s, watched over by the sharp eyes of its headmaster, that Roald wrote his very first letter home.

As Roald was eager to remind his young readers, these ‘epistles’ were written in an atmosphere of censorship. ‘If we thought the food was lousy or if we hated a certain master or if we had been thrashed for something we did not do, we never dared say so in our letters,’ he explained. ‘In fact we often went the other way. In order to please the dangerous Headmaster who was leaning over our shoulders and reading what we had written, we would say splendid things about the school and go on about how lovely the masters were.’

Initially he was profoundly homesick. In Boy, he maintained he was so unhappy that he accurately feigned the symptoms of appendicitis and was sent home to Cardiff, where his local doctor quickly discovered his ruse and sent him back to school. But there is no evidence of this melancholy in his letters to his mother. Nor is there any mention of the beatings that he would later describe there. Instead his reports are generally upbeat and filled with curious and comic detail. One senses, right from the outset, that Roald is trying primarily to entertain.

He wrote home to his mother at least once a week, first to Cardiff and then later to Bexley. Many of his early letters touch fondly on the domestic life he had left behind him, though the welfare of the family pets – Mike, Buzz, Barney, Jack and others – often seems of more concern to him than that of his sisters Alfhild, Else and Asta, or ‘Baby’. Sofie Magdalene encouraged Roald’s love of invention, of natural history, and of collecting. As with several of his schoolteachers, she even indulged in that quintessential schoolboy activity, stamp-collecting. Roald wrote to her about swapping stamps and imperfect Penny Blacks almost as if she was his contemporary – only at a different school. He wrote regularly too to his godfather ‘Parrain’ – Ludvig Aadnesen, his late father’s business partner – as well as to his maternal grandparents, Bestemama and Bestepapa, and his two spinster aunts, Astrid and Ellen in Oslo.

These early letters already reveal a pleasure in the art of storytelling. Roald’s enthusiasm for yarns from the world of nature, his fascination with flying, protagonists who get their just deserts, tales with unexpected endings, and his delight in the triumph of the underdog emerge even in his very first ‘story- telling’ letter, about bird legends, written as a nine-year-old. Many of the other incidents in these letters – such as the making of fire-balloons, or the Chinese doctor’s potion recipe – are antecedents of tales that would later reappear in some form or another in his fiction. Poignantly, the thrill and drama of flying on the back of a bird would feature in his very last children’s story, The Minpins.

The letters too are interesting for what they do not say. They seldom convey self-pity or unhappiness. This was of course partly due to the critical eyes of the headmaster peering over Roald’s shoulder, but it was also the result of a prevailing mentality that would continue at British boarding schools for another fifty years. In that situation, admitting vulnerability was treated with scorn and derision. This attitude was held by both masters and children alike. Parents too believed in the values of uncomplaining stoicism and usually took the side of the teacher in any dispute with the child.

Roald addressed this value system in Matilda and articulated it through the character of ‘a rugged ten-year-old with a boil on her nose’, called Hortensia. She has suffered all the tortures that the school can offer, including the dreaded prison punishment cell, the ‘chokey’. She is a survivor and she speaks to Matilda, ‘with the air of an old warrior who has been in so many battles that bravery has become commonplace’.23 Matilda quickly perceives that school life is ‘like a war’.

Hortensia is a role model for Matilda and, of course, for Roald. She is an outsider, a subversive. She does not complain. She is fearless. She pours golden syrup on to the headmistress’s chair and puts itching-powder in her gym knickers. She is an object of reverence: ‘somebody who had brought the art of skulduggery to the highest point of perfection.’ Her spirit of obstinate resistance informs most of Roald’s childhood letters home from St Peter’s and helps explain why he never complains. In a conflict like this, there is no point in protesting. It simply makes things worse. Even the kindest parents are of no assistance. ‘How can she get away with it?’ Matilda’s friend Lavender complains, speculating that if she told her father about some of Miss Trunchbull’s cruelties, he would surely do something about it. ‘“No he wouldn’t,” Matilda responds quietly. “He simply wouldn’t believe you.”’


October 11th 1925

St Peter’s
Weston-super-Mare

Dear Mama

I am sorry I have not writting before. We there was a foot-ball match yestarday, so I a agenst clarence, and the first eleven lost by 2 goals, the score was 3 goals to 2, but the second eleven won by 5 goals the score was 5 nill. We playd Brien house* on Wedensday, and the score was 1 all. I hope none of you have got coalds. It is quite a nice day to-day, I am just going to church. I hope mike is quite all right now, and Buzz. Major Cottam is going to recite something caled ‘as you like it’ to night. Plese could you send me some conkers as quick as you can, but doant don’t send to meny, the just send them in a tin and wrap it up in paper

Love from

BOY



November 8th 1925

St Peter’s
Weston-super-Mare

Dear Mama

Thank you for your letter. We had a lovely time on Thursday, that S.2 Mount Vesuvius was the prettiest. At first it made a gold fountain and then a silver one, and we had big bonfire with a guy on top, and another of the prettiest of my fireworks was the snow storm, it lit up the whole place…once I was holding a squib and I did not know it was going off bang in my hand, and it made me jump like anything, we had some lovely rockets, they were going up all the time, there was quite a lot of people watching them from the road behind the school; if we had enough fireworks left over we had to throw them in the bonfire, on Friday morning the bonfire was still alight. The field was full of used fireworks in the morning, and we found quite a lot unused as well.

We played Brien House yesterday but they beet us 4 goals to none, but they had such a tall goal keeper that his head could touch the top bar of the goal and he must have been about fifteen years old, I expect it was because we beat them last time we played them.

A man called Mr. Nicholl gave us a fine lecture last night on birds, he told us how owls eat mice. They eat the whole mouse, skin and all, and then all the skin and bones goes into a sort of little parcel inside him and he puts it on the ground, and those are called pellets, and he showed us some pictures of some which he has found, and of a lot of other Birds. We have got a new master called Mr Bryant he took us for a walk to a place called anchor head and we went along a sort of concrete pier and there was a little island and a few of us jumped on to it and I was jumping back and I went in up to my knees, it was lucky I did not go further. We have had quite fine weather but it is a bit cold today. I hope you are alright. I think this is the longest letter I’ve ever written to you. I had a letter from tante-astrid and I have sent her one back.

Love from

Boy

 

November 29th 1925

St Peter’s
Weston-super-Mare

 

Dear Mama

. . . We had a lecture last night on bird legends, it was fine, he told us that the wren was the king of birds, he said because the birds were going to have a test, and the one which could fly the highest would be king, and so they started, and the Eagle flew up and up until he could not go any further, nearly all the other birds had dropped out, just then the wren dropped out of the Eagle’s feathers and managed to fly a few yards higher, so he was the [King of the] Birds.

Another good legend he told us was how the Blackbird got black. Well he was sitting on the branch of a tree when he saw a magpie hopping about on the tree next to him, and he went over to see what he was doing, and he saw he was hiding some jewels in a hole of a tree. The Blackbird asked him where he got them, the magpie said, just over there, there is a cave, and in this cave . . . there are lots of precious jewels, and the prince of riches lives there, but you must not touch anything until you have asked him, and he will let you have as much as you can carry, so the Blackbird found the cave, and he went in and the first room he came to, was full of silver, but he would not touch it until he has asked the prince of riches, the second room he came to was full of gold, still nicer, the Blackbird could not stand it any longer, so he dug his beak in to the thing which looked so nice, and just then the prince of riches came flying through the door, and was spitting fire and smoke at the Blackbird. The Blackbird just escaped, and the smoke made the Blackbird black, and the gold made his beak yellow, but of course that is only a legend. And he showed us all the names the people use to call birds, the Irish used to think the wren was unlucky so they called it the devil Bird.

Love from

Boy

 

December 13th 1925

St Peter’s
Weston-super-Mare

Dear Mama

Thank you for the letter you sent me.

We had a kind of lecture Friday night, it was really a kind of story, it was on the Pickwick papers, told by a very funny and very nice man called Mr Moss, first he told us a little about the man who wrote it his name was Charles Dickins I expect you have herd of him and the Pickwick papers, well he told us the story it was very funny, once Mr Pickwick was staying at a hotel and in the middle of the night he found he had forgotten his gold watch, so he went down to look for it when he got down there he found it, but how was he to find his bedroom, when he got up the stairs, he went in to a bedroom which he thought was his, when he had got his waistcoat off he put his night cap on he went to the other side of the room and to his seprise he saw some certains drawen across the room, he peeped in and he saw a lady ww with yellow cerl papers on her head, he told us lots of funy things about Pickwick papers.

PTO I will be coming home by the 1.36 I will arive at Cardiff at 4 o’clock on the 17th Thursday please meet me on the station, this is the last letter I am sending you.

Love from

Boy

 

March 17th 1926
St Peter’s
Weston-super-Mare

Dear Alfhild

Thank you very much for the letter you sent me. The barber is a very funny man, his name is Mr Lundy, when I went to have my haircut last Monday, a lot of spiders came out from under a kind of cupboard and he stepped on them and there was a nasty squashey mess on the floor. In the Drill Display we have a Pyramid, there are a lot of boys standing in the shape of a star fish and some boys in the middle, and a boy standing on one of the boys shoulders with his hands out, it looks very nice.

Love from

Boy

P.S. Dear Mama could you find out the value of a $5 yellow and black and let me know. it is a picture
of a kangaroo.
It is from Australia from Boy

 

November 21st 1926

St Peter’s
Weston-super-Mare

Dear Mama

Thank you very much for the letter you sent me. My foot is all right now, and the cut in my finger is much better. I had a post card from Parrain, he did not say much, it was a picture of his island and house I think. Is the grave looking nice now? Is that beautiful yellow Chrysanthemum out yet? That one we had in the porch last year . . .*

I am glad you have swopped a lot of rare stamps with Mr Baker. I am longing to see them. What a pity you can’t find the two yellow stamps Bestepapa gave me. I don’t think I want any of those annuals . . .

We had a section match on Friday we played the Crawford Buterflies, they won 4 goals to 2. I have got another quarter-star this week for Geography from Mr Corrado.

How is Jack and Pallot

I will send you my order tomorrow.

 

Love from

Roald


 

[postmarked January 20th 1927]

Dear Mama

I have arrived here all right. I have not eaten any of what you gave me accept one little chocolate, and on Bristol Station

Hoggart was sick, and when I looked at it I was sick but now I am quite all right.

 

Love from

Roald

P.S. Remember not to send Bubbles but Children’s Newspaper.*



January 30th 1927

St Peter’s
Weston-super-Mare

Dear Mama

. . . I am in bed with flu. Thank you very much for the lovely grapes you sent me they were lovely and the meat juice. What a pity the Red House was no good. What happened to Louis when he was late for school again. Marshali† is lucky to get the brush of the fox.

I am glad Asta is better, but I hope Else will not get it, Alfhild never gets it when we’ve got it. Did the Bestemama’s feel the Earthquake? Once my temperature was 100 and then it suddenly went right down to 97, I have still got one. We have three doses a day of some horribly medicine called quinine, I expect you’ve tasted it. The doctor has been to see me twice, he has given me some medicine to take now, it is yellow, not very nice. There have been 22 boys in bed and one master has got it. My first two days up here I was starved with only a little jelly in two days. I have been in since last Monday morning. Last Sunday (Jan 23rd) Matron told me to ask you in this letter to send me that birch stuff you put on my hair in the holidays for scurf in a bottle, can you send it as soon as you can, please. I don’t know when I am going to get up, a few days, perhaps. I don’t want you to send me raisins for a little time now because I wont be able to have them. I can’t write well lying in bed (with a pencil). Give my love to every body.

 

Love from

Roald



February 27th 1927

St Peter’s
Weston-super-Mare

Dear Mama

. . . Yesterday we had a topping lecture on cave dwellers, and Prehistoric animals from Mr. Savory, he gives us one every term.

The most interesting thing of all, how they made fire, I have shown you more or less the things required, a bow with some strong cord in it as in A, then a piece of wood (cedar is the best) with notches in the side, and where the notch ends a small hole is to be made as in D, then you get a bit Holly wood as in C rounded at both ends so that one can fit in one of the notches in D, then a solid piece of wood as in B with a notch underneath it which fits into one of the rounded off end of C. Now how it works! – Place an end of C into one of the notches of D, C is now standing upright, then twist the cord of the bow round the stick (C) You know there is a notch in the bottom of the buffer, place this on top of C, you will have to make it fit nicely, and make it smooth so that it can go round, then you pull the bow, and you will find that the stick (C), will go round, and then it gets very hot at the bottom. By the way you put a flat bit of tin under the notch which you are using, and after a minute pulling you will see a little heap of dust from the stick, then you will see the thing smoking like Hell, and then you will stop and fan the little heap a little, and you will see it go red, if you get some thin wood shaving and put it on the heap it will flare up.

I have swopped a black penny and an imperf blue penny, the black penny is of course was imperf, they are both perfect specimens, I could not get a black penny for you I am sorry, because he would not swop any more.

Love from

Roald



June 5th 1927

St Peter’s
Weston-super-Mare

Dear Mama

Thank you for your letter . . .

How much are the monkeys at Harrods? It would be rather nice to have one. Last Sunday I sailed my submarine, but it did not dive at all, and did not go fast, then we took off the front fins, it went just the same along the surface, only much faster.

Did Harrods say that it dived? But I like it nearly as much as it is now . . .

I am sending you the school mag.

 

Love from

Roald

Table of Contents

Index of Locations xiii

Map: Roald Dahl, The International Letter Writer, 1925-1965 xiv

Introduction xvii

A Note on Spelling and Punctuation xxvii

1 1925-1929 "Send me some conkers" 1

2 1930-1934 "Graggers on your eggs" 33

3 1935-1939 "Another iced lager" 91

4 1939-1940 "Thoroughly good for the soul" 147

Map: Roald Dahl's War, 1939-1941 148

5 1940-1942 "Don't worry" 181

6 1942-1943 "Teeth like piano keys" 213

7 1943-1945 "A good time was had by all" 243

Epilogue, 1946-1965 "I won't write often" 277

Acknowledgments 295

Sources and Illustration Credits 297

Notes 299

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