Roald Dahl: Cardiff Boy?
By Damian Walford Davies
Half a mile north of Llandaff at the Danescourt roundabout, take Danescourt Way and follow it round to Rachel Close and the graveyard of St John’s church. At the west wall of the churchyard is a granite wheel-head Celtic cross, pink-brown in colour. Among the other more modest headstones, it’s an unabashed statement. It marks the grave of Harald Dahl and his beloved daughter Astri; the ashes of Harald’s wife, Sofie Magdalene, were also scattered here. Roald Dahl’s official biographer, Donald Sturrock, writes that the monument may symbolise ‘a public commitment the Dahl family had made to the Welsh soil in which they had put down their roots’. And so – even though Roald Dahl himself was resident in Wales only for the first nine years of his life – let’s ask: Roald Dahl – Cardiff boy and ‘Welsh’ author?
It was King Coal that brought Roald Dahl into the world on 13 September 1916 in a splendid new house that still stands in Fairwater Road, Llandaff, made to his father’s specifications as a love gift for his first (French) wife, Marie Beaurin-Gresser. That is, it was the hustling, globally connected port of Cardiff that brought his father, Harald, from Norway via Paris to Wales at some point in the 1890s to set up a shipbroking firm that kitted out the world’s merchant fleets. Though no one could claim that he had hawser grease and coal dust in his veins (the closest he got was playing as a child on the floor of his father’s offices in Bute Street), Roald Dahl is the product of the south Wales industrial boom. This fact would be processed by Dahl the writer in complex ways.
After the untimely death of his first wife, Harald married a fellow-Norwegian, Sofie Magdalene, and the family moved to Tŷ Mynydd, Radyr – a massive pile, demolished in the 1960s, at the centre of an idyllic farm estate. Dahl would spend the rest of his life seeking to recapture this time and place. The death of seven-year-old Astri, and a few months later, of her broken-hearted father, signalled a return to affluent Llandaff and to a smaller, but still distinguished, villa – Cumberland Lodge (now the nursery of Howells School). The illustration by Quentin Blake shown below – drawn specially for a book I’ve edited this year entitled Roald Dahl: Wales of the Unexpected (yes, the pun on Tales of the Unexpected has been a century in the making) – shows Dahl in the uniform of Llandaff Cathedral School, looking up with open-faced inquisitiveness at his older self, with the spire of Llandaff Cathedral acting as a kind of sightline for the young boy’s gaze, up to his six-foot-six, global-brand future. Young Dahl’s home in Llandaff was bilingual – Norwegian and English; he was largely insulated from the Welsh language and even from the native Cardiff accent by his location, education and class. And yet, as contributors to Wales of the Unexpected emphasise, he must have attuned himself to the frequencies of Welsh speech and to the distinctive shapes of Welsh culture. These elements of diversity and difference would also condition his writing in inescapable, if not always explicit, ways.
In Quentin Blake’s drawing, the adult Dahl looks like an English countryman – a persona he certainly embraced, and played with, after establishing himself and his family in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire (now the location of the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre). And yet, Dahl always conceived of himself as an outsider and was never really naturalised by the English literary establishment, who regarded him as an eccentric maverick. One wonders what role his Anglo- or Norwegian-Welshness played in forming Dahl’s characteristic dissenting stance. Moreover, his first major publishing successes were always in America, where he was sent as a dashing Assistant Air Attaché – and British intelligence agent – after crashing his Gloster Gladiator in the western desert of Libya in September 1940. We can meaningfully speak of Dahl as an American author. But how do Wales and Welshness fit into all this?
I argue that Dahl was from the very beginning a complex cultural hybrid, the product of a mix of cultural identities and paradoxical attachments. Quentin Blake’s representation of the adult Dahl calls up a crucial figure in his early life – a man Dahl called Joss Spivvis (real name, Jones – more than that we do not know), who was the Dahls’ gardener at Cumberland Lodge and who took Dahl to watch Cardiff City play at Ninian Park on Saturdays. In a biographical essay published in 1987, Dahl recalled how Joss Spivvis would hold him enthralled with the tale of his first terrifying descent as a boy down the mineshaft of a Rhondda Valley pit, caged in the industrial Welsh dark, dropping at speed to the seams where the roof was held up by pit props known as ‘Norways’. What the young Dahl got from Joss Spivvis was a sense of terror, excitement, cultural and linguistic difference – and the spellbinding power of a narrative rooted in everyday, as well as fantastical, things. It can be said that Joss Spivvis put Dahl on the road to becoming a writer. Tellingly, the description of the descent into the mine that Dahl gives to Joss had already appeared in Dahl’s work, in almost exactly the same form, in the description of the descent of the great glass elevator in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964). At the heart of Dahl’s most famous tale for children, then, is Welsh industrial terror.
Dahl is forever writing back to Wales. Yes, one must look hard for the presence of Wales in his work – indeed, excavate it, as black gold is excavated from the ground – but it is there. Sometimes it is present in ghostly forms, or by its very absence. Dahl himself tells us in Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984) that after being caned by the headmaster in the Cathedral School for the famous ‘Great Mouse Plot’ in Mrs Pratchett’s sweetshop (now a blue-plaqued Chinese takeaway) and being sent away by his outraged mother to a prep school in Weston-super-Mare, he used to align himself towards home each night, ensuring he faced his family across the Bristol channel in Wales. The description at the beginning of James and the Giant Peach (1961) of the young boy, incarcerated in the house of his horrible aunts, recalls that act of Welsh homing: James looks back yearningly towards his dead parents’ house, over a rich pastoral landscape that recalls the Dahls’ estate at Radyr. And, as Roald Dahl: Wales of the Unexpected reveals, a fable such as The BFG (1982) can be made new, strange and moving if re-read through the lens of Wales and Welshness.
In The BFG we have the narrative of an outsider – a giant at home neither in his own giant world nor in human society, in which he inhabits margins and shadows. He speaks a creative, hybrid language that he calls ‘terrible wigglish’ – which immediately brings to mind the Wenglish with which Dahl would undoubtedly have had some contact a child. The BFG goes on to tell how this outsider learns to speak ‘proper’, and how he is accepted into the English cultural establishment by the Queen of England, no less. What we glimpse here is Dahl’s reflection on his own cultural move away from Wales and his (complex) Welshness – from perceived ‘margins’ to English ‘centres’ of culture (centres to which he never quite got access, as we have seen). In many ways, The BFG is a lament for what has had to be partly sacrificed during the course of that cultural and geographical journey – difference, distinctiveness, diversity. It is in these complex ways that Wales makes itself felt in Dahl’s work.
As we celebrate Dahl’s brand of wonderful unruliness in Cardiff this summer – indeed, across Wales, courtesy of creative projects overseen by Literature Wales – we should reflect on the ways in which we can claim Dahl without making him parochial and without jumping unthinkingly on another centenary bandwagon. What Roald Dahl: Wales of the Unexpected sets out to demonstrate is that – to quote Dahl’s famous statement about secrets – Wales is to be found in his work ‘hidden in the most unlikely places’.
This piece was first published in the Western Mail’s Weekend Magazine on Saturday 10 September.
Damian Walford Davies is Professor of English and Head of the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University. He is also the Chair of Literature Wales, the national company for the development of literature in Wales.
Roald Dahl: Wales of the Unexpected is published by the University of Wales Press. Click here for more information and to purchase a copy.