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Episode
326

The Magical Life of Roald Dahl

Dec 23, 2022
Arts & Culture
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22
minutes

He was best known for being the author of books such as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Mathilda", but he was also a critically acclaimed poet and adult fiction writer.

In this episode, we explore how this former airforce pilot went on to become one of the best-loved children's authors of all time.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part three, our final part, of our three-part mini-series on British children’s authors.

[00:00:30] In case you missed them, in part one, we looked at the unusual life of Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland.

[00:00:39] In part two, which was one of our member-only ones, we looked at the divisive but hugely successful Enid Blyton, the author best known for stories like The Famous Five and Noddy.

[00:00:51] And today, in part three, we’ll finish this mini-series by exploring the amazing life of Roald Dahl.

[00:00:59] You might know him as the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach, but you might not know that he was a war hero, a spy, and even a friend of the President.

[00:01:13] OK then, the magical life of Roald Dahl.

[00:01:18] “I had climbed into my new Gladiator [aeroplane] at an RAF airfield.

[00:01:24] This was going to be my very first venture into combat territory.

[00:01:29] The flight in itself was a fairly daunting one for someone who had virtually no experience of the aircraft.

[00:01:37] It is not a particularly tricky business if you have had plenty of practice, but if you are new to the game […] it is a dicey, experience.

[00:01:46] I flew straight for the point where the 80 Squadron airfield should have been. It wasn’t there.

[00:01:53] Below me there was nothing but empty desert, and rather rugged desert at that, full of large stones and boulders.

[00:02:03] At this point, dusk began to fall and I realised that I was in trouble.

[00:02:09] My fuel was running low and there was no way I could get back.

[00:02:15] The only course open to me now was to make a forced landing in the desert and make it quickly, before it was too dark to see.

[00:02:23] I chose a piece of ground that seemed to me to be as boulder-free as any and I made an approach.

[00:02:31] I prayed for a bit of luck.

[00:02:33] I didn’t get it.

[00:02:34] My undercarriage hit a boulder and collapsed completely and the [plane] buried its nose in the sand at what must have been about seventy-five miles an hour.

[00:02:46] I was unconscious for some moments, but I must have recovered my senses very quickly because I can remember hearing a mighty whoosh as the petrol tank exploded.

[00:02:57] I could see nothing at all, and I felt no pain.

[00:03:02] All I wanted was to go gently off to sleep and to hell with the flames.

[00:03:08] I heard my machine-gun ammunition exploding in the flames and the bullets were pinging about all over the place.

[00:03:17] I began very very slowly to drag myself away from the awful hotness.

[00:03:23] In the end the temperature all around me became bearable. When that happened I collapsed and went to sleep.”

[00:03:32] This is Roald Dahl’s account of his terrible crash when he was a 24-year-old fighter pilot in the Second World War.

[00:03:40] Aside from almost killing Dahl and leaving him with a long four-month recovery in hospital, this experience was a fundamental step that led to his amazing literary career.

[00:03:54] So how exactly did this happen?

[00:03:56] How did Dahl, a boy born in Wales to Norwegian parents, end up in the African desert?

[00:04:04] And how did he go from crashing a fighter plane during the war to becoming one of the most successful and beloved British children’s authors of all time?

[00:04:15] He was born in 1916, and his childhood was filled with a mixture of mischief, of being naughty, and of tragedy.

[00:04:25] Both his father and sister died when he was very young, and he was bullied and beaten badly at school.

[00:04:33] But he was a great prankster, someone who enjoyed playing practical jokes. Most famously, as he recounted in his childhood memoirs, Boy, he found a dead mouse and hid it inside a jar of sweets. 

[00:04:50] And he also claimed to have swapped his half-sister’s fiancé’s tobacco for goat poo, another incident which he describes in Boy.

[00:05:00] After finishing school in 1934, the 18-year-old Dahl decided that he wanted adventure, he wanted a career which would allow him to travel.

[00:05:12] He wanted to see “wonderful faraway places like Africa and China” as he would put it.

[00:05:18] So, he applied for an apprenticeship at the oil company Shell, and after training for 2 years in England, he left on his long voyage to Tanzania in East Africa.

[00:05:31] And here he had many experiences that would no doubt have thrilled this adventure-seeking, mischievous, young man.

[00:05:40] For instance, one day Dahl spotted a black mamba, a deadly snake racing towards his friend and he could only manage to escape just in time by killing it with a rake.

[00:05:53] On another occasion, Dahl witnessed a lion carrying off an old lady in its mouth. Miraculously she was saved and survived unharmed.

[00:06:05] But these exotic adventures would soon stop when in 1939 the Second World War broke out.

[00:06:14] Dahl decided he wanted to join the Air Force and within a year he had completed his training and was based at the 80 Squadron in North Africa.

[00:06:24] And it was during his mission to deliver a new aircraft to his Squadron that he suffered the shocking crash you heard about a few minutes ago, a crash which fractured his skull, shattered his nose, and temporarily blinded him.

[00:06:40] After a long recovery, and keen to be back in action, Dahl went back to the Air Force and continued fighting.

[00:06:49] But his time as a pilot was not to last, as he started experiencing terrible headaches and would often black out and lose consciousness - likely because of his past injuries.

[00:07:02] Soon, he was sent back home to Britain and unable to participate in action any longer, he found himself in a new diplomatic role.

[00:07:14] By April of 1942 at the age of 26, Dahl found himself across the Atlantic at the British Embassy in Washington D.C.

[00:07:25] Although he enjoyed his time in America, he did not enjoy his new job and felt like it was unimportant compared to his hands-on action in Africa.

[00:07:37] His time in America would, however, be important for his future literary career.

[00:07:43] It was during his time in Washington that he met the famous British military writer C.S. Forester, who heard about Dahl’s plane crash and wanted him to write about it.

[00:07:56] Forester believed that Dahl’s story could help gain some American support for the British war effort, so Dahl agreed to write his account.

[00:08:07] He reportedly wrote it in only 5 hours, and it was a dramatic masterpiece, clearly demonstrating the young Dahl’s writing talents.

[00:08:18] The story was titled ‘Shot Down Over Libya’, despite the fact that he hadn't actually been shot down and actually he had run out of fuel, but Forester suggested a dramatic title.

[00:08:33] The article was published in The Saturday Evening Post. It was Dahl’s first published piece, but it was a wonderful piece of writing.

[00:08:43] Although it would be this article that would jumpstart his literary career, behind the scenes Roald Dahl was also taking on another role, one which he is less well-known for.

[00:08:57] To the world, he was a mere embassy employee, but it’s now thought that he had been enlisted by the Canadian spymaster William Stephenson and he became an undercover agent, a spy.

[00:09:13] Dahl’s role was to supply Britain with intelligence about its ally, the USA.

[00:09:20] Britain needed to maintain American support for the its war effort in Europe, and Dahl’s role was to keep track of any anti-British sentiment within the American government.

[00:09:33] As you might imagine, this led to Dahl making some friends in pretty high places, in other words, he met many people in important and high up positions in society. 

[00:09:46] Dahl even worked alongside the fellow spy Ian Fleming, who would go on to write the James Bond series.

[00:09:54] But perhaps his most surprising friendship was with the American president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

[00:10:00] Dahl got to know the family quite well and he even sent them a copy of his very first work, The Gremlins.

[00:10:08] This was published in 1943, and was Dahl’s first children’s book.

[00:10:14] The book’s main character is a pilot, a fighter pilot, whose plane is shot down. The pilot then joins forces with these magical creatures, “gremlins”, to fight against a common enemy, Hitler and the Nazis.

[00:10:28] Interestingly enough, The Gremlins was originally intended to be a Disney movie. Walt Disney heard about Dahl’s idea, thought the story would make a great film, so he gave Dahl a team of illustrators to work with to transform his gremlins into an animation.

[00:10:48] However, as time went on, there were copyright issues, and Disney’s interest in the project began to fade, it waned.

[00:10:57] Instead of becoming a film the project was ultimately published as a book, and a very popular one at that.

[00:11:05] And this really set off Dahl’s writing career.

[00:11:09] Initially, he wrote predominantly adult fiction, not children’s books.

[00:11:15] By the early 1960s, however, Roald Dahl’s focus had switched to writing children’s books, and he would be best known as a children’s author.

[00:11:25] First came James and the Giant Peach in 1961, and he continued to write critically acclaimed children’s books and poetry right up until his death in 1990. 

[00:11:37] I’m sure you’ll have read some of these, or perhaps you’ll have seen movie or TV adaptations.

[00:11:44] The fascinating thing is that, when you learn more about Roald Dahl’s life, or if you read more about his life in his memoirs, you can start to imagine how and why he created the magical worlds he did.

[00:11:59] As you heard, he was born to Norwegian parents and many of his books suggest the influence of Norwegian fairy tales, with their magic, witches and other mythical creatures.

[00:12:12] For example, The Big Friendly Giant and James and the Giant Peach both feature characters quite like the large trolls in many Norwegian stories.

[00:12:23] Parts of Dahl’s The Witches are even set in Norway.

[00:12:26] Dahl was also, clearly, a naughty and mischievous boy, and he tells stories of this in his memoirs

[00:12:35] In his autobiography Boy, Dahl recounts one story from when he was just 8 years old, the one I alluded to at the start of the episode.

[00:12:46] Dahl and some friends had grown tired of what he called the “mean and loathsome” Mrs Pratchett, the lady who owned the local sweet shop.

[00:12:57] Dahl described Pratchett as an “old hag” who “never smiled”, and one day the boys decided to take their revenge.

[00:13:06] So, having lifted a loose floorboard to discover a dead mouse in their classroom, the boys decided to sneak it into one of Pratchett’s jars of sweets.

[00:13:16] The boys carried out their plan perfectly, celebrating the fact that the woman would suffer a great shock.

[00:13:24] However, the boys soon received a shock themselves when they discovered Pratchett was at their school making sure that they would receive the cane, the stick that would be used to punish children for misbehaviour.

[00:13:39] Dahl would later write about this experience, describing the cane as “a red-hot poker against my flesh.”

[00:13:47] And Dahl’s negative experiences with adults have clearly left their mark on his work.

[00:13:53] We can see them in Miss Trunchbull from Matilda, and in the Child Catcher, which Dahl invented when writing the screenplay for the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

[00:14:06] On a less rosy note, you can also see Dahl’s personal tragedies throughout his life clearly coming out in his writing.

[00:14:15] As you heard at the start of the episode, when he was just three years old Dahl lost his father and sister to illness, and later in life health disasters would hit his family again.

[00:14:28] In 1960, when his young son, Theo, was only 4 months old, the boy suffered a terrible accident when his pram was hit by a taxi in New York.

[00:14:41] The boy’s skull was shattered and he suffered brain damage so severe that doctors were unsure he would survive.

[00:14:50] Miraculously though, he did survive but he developed something called hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid on the brain which had to be drained frequently through a valve that was fitted to his skull.

[00:15:04] However, Theo’s valve was very unreliable and would often block, leading to a buildup of fluid and the danger of serious further injury, and even death.

[00:15:16] So, Dahl decided to take matters into his own hands. He called upon two friends, Stanley Wade, an engineer, and Kenneth Till, a neurosurgeon.

[00:15:29] Together the group developed a brand-new valve for people suffering like his son. It worked, it saved Theo’s life, and this invention would go on to save the lives of thousands of children around the world. 

[00:15:44] If you remember Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there are all sorts of amazing devices, machines, and unusual contraptions that produce different chocolates. 

[00:15:55] Given that this book was written shortly after he was working on developing his son’s medical device, it’s been suggested that this was part of the inspiration for the details of Willy Wonka’ chocolate factory.

[00:16:08] But this almost fatal accident for his son would not be the last family tragedy for Dahl.

[00:16:14] While pregnant with their fifth child, Dahl’s wife suffered a series of strokes.

[00:16:21] Thankfully their baby survived but his wife, the American actress Patricia Neal, was left partially paralysed and struggling to speak.

[00:16:32] Her recovery was a long and slow process.

[00:16:36] Often, she would forget the names of objects and would invent new ones, for instance, she called a drink a “sooty swatch” and a cigarette an “oblogon”.

[00:16:49] But, ever the person to turn misfortune into something playful, his wife’s new language caught Dahl’s attention and he began to play around with words, too.

[00:17:01] This is most evident in his 1982 book The Big Friendly Giant, for which he created the language ‘Gobblefunk’ which is spoken by the giant.

[00:17:11] And this inventive language has become one of his most defining features.

[00:17:16] Although he doesn’t always explain his new words, children understand them through rhymes or onomatopoeia, words that literally sound like what they describe.

[00:17:28] I read Roald Dahl to my young son, and while he clearly doesn’t understand all the words, especially because some aren’t real words, he absolutely loves the sounds, and hundreds of millions of other children have felt exactly the same joy in listening to and reading Dahl’s stories.

[00:17:47] He was, simply put, a fantastic storyteller.

[00:17:52] Clearly, many characters and parts of his books were inspired by people from his childhood or his own lived experiences.

[00:18:01] In James and the Giant Peach, James lives with two aunts who resemble the nasty Mrs Pratchett from Dahl’s childhood.

[00:18:09] And the whole story is alive with the type of magic familiar to Dahl through Norwegian fairy tales.

[00:18:16] Another strong theme throughout Dahl’s memoirs is an obsession with sweets. Not only is there the incident of the mouse at the sweet shop, but he would also recount how the chocolate company Cadbury sent packages to his school for the children to taste test.

[00:18:35] One would certainly imagine that he drew on these memories when writing perhaps his most famous creation, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

[00:18:44] Clearly, Roald Dahl had a rare talent for taking these lived experiences and turning them into amazing characters and narratives.

[00:18:54] His own children would recount how their father would tell them amazing bedtime stories, inventing new characters and plot twists every single night.

[00:19:05] He was evidently an amazingly gifted storyteller, but when it came to working, to actually writing his books, he took this very seriously.

[00:19:16] Dahl worked to a strict schedule in a shed in his garden, where he sat in an armchair with the curtains closed surrounded by pencils, coffee and cigarettes.

[00:19:28] In fact, there’s an amazing video you can find on YouTube where he talks about his writing environment, and how the shed hasn’t been cleaned for 5 years.

[00:19:39] No matter the unpretentious office, his output was, as you will know, phenomenal.

[00:19:46] He is one of the best loved children’s authors of all time, and his books have sold over 250 million copies around the world.

[00:19:55] If you’ve read any Roald Dahl, which I certainly hope you will do if you haven’t done so already, you will probably know why he is so popular.

[00:20:04] He reminds us of the power of stories, the wonder of childhood, the joy of our imagination, and of the huge happiness that magic and fantasy can bring.

[00:20:16] As he famously once wrote, “a little magic can take you a long way”

[00:20:24] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode on Roald Dahl, and with it comes the end of our three-part mini-series on British children’s authors.

[00:20:34] As a reminder, in case you missed them, part one was on Lewis Carroll, of Alice in Wonderland fame, and part two was on Enid Blyton, who despite perhaps being less loved than either Lewis Carroll or Roald Dahl, in fact sold a lot more books than either of them.

[00:20:51] The final thing to say is that I would certainly encourage you, as an English learner, to pick up some of these books. Children’s books can be a great learning resource, the language is simpler, they’re funny and short, so pick one up and give it a go.

[00:21:07] As always I would love to know what you thought of this episode, and of this mini-series in general.

[00:21:13] Who are your favourite children’s authors?

[00:21:16] Have you read any Lewis Carroll, Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl?

[00:21:20] Are you planning to do so after listening to this mini-series?

[00:21:23] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. 

[00:21:27] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:35] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:40] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part three, our final part, of our three-part mini-series on British children’s authors.

[00:00:30] In case you missed them, in part one, we looked at the unusual life of Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland.

[00:00:39] In part two, which was one of our member-only ones, we looked at the divisive but hugely successful Enid Blyton, the author best known for stories like The Famous Five and Noddy.

[00:00:51] And today, in part three, we’ll finish this mini-series by exploring the amazing life of Roald Dahl.

[00:00:59] You might know him as the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach, but you might not know that he was a war hero, a spy, and even a friend of the President.

[00:01:13] OK then, the magical life of Roald Dahl.

[00:01:18] “I had climbed into my new Gladiator [aeroplane] at an RAF airfield.

[00:01:24] This was going to be my very first venture into combat territory.

[00:01:29] The flight in itself was a fairly daunting one for someone who had virtually no experience of the aircraft.

[00:01:37] It is not a particularly tricky business if you have had plenty of practice, but if you are new to the game […] it is a dicey, experience.

[00:01:46] I flew straight for the point where the 80 Squadron airfield should have been. It wasn’t there.

[00:01:53] Below me there was nothing but empty desert, and rather rugged desert at that, full of large stones and boulders.

[00:02:03] At this point, dusk began to fall and I realised that I was in trouble.

[00:02:09] My fuel was running low and there was no way I could get back.

[00:02:15] The only course open to me now was to make a forced landing in the desert and make it quickly, before it was too dark to see.

[00:02:23] I chose a piece of ground that seemed to me to be as boulder-free as any and I made an approach.

[00:02:31] I prayed for a bit of luck.

[00:02:33] I didn’t get it.

[00:02:34] My undercarriage hit a boulder and collapsed completely and the [plane] buried its nose in the sand at what must have been about seventy-five miles an hour.

[00:02:46] I was unconscious for some moments, but I must have recovered my senses very quickly because I can remember hearing a mighty whoosh as the petrol tank exploded.

[00:02:57] I could see nothing at all, and I felt no pain.

[00:03:02] All I wanted was to go gently off to sleep and to hell with the flames.

[00:03:08] I heard my machine-gun ammunition exploding in the flames and the bullets were pinging about all over the place.

[00:03:17] I began very very slowly to drag myself away from the awful hotness.

[00:03:23] In the end the temperature all around me became bearable. When that happened I collapsed and went to sleep.”

[00:03:32] This is Roald Dahl’s account of his terrible crash when he was a 24-year-old fighter pilot in the Second World War.

[00:03:40] Aside from almost killing Dahl and leaving him with a long four-month recovery in hospital, this experience was a fundamental step that led to his amazing literary career.

[00:03:54] So how exactly did this happen?

[00:03:56] How did Dahl, a boy born in Wales to Norwegian parents, end up in the African desert?

[00:04:04] And how did he go from crashing a fighter plane during the war to becoming one of the most successful and beloved British children’s authors of all time?

[00:04:15] He was born in 1916, and his childhood was filled with a mixture of mischief, of being naughty, and of tragedy.

[00:04:25] Both his father and sister died when he was very young, and he was bullied and beaten badly at school.

[00:04:33] But he was a great prankster, someone who enjoyed playing practical jokes. Most famously, as he recounted in his childhood memoirs, Boy, he found a dead mouse and hid it inside a jar of sweets. 

[00:04:50] And he also claimed to have swapped his half-sister’s fiancé’s tobacco for goat poo, another incident which he describes in Boy.

[00:05:00] After finishing school in 1934, the 18-year-old Dahl decided that he wanted adventure, he wanted a career which would allow him to travel.

[00:05:12] He wanted to see “wonderful faraway places like Africa and China” as he would put it.

[00:05:18] So, he applied for an apprenticeship at the oil company Shell, and after training for 2 years in England, he left on his long voyage to Tanzania in East Africa.

[00:05:31] And here he had many experiences that would no doubt have thrilled this adventure-seeking, mischievous, young man.

[00:05:40] For instance, one day Dahl spotted a black mamba, a deadly snake racing towards his friend and he could only manage to escape just in time by killing it with a rake.

[00:05:53] On another occasion, Dahl witnessed a lion carrying off an old lady in its mouth. Miraculously she was saved and survived unharmed.

[00:06:05] But these exotic adventures would soon stop when in 1939 the Second World War broke out.

[00:06:14] Dahl decided he wanted to join the Air Force and within a year he had completed his training and was based at the 80 Squadron in North Africa.

[00:06:24] And it was during his mission to deliver a new aircraft to his Squadron that he suffered the shocking crash you heard about a few minutes ago, a crash which fractured his skull, shattered his nose, and temporarily blinded him.

[00:06:40] After a long recovery, and keen to be back in action, Dahl went back to the Air Force and continued fighting.

[00:06:49] But his time as a pilot was not to last, as he started experiencing terrible headaches and would often black out and lose consciousness - likely because of his past injuries.

[00:07:02] Soon, he was sent back home to Britain and unable to participate in action any longer, he found himself in a new diplomatic role.

[00:07:14] By April of 1942 at the age of 26, Dahl found himself across the Atlantic at the British Embassy in Washington D.C.

[00:07:25] Although he enjoyed his time in America, he did not enjoy his new job and felt like it was unimportant compared to his hands-on action in Africa.

[00:07:37] His time in America would, however, be important for his future literary career.

[00:07:43] It was during his time in Washington that he met the famous British military writer C.S. Forester, who heard about Dahl’s plane crash and wanted him to write about it.

[00:07:56] Forester believed that Dahl’s story could help gain some American support for the British war effort, so Dahl agreed to write his account.

[00:08:07] He reportedly wrote it in only 5 hours, and it was a dramatic masterpiece, clearly demonstrating the young Dahl’s writing talents.

[00:08:18] The story was titled ‘Shot Down Over Libya’, despite the fact that he hadn't actually been shot down and actually he had run out of fuel, but Forester suggested a dramatic title.

[00:08:33] The article was published in The Saturday Evening Post. It was Dahl’s first published piece, but it was a wonderful piece of writing.

[00:08:43] Although it would be this article that would jumpstart his literary career, behind the scenes Roald Dahl was also taking on another role, one which he is less well-known for.

[00:08:57] To the world, he was a mere embassy employee, but it’s now thought that he had been enlisted by the Canadian spymaster William Stephenson and he became an undercover agent, a spy.

[00:09:13] Dahl’s role was to supply Britain with intelligence about its ally, the USA.

[00:09:20] Britain needed to maintain American support for the its war effort in Europe, and Dahl’s role was to keep track of any anti-British sentiment within the American government.

[00:09:33] As you might imagine, this led to Dahl making some friends in pretty high places, in other words, he met many people in important and high up positions in society. 

[00:09:46] Dahl even worked alongside the fellow spy Ian Fleming, who would go on to write the James Bond series.

[00:09:54] But perhaps his most surprising friendship was with the American president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

[00:10:00] Dahl got to know the family quite well and he even sent them a copy of his very first work, The Gremlins.

[00:10:08] This was published in 1943, and was Dahl’s first children’s book.

[00:10:14] The book’s main character is a pilot, a fighter pilot, whose plane is shot down. The pilot then joins forces with these magical creatures, “gremlins”, to fight against a common enemy, Hitler and the Nazis.

[00:10:28] Interestingly enough, The Gremlins was originally intended to be a Disney movie. Walt Disney heard about Dahl’s idea, thought the story would make a great film, so he gave Dahl a team of illustrators to work with to transform his gremlins into an animation.

[00:10:48] However, as time went on, there were copyright issues, and Disney’s interest in the project began to fade, it waned.

[00:10:57] Instead of becoming a film the project was ultimately published as a book, and a very popular one at that.

[00:11:05] And this really set off Dahl’s writing career.

[00:11:09] Initially, he wrote predominantly adult fiction, not children’s books.

[00:11:15] By the early 1960s, however, Roald Dahl’s focus had switched to writing children’s books, and he would be best known as a children’s author.

[00:11:25] First came James and the Giant Peach in 1961, and he continued to write critically acclaimed children’s books and poetry right up until his death in 1990. 

[00:11:37] I’m sure you’ll have read some of these, or perhaps you’ll have seen movie or TV adaptations.

[00:11:44] The fascinating thing is that, when you learn more about Roald Dahl’s life, or if you read more about his life in his memoirs, you can start to imagine how and why he created the magical worlds he did.

[00:11:59] As you heard, he was born to Norwegian parents and many of his books suggest the influence of Norwegian fairy tales, with their magic, witches and other mythical creatures.

[00:12:12] For example, The Big Friendly Giant and James and the Giant Peach both feature characters quite like the large trolls in many Norwegian stories.

[00:12:23] Parts of Dahl’s The Witches are even set in Norway.

[00:12:26] Dahl was also, clearly, a naughty and mischievous boy, and he tells stories of this in his memoirs

[00:12:35] In his autobiography Boy, Dahl recounts one story from when he was just 8 years old, the one I alluded to at the start of the episode.

[00:12:46] Dahl and some friends had grown tired of what he called the “mean and loathsome” Mrs Pratchett, the lady who owned the local sweet shop.

[00:12:57] Dahl described Pratchett as an “old hag” who “never smiled”, and one day the boys decided to take their revenge.

[00:13:06] So, having lifted a loose floorboard to discover a dead mouse in their classroom, the boys decided to sneak it into one of Pratchett’s jars of sweets.

[00:13:16] The boys carried out their plan perfectly, celebrating the fact that the woman would suffer a great shock.

[00:13:24] However, the boys soon received a shock themselves when they discovered Pratchett was at their school making sure that they would receive the cane, the stick that would be used to punish children for misbehaviour.

[00:13:39] Dahl would later write about this experience, describing the cane as “a red-hot poker against my flesh.”

[00:13:47] And Dahl’s negative experiences with adults have clearly left their mark on his work.

[00:13:53] We can see them in Miss Trunchbull from Matilda, and in the Child Catcher, which Dahl invented when writing the screenplay for the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

[00:14:06] On a less rosy note, you can also see Dahl’s personal tragedies throughout his life clearly coming out in his writing.

[00:14:15] As you heard at the start of the episode, when he was just three years old Dahl lost his father and sister to illness, and later in life health disasters would hit his family again.

[00:14:28] In 1960, when his young son, Theo, was only 4 months old, the boy suffered a terrible accident when his pram was hit by a taxi in New York.

[00:14:41] The boy’s skull was shattered and he suffered brain damage so severe that doctors were unsure he would survive.

[00:14:50] Miraculously though, he did survive but he developed something called hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid on the brain which had to be drained frequently through a valve that was fitted to his skull.

[00:15:04] However, Theo’s valve was very unreliable and would often block, leading to a buildup of fluid and the danger of serious further injury, and even death.

[00:15:16] So, Dahl decided to take matters into his own hands. He called upon two friends, Stanley Wade, an engineer, and Kenneth Till, a neurosurgeon.

[00:15:29] Together the group developed a brand-new valve for people suffering like his son. It worked, it saved Theo’s life, and this invention would go on to save the lives of thousands of children around the world. 

[00:15:44] If you remember Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there are all sorts of amazing devices, machines, and unusual contraptions that produce different chocolates. 

[00:15:55] Given that this book was written shortly after he was working on developing his son’s medical device, it’s been suggested that this was part of the inspiration for the details of Willy Wonka’ chocolate factory.

[00:16:08] But this almost fatal accident for his son would not be the last family tragedy for Dahl.

[00:16:14] While pregnant with their fifth child, Dahl’s wife suffered a series of strokes.

[00:16:21] Thankfully their baby survived but his wife, the American actress Patricia Neal, was left partially paralysed and struggling to speak.

[00:16:32] Her recovery was a long and slow process.

[00:16:36] Often, she would forget the names of objects and would invent new ones, for instance, she called a drink a “sooty swatch” and a cigarette an “oblogon”.

[00:16:49] But, ever the person to turn misfortune into something playful, his wife’s new language caught Dahl’s attention and he began to play around with words, too.

[00:17:01] This is most evident in his 1982 book The Big Friendly Giant, for which he created the language ‘Gobblefunk’ which is spoken by the giant.

[00:17:11] And this inventive language has become one of his most defining features.

[00:17:16] Although he doesn’t always explain his new words, children understand them through rhymes or onomatopoeia, words that literally sound like what they describe.

[00:17:28] I read Roald Dahl to my young son, and while he clearly doesn’t understand all the words, especially because some aren’t real words, he absolutely loves the sounds, and hundreds of millions of other children have felt exactly the same joy in listening to and reading Dahl’s stories.

[00:17:47] He was, simply put, a fantastic storyteller.

[00:17:52] Clearly, many characters and parts of his books were inspired by people from his childhood or his own lived experiences.

[00:18:01] In James and the Giant Peach, James lives with two aunts who resemble the nasty Mrs Pratchett from Dahl’s childhood.

[00:18:09] And the whole story is alive with the type of magic familiar to Dahl through Norwegian fairy tales.

[00:18:16] Another strong theme throughout Dahl’s memoirs is an obsession with sweets. Not only is there the incident of the mouse at the sweet shop, but he would also recount how the chocolate company Cadbury sent packages to his school for the children to taste test.

[00:18:35] One would certainly imagine that he drew on these memories when writing perhaps his most famous creation, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

[00:18:44] Clearly, Roald Dahl had a rare talent for taking these lived experiences and turning them into amazing characters and narratives.

[00:18:54] His own children would recount how their father would tell them amazing bedtime stories, inventing new characters and plot twists every single night.

[00:19:05] He was evidently an amazingly gifted storyteller, but when it came to working, to actually writing his books, he took this very seriously.

[00:19:16] Dahl worked to a strict schedule in a shed in his garden, where he sat in an armchair with the curtains closed surrounded by pencils, coffee and cigarettes.

[00:19:28] In fact, there’s an amazing video you can find on YouTube where he talks about his writing environment, and how the shed hasn’t been cleaned for 5 years.

[00:19:39] No matter the unpretentious office, his output was, as you will know, phenomenal.

[00:19:46] He is one of the best loved children’s authors of all time, and his books have sold over 250 million copies around the world.

[00:19:55] If you’ve read any Roald Dahl, which I certainly hope you will do if you haven’t done so already, you will probably know why he is so popular.

[00:20:04] He reminds us of the power of stories, the wonder of childhood, the joy of our imagination, and of the huge happiness that magic and fantasy can bring.

[00:20:16] As he famously once wrote, “a little magic can take you a long way”

[00:20:24] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode on Roald Dahl, and with it comes the end of our three-part mini-series on British children’s authors.

[00:20:34] As a reminder, in case you missed them, part one was on Lewis Carroll, of Alice in Wonderland fame, and part two was on Enid Blyton, who despite perhaps being less loved than either Lewis Carroll or Roald Dahl, in fact sold a lot more books than either of them.

[00:20:51] The final thing to say is that I would certainly encourage you, as an English learner, to pick up some of these books. Children’s books can be a great learning resource, the language is simpler, they’re funny and short, so pick one up and give it a go.

[00:21:07] As always I would love to know what you thought of this episode, and of this mini-series in general.

[00:21:13] Who are your favourite children’s authors?

[00:21:16] Have you read any Lewis Carroll, Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl?

[00:21:20] Are you planning to do so after listening to this mini-series?

[00:21:23] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. 

[00:21:27] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:35] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:40] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part three, our final part, of our three-part mini-series on British children’s authors.

[00:00:30] In case you missed them, in part one, we looked at the unusual life of Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland.

[00:00:39] In part two, which was one of our member-only ones, we looked at the divisive but hugely successful Enid Blyton, the author best known for stories like The Famous Five and Noddy.

[00:00:51] And today, in part three, we’ll finish this mini-series by exploring the amazing life of Roald Dahl.

[00:00:59] You might know him as the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach, but you might not know that he was a war hero, a spy, and even a friend of the President.

[00:01:13] OK then, the magical life of Roald Dahl.

[00:01:18] “I had climbed into my new Gladiator [aeroplane] at an RAF airfield.

[00:01:24] This was going to be my very first venture into combat territory.

[00:01:29] The flight in itself was a fairly daunting one for someone who had virtually no experience of the aircraft.

[00:01:37] It is not a particularly tricky business if you have had plenty of practice, but if you are new to the game […] it is a dicey, experience.

[00:01:46] I flew straight for the point where the 80 Squadron airfield should have been. It wasn’t there.

[00:01:53] Below me there was nothing but empty desert, and rather rugged desert at that, full of large stones and boulders.

[00:02:03] At this point, dusk began to fall and I realised that I was in trouble.

[00:02:09] My fuel was running low and there was no way I could get back.

[00:02:15] The only course open to me now was to make a forced landing in the desert and make it quickly, before it was too dark to see.

[00:02:23] I chose a piece of ground that seemed to me to be as boulder-free as any and I made an approach.

[00:02:31] I prayed for a bit of luck.

[00:02:33] I didn’t get it.

[00:02:34] My undercarriage hit a boulder and collapsed completely and the [plane] buried its nose in the sand at what must have been about seventy-five miles an hour.

[00:02:46] I was unconscious for some moments, but I must have recovered my senses very quickly because I can remember hearing a mighty whoosh as the petrol tank exploded.

[00:02:57] I could see nothing at all, and I felt no pain.

[00:03:02] All I wanted was to go gently off to sleep and to hell with the flames.

[00:03:08] I heard my machine-gun ammunition exploding in the flames and the bullets were pinging about all over the place.

[00:03:17] I began very very slowly to drag myself away from the awful hotness.

[00:03:23] In the end the temperature all around me became bearable. When that happened I collapsed and went to sleep.”

[00:03:32] This is Roald Dahl’s account of his terrible crash when he was a 24-year-old fighter pilot in the Second World War.

[00:03:40] Aside from almost killing Dahl and leaving him with a long four-month recovery in hospital, this experience was a fundamental step that led to his amazing literary career.

[00:03:54] So how exactly did this happen?

[00:03:56] How did Dahl, a boy born in Wales to Norwegian parents, end up in the African desert?

[00:04:04] And how did he go from crashing a fighter plane during the war to becoming one of the most successful and beloved British children’s authors of all time?

[00:04:15] He was born in 1916, and his childhood was filled with a mixture of mischief, of being naughty, and of tragedy.

[00:04:25] Both his father and sister died when he was very young, and he was bullied and beaten badly at school.

[00:04:33] But he was a great prankster, someone who enjoyed playing practical jokes. Most famously, as he recounted in his childhood memoirs, Boy, he found a dead mouse and hid it inside a jar of sweets. 

[00:04:50] And he also claimed to have swapped his half-sister’s fiancé’s tobacco for goat poo, another incident which he describes in Boy.

[00:05:00] After finishing school in 1934, the 18-year-old Dahl decided that he wanted adventure, he wanted a career which would allow him to travel.

[00:05:12] He wanted to see “wonderful faraway places like Africa and China” as he would put it.

[00:05:18] So, he applied for an apprenticeship at the oil company Shell, and after training for 2 years in England, he left on his long voyage to Tanzania in East Africa.

[00:05:31] And here he had many experiences that would no doubt have thrilled this adventure-seeking, mischievous, young man.

[00:05:40] For instance, one day Dahl spotted a black mamba, a deadly snake racing towards his friend and he could only manage to escape just in time by killing it with a rake.

[00:05:53] On another occasion, Dahl witnessed a lion carrying off an old lady in its mouth. Miraculously she was saved and survived unharmed.

[00:06:05] But these exotic adventures would soon stop when in 1939 the Second World War broke out.

[00:06:14] Dahl decided he wanted to join the Air Force and within a year he had completed his training and was based at the 80 Squadron in North Africa.

[00:06:24] And it was during his mission to deliver a new aircraft to his Squadron that he suffered the shocking crash you heard about a few minutes ago, a crash which fractured his skull, shattered his nose, and temporarily blinded him.

[00:06:40] After a long recovery, and keen to be back in action, Dahl went back to the Air Force and continued fighting.

[00:06:49] But his time as a pilot was not to last, as he started experiencing terrible headaches and would often black out and lose consciousness - likely because of his past injuries.

[00:07:02] Soon, he was sent back home to Britain and unable to participate in action any longer, he found himself in a new diplomatic role.

[00:07:14] By April of 1942 at the age of 26, Dahl found himself across the Atlantic at the British Embassy in Washington D.C.

[00:07:25] Although he enjoyed his time in America, he did not enjoy his new job and felt like it was unimportant compared to his hands-on action in Africa.

[00:07:37] His time in America would, however, be important for his future literary career.

[00:07:43] It was during his time in Washington that he met the famous British military writer C.S. Forester, who heard about Dahl’s plane crash and wanted him to write about it.

[00:07:56] Forester believed that Dahl’s story could help gain some American support for the British war effort, so Dahl agreed to write his account.

[00:08:07] He reportedly wrote it in only 5 hours, and it was a dramatic masterpiece, clearly demonstrating the young Dahl’s writing talents.

[00:08:18] The story was titled ‘Shot Down Over Libya’, despite the fact that he hadn't actually been shot down and actually he had run out of fuel, but Forester suggested a dramatic title.

[00:08:33] The article was published in The Saturday Evening Post. It was Dahl’s first published piece, but it was a wonderful piece of writing.

[00:08:43] Although it would be this article that would jumpstart his literary career, behind the scenes Roald Dahl was also taking on another role, one which he is less well-known for.

[00:08:57] To the world, he was a mere embassy employee, but it’s now thought that he had been enlisted by the Canadian spymaster William Stephenson and he became an undercover agent, a spy.

[00:09:13] Dahl’s role was to supply Britain with intelligence about its ally, the USA.

[00:09:20] Britain needed to maintain American support for the its war effort in Europe, and Dahl’s role was to keep track of any anti-British sentiment within the American government.

[00:09:33] As you might imagine, this led to Dahl making some friends in pretty high places, in other words, he met many people in important and high up positions in society. 

[00:09:46] Dahl even worked alongside the fellow spy Ian Fleming, who would go on to write the James Bond series.

[00:09:54] But perhaps his most surprising friendship was with the American president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

[00:10:00] Dahl got to know the family quite well and he even sent them a copy of his very first work, The Gremlins.

[00:10:08] This was published in 1943, and was Dahl’s first children’s book.

[00:10:14] The book’s main character is a pilot, a fighter pilot, whose plane is shot down. The pilot then joins forces with these magical creatures, “gremlins”, to fight against a common enemy, Hitler and the Nazis.

[00:10:28] Interestingly enough, The Gremlins was originally intended to be a Disney movie. Walt Disney heard about Dahl’s idea, thought the story would make a great film, so he gave Dahl a team of illustrators to work with to transform his gremlins into an animation.

[00:10:48] However, as time went on, there were copyright issues, and Disney’s interest in the project began to fade, it waned.

[00:10:57] Instead of becoming a film the project was ultimately published as a book, and a very popular one at that.

[00:11:05] And this really set off Dahl’s writing career.

[00:11:09] Initially, he wrote predominantly adult fiction, not children’s books.

[00:11:15] By the early 1960s, however, Roald Dahl’s focus had switched to writing children’s books, and he would be best known as a children’s author.

[00:11:25] First came James and the Giant Peach in 1961, and he continued to write critically acclaimed children’s books and poetry right up until his death in 1990. 

[00:11:37] I’m sure you’ll have read some of these, or perhaps you’ll have seen movie or TV adaptations.

[00:11:44] The fascinating thing is that, when you learn more about Roald Dahl’s life, or if you read more about his life in his memoirs, you can start to imagine how and why he created the magical worlds he did.

[00:11:59] As you heard, he was born to Norwegian parents and many of his books suggest the influence of Norwegian fairy tales, with their magic, witches and other mythical creatures.

[00:12:12] For example, The Big Friendly Giant and James and the Giant Peach both feature characters quite like the large trolls in many Norwegian stories.

[00:12:23] Parts of Dahl’s The Witches are even set in Norway.

[00:12:26] Dahl was also, clearly, a naughty and mischievous boy, and he tells stories of this in his memoirs

[00:12:35] In his autobiography Boy, Dahl recounts one story from when he was just 8 years old, the one I alluded to at the start of the episode.

[00:12:46] Dahl and some friends had grown tired of what he called the “mean and loathsome” Mrs Pratchett, the lady who owned the local sweet shop.

[00:12:57] Dahl described Pratchett as an “old hag” who “never smiled”, and one day the boys decided to take their revenge.

[00:13:06] So, having lifted a loose floorboard to discover a dead mouse in their classroom, the boys decided to sneak it into one of Pratchett’s jars of sweets.

[00:13:16] The boys carried out their plan perfectly, celebrating the fact that the woman would suffer a great shock.

[00:13:24] However, the boys soon received a shock themselves when they discovered Pratchett was at their school making sure that they would receive the cane, the stick that would be used to punish children for misbehaviour.

[00:13:39] Dahl would later write about this experience, describing the cane as “a red-hot poker against my flesh.”

[00:13:47] And Dahl’s negative experiences with adults have clearly left their mark on his work.

[00:13:53] We can see them in Miss Trunchbull from Matilda, and in the Child Catcher, which Dahl invented when writing the screenplay for the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

[00:14:06] On a less rosy note, you can also see Dahl’s personal tragedies throughout his life clearly coming out in his writing.

[00:14:15] As you heard at the start of the episode, when he was just three years old Dahl lost his father and sister to illness, and later in life health disasters would hit his family again.

[00:14:28] In 1960, when his young son, Theo, was only 4 months old, the boy suffered a terrible accident when his pram was hit by a taxi in New York.

[00:14:41] The boy’s skull was shattered and he suffered brain damage so severe that doctors were unsure he would survive.

[00:14:50] Miraculously though, he did survive but he developed something called hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid on the brain which had to be drained frequently through a valve that was fitted to his skull.

[00:15:04] However, Theo’s valve was very unreliable and would often block, leading to a buildup of fluid and the danger of serious further injury, and even death.

[00:15:16] So, Dahl decided to take matters into his own hands. He called upon two friends, Stanley Wade, an engineer, and Kenneth Till, a neurosurgeon.

[00:15:29] Together the group developed a brand-new valve for people suffering like his son. It worked, it saved Theo’s life, and this invention would go on to save the lives of thousands of children around the world. 

[00:15:44] If you remember Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there are all sorts of amazing devices, machines, and unusual contraptions that produce different chocolates. 

[00:15:55] Given that this book was written shortly after he was working on developing his son’s medical device, it’s been suggested that this was part of the inspiration for the details of Willy Wonka’ chocolate factory.

[00:16:08] But this almost fatal accident for his son would not be the last family tragedy for Dahl.

[00:16:14] While pregnant with their fifth child, Dahl’s wife suffered a series of strokes.

[00:16:21] Thankfully their baby survived but his wife, the American actress Patricia Neal, was left partially paralysed and struggling to speak.

[00:16:32] Her recovery was a long and slow process.

[00:16:36] Often, she would forget the names of objects and would invent new ones, for instance, she called a drink a “sooty swatch” and a cigarette an “oblogon”.

[00:16:49] But, ever the person to turn misfortune into something playful, his wife’s new language caught Dahl’s attention and he began to play around with words, too.

[00:17:01] This is most evident in his 1982 book The Big Friendly Giant, for which he created the language ‘Gobblefunk’ which is spoken by the giant.

[00:17:11] And this inventive language has become one of his most defining features.

[00:17:16] Although he doesn’t always explain his new words, children understand them through rhymes or onomatopoeia, words that literally sound like what they describe.

[00:17:28] I read Roald Dahl to my young son, and while he clearly doesn’t understand all the words, especially because some aren’t real words, he absolutely loves the sounds, and hundreds of millions of other children have felt exactly the same joy in listening to and reading Dahl’s stories.

[00:17:47] He was, simply put, a fantastic storyteller.

[00:17:52] Clearly, many characters and parts of his books were inspired by people from his childhood or his own lived experiences.

[00:18:01] In James and the Giant Peach, James lives with two aunts who resemble the nasty Mrs Pratchett from Dahl’s childhood.

[00:18:09] And the whole story is alive with the type of magic familiar to Dahl through Norwegian fairy tales.

[00:18:16] Another strong theme throughout Dahl’s memoirs is an obsession with sweets. Not only is there the incident of the mouse at the sweet shop, but he would also recount how the chocolate company Cadbury sent packages to his school for the children to taste test.

[00:18:35] One would certainly imagine that he drew on these memories when writing perhaps his most famous creation, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

[00:18:44] Clearly, Roald Dahl had a rare talent for taking these lived experiences and turning them into amazing characters and narratives.

[00:18:54] His own children would recount how their father would tell them amazing bedtime stories, inventing new characters and plot twists every single night.

[00:19:05] He was evidently an amazingly gifted storyteller, but when it came to working, to actually writing his books, he took this very seriously.

[00:19:16] Dahl worked to a strict schedule in a shed in his garden, where he sat in an armchair with the curtains closed surrounded by pencils, coffee and cigarettes.

[00:19:28] In fact, there’s an amazing video you can find on YouTube where he talks about his writing environment, and how the shed hasn’t been cleaned for 5 years.

[00:19:39] No matter the unpretentious office, his output was, as you will know, phenomenal.

[00:19:46] He is one of the best loved children’s authors of all time, and his books have sold over 250 million copies around the world.

[00:19:55] If you’ve read any Roald Dahl, which I certainly hope you will do if you haven’t done so already, you will probably know why he is so popular.

[00:20:04] He reminds us of the power of stories, the wonder of childhood, the joy of our imagination, and of the huge happiness that magic and fantasy can bring.

[00:20:16] As he famously once wrote, “a little magic can take you a long way”

[00:20:24] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode on Roald Dahl, and with it comes the end of our three-part mini-series on British children’s authors.

[00:20:34] As a reminder, in case you missed them, part one was on Lewis Carroll, of Alice in Wonderland fame, and part two was on Enid Blyton, who despite perhaps being less loved than either Lewis Carroll or Roald Dahl, in fact sold a lot more books than either of them.

[00:20:51] The final thing to say is that I would certainly encourage you, as an English learner, to pick up some of these books. Children’s books can be a great learning resource, the language is simpler, they’re funny and short, so pick one up and give it a go.

[00:21:07] As always I would love to know what you thought of this episode, and of this mini-series in general.

[00:21:13] Who are your favourite children’s authors?

[00:21:16] Have you read any Lewis Carroll, Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl?

[00:21:20] Are you planning to do so after listening to this mini-series?

[00:21:23] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started. 

[00:21:27] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:35] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:40] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]