Roald Dahl, the collector of Recondite Facts.
For Roald Dahl, March was the month when the natural world wakes up: the leaves come into bud and birds start the serious business of building their nests. In the March chapter of his last book, My Year, Roald also talks about crocuses starting to flower, and then tells us about the ‘crokers’ of Saffron Waldon who harvested the saffron from the spring crocuses. We learn that the yellow saffron, used for flavouring and colouring food, is worth more than the same weight in caviar or smoked salmon.
In telling us this story, Roald shows us one of us one of his other sides as a writer, that of someone who was a collector of ‘recondite facts’.
‘Recondite’ was one of Roald Dahl’s favourite words and means ‘little known’ or ‘obscure’. As someone with an intense interest in the world around him, Roald delighted in discovering interesting nuggets of information, often talking to gardeners, doctors and other experts to find out more. He was well aware of the value this had for his own story-telling, and had the following advice for aspiring young writers:
I find it useful to jot down interesting facts that I come across and that might be useful for my future work.
As illustration to this, he describes a chart showing the number of breaths and heartbeats of various animals, including horses, cats, hedgehogs - and mice. This must have fascinated him, as he added a passage to The Witches about the speed of a mouse’s heart, which beats at 650 times a minute.
Above: manuscript of The Witches
Roald’s Ideas Books, kept here in the archive at the Museum, contain wonderful snippets of information from his own reading and he would often reread them to see if any could be used in his books.
The notes shown here were eventually used in Danny the Champion of the World, where Danny’s Dad, the Buckinghamshire countryman, regales Danny on their walks to school with fabulous facts about the birds, insects and creatures living around them.
Danny learns about the mating habits of the bullfrog and the bravery of mother weasels and he wishes that his Dad could write some of these amazing facts up on the entrance to the school, such as "Did you know that the Deadhead Moth can squeak?" and "Birds have no sense of smell."
Above: a section of one of Roald Dahl's Story Ideas Books
Roald didn’t just put these pieces of information in his books, some made their way in to his speeches. He gave speeches to schools throughout his life, and in the notes for one talk from 1978, he enjoyed himself by imagining the remarks that teachers could use for their pupils in school reports. You may well recognise these lines, shown below, from the first chapter of Matilda, written eight years after he gave this speech:
It is a curious and recondite truth that grasshoppers have their hearing organs in the sides of the abdomen. Your son Cyril, judging by what he’s learnt this term, has no hearing organs at all.
So, as you get out and about during March, remember to watch the world as Roald Dahl did, with ‘glittering eyes’, and see what recondite facts you can discover: you never know when they’ll come in handy!