Roald Dahl was a prolific letter writer who began writing to his family when he first went away to school at the age of nine, continuing throughout his adult life.
Through his letters we catch glimpses of his daily routine, his sparky sense of humour and the early twentieth century world about him.
It’s thanks to his mother, Sophie Magdalene Dahl, that we have this insight into his life. She kept every letter he sent her; not only from his school days but also from his time working in Africa, as an RAF pilot in the Middle East and Greece, and as an air-attaché in America. It was only after her death that the bundles of his letters were returned to Roald, with many of them later forming the basis of his autobiographies Boy and Going Solo.
His first letters, written in 1925 from his boarding school in Weston-super-Mare, are full of the usual preoccupations of a small boy: details of football matches and requests for stamps and conkers to swap. Later we learn more of his life at school – descriptions of his friends and teachers and the rather more relaxed attitude to safety in the 1920s, when boys were allowed to light their own fireworks on Bonfire Night!
Roald’s skill at writing descriptive prose grew as he got older, and through his letters we find out about his voyage to Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in Africa by ship in 1938 to work for Shell Oil. He recounts his road trips in Africa, meeting giraffes and monkeys on the way, which were surely the inspiration for characters in The Enormous Crocodile and The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me.
Through Roald’s eyes, we see the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. He wrote frequently to his mother warning her to leave her home in London should air-raids start, and later announced his intention to join the RAF as it would be more exciting than ‘all the marching about in the heat’ that a career in the army would bring. His letters give us a unique insight into the life of a rookie pilot who clearly loved being airborne – one exuberant letter to his mother describes flying over the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, seeing hundreds of animals below him.
He was careful, however, in what he chose to write about, conscious of both the military censor during wartime and perhaps protecting his family from the realities of his life. His letters are therefore resolutely upbeat and full of the excitement of a young man involved in a great adventure. Even after his crash in the Libyan Desert and later when he saw action in Greece with 81 Squadron, the tone of his letters is light, without going into much detail about the undoubted hardship and fear that he must have experienced. Instead he played on the humourous aspects of his life, finding funny anecdotes about his life as a pilot to relay to his mother.
This mix of discretion and cheerful gossip continued when he was dispatched to America in a diplomatic role as an air-attaché. Here his official role was to represent the RAF and share some of his experiences as a former pilot with the American public. He was also involved with UK intelligence, passing sensitive information back to London. This is the one area on which he is uncharacteristically (and frustratingly) silent in his letters – he took the necessary secrecy of his job very seriously, and even late in his life would not discuss aspects of his work in America. However, in his letters to his mother, he was fabulously indiscreet about his social life, gleefully sharing details of the glamorous parties he went to and providing witty pen-portraits of the people he met. In this extract from a letter, Roald mentions the other guests at a Hollywood party organised by Walt Disney – including Charlie Chaplin, Greer Garson and Spencer Tracy.
Roald’s letters provide a fascinating piece of social history which also give clues to the inspiration for many of his stories. His ability to capture events and descriptions of the people around him would eventually serve him well as a writer, initially of wickedly dark and funny short stories for adults, and later as a master storyteller of children’s tales.