12 September 2016

Roald Dahl: the Welsh connections

A whole year of Dahl-related revelry peaks with City of the Unexpected, a stunning event that takes over Cardiff on September 17 and 18. But how Welsh was Roald Dahl? How much influence did Wales actually have on a man who spent only nine years of a hugely eventful life here? Charles Williams made a documentary about him and discovered several surprising twists in the tale.

There’s been a major outbreak of Roald Dahl fever in Wales. We’re “bringing Dahl home”, and all that. But I couldn’t help wondering: is it a bit of a stretch to claim Dahl as one of our own? If a dog’s born in a stable, that doesn’t make it a horse, right?

And that’s roughly the premise of a documentary I made for BBC Radio Wales called Deconstructing Dahl. As it turns out, Wales’s influence on Dahl is a lot more complex and intriguing than you’d imagine. So here’s what I learnt:

Roald Dahl was born in Cardiff

To be precise, in a house called Villa Marie in Llandaff. Harald, Roald’s father, came to Wales in 1900, when Cardiff was the biggest coal-exporting port in the world, to set up a ship-broking business. And business was booming, so they soon moved to a large country estate called Ty Mynydd in Radyr, a rural, Welsh-speaking village in Dahl’s day. After Harald’s death, the family moved to a smaller house in Llandaff called Cumberland Lodge. (And by odd coincidence, Dahl’s second wife, Liccy, was born in Llandaff, too.)

His parents are still here, kind of

Harald died in 1920, and lies in the churchyard in the Cardiff suburb of Danescourt. He’s buried in a lead-lined coffin, in case the family ever decided to move back to Norway. They never did. When Harald’s wife Sofie died in 1967, her ashes were scattered at the same grave.

He went to Llandaff Cathedral School

During his time there, Dahl instigated The Great Mouse Plot, which he describes in his autobiography, Boy. Dahl and his friends popped a dead mouse into a gobstopper jar at the local sweet shop. They were caught and savagely caned, which led to Dahl’s mother sending him off to school in Weston-super-Mare. He always slept facing Wales, where his family were.

He holidayed in Tenby

St Catherine's Island, Pembrokeshire

St Catherine's Island, Pembrokeshire

 by Paula J James

“We adored Tenby,” wrote Dahl. “We had donkey rides on the beach and long walks with the dogs along the top of the cliffs opposite Caldey Island, and there were primroses everywhere. An Easter holidays is hardly an Easter holidays without Tenby.” The Dahl family still own a house on the harbour  (which, by the way, they run as a holiday let, so you can stay there too ).

Dylan Thomas was his favourite poet

As one of his Desert Island Discs he chose Dylan Thomas reading Fern Hill, calling him “… the greatest voice that has ever been in broadcasting, and the greatest poet of our time.” Dahl’s own writing shed was a copy of the Dylan Thomas original in Laugharne. He also included lines of Dylan’s poem In Country Sleep in his children’s book Matilda, and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night was read at Dahl’s funeral.

Dylan Thomas's writing shed Laugharne

Dylan Thomas' writing shed

And he loved Joss Spivvis

That was Dahl’s nickname for Jones, a former Rhondda miner who tended the garden at Cumberland Lodge. Joss Spivvis became a surrogate father after Dahl’s own father died. Joss told Dahl vivid tales of a boyhood in the mines, which later influenced his children’s fiction. Did Joss’s description of the pit cage become the Great Glass Elevator? Almost certainly. Did the industrial landscape of South Wales inspire the Chocolate Factory? Very probably. Are the Oompa Loompas fictionalised versions of Welsh miners, singing as they went to and from work? Hmm… possibly.

He was a Bluebird

Every Saturday, Joss Spivvis took the young Dahl to see Cardiff City play at Ninian Park. They stopped at a whelk stall on the way, where Joss had jellied eels, and Dahl a plate of sausage-and-beans, for sixpence each. Dahl became a passionate fan, and at a very good time to be a Bluebird: the team went on to win the FA Cup in 1927.

The thing is, when you look straight at Dahl, trying to find the Welshness – like his character Henry Sugar, staring intently into the flame of a candle – you can’t see it. But then, in the corner of your eye, just on the edges of your peripheral vision, there it is.

Yes, it’s in the physical places: Llandaff, Radyr, the Norwegian Church where he was christened, and in Roald Dahl Plass, the vast public space in front of the Wales Millennium Centre that’s been renamed in his honour. But more significantly, it’s in Joss Spivvis and the Rhondda, and on the terraces of Cardiff City. It’s in all the young heroes and heroines of his children’s books, yearning for the lost paradise of their early childhoods. That’s Wales, that is.

So if I started out a little sceptical about the Welsh connection, and our right to claim Roald Dahl as one of our own, I’ve been converted. We’ve every right to embrace him, even if our claims are a little, well, unexpected.

Deconstructing Dahl is broadcast on BBC Radio Wales on September 14 at 6.30pm, and is available on the iPlayer http://www.bbc.co.uk/radiowales