Roald Dahl's letters to his mother show he always had an audience of one

For all that Dahl can be both bullying and brilliant, these letters remind us who the writer was really trying to please.

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Every superhero needs an origin myth. Roald Dahl was no exception. He always claimed that the “bash on the head” he received when he crashed his Gloster Gladiator in the Libyan Desert in September 1940 was the radioactive spider bite that turned him into a writer. The crash was almost ­fatal. As his plane burned, its guns exploded and bullets flew all around him. He was saved by a fellow pilot, Douglas McDonald, who nursed him through the night. He was temporarily blinded and never recovered fully from his injuries.

In terms of his career, however, it was – in his own phrase – a “lucky break”. After a courageous, terrifying stint as a fighter pilot in the hopeless defence of Greece, Dahl was sent to Washington, DC as an air attaché. There he met C S Forester, who wanted to write about the crash. Dahl gave him some notes that were so thrilling that Forester couldn’t improve them. On 1 August 1942, his account was published in the Saturday Evening Post under the headline “Shot down over Libya”. It attracted so much attention that within a year Dahl was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Walt Disney’s tab and partying with Marlene Dietrich (with whom he was “most impressed”), Gary Cooper (“a decent type”), Ginger Rogers (“a very nice girl”) and Paul Robeson (“one of the best-read men I’ve ever met”).

That was only the beginning. The then vice-president of the United States, Henry Wallace, had a pet film project that he wanted him to write, so Dahl moved on from movie stars to the Roosevelts. He had found the golden ticket. A long description of a weekend at the president’s holiday home in Hyde Park, New York, is one of the highlights of this terrific collection. The baths were small, the tap water smelled like rotten eggs and Roosevelt used to try to drive his bed like a car when he was sleepwalking.

Dahl’s descriptions of American high ­society are as brilliantly inappropriate as the flatulent bulldog he took to dinner with members of the Norwegian royal family. It’s as if William Brown had gatecrashed Mr Ambassador’s Ferrero Rocher party. He isn’t interested in character or reflection. His letters are vivid, dark, hilarious snapshots of a series of extinct creatures: pipe-smoking public-school boys; ludicrously entitled colonial oil executives driving big cars while drunk (or “whistled as a coot”); Hollywood socialites whose cutlery, made of gold, is too soft to cut the meat.

Dahl was a ruthless self-mythologiser. Over a series of retellings, he erased McDonald – the man who had saved him – from the story of his plane crash. In Boy, he accuses Geoffrey Fisher, the future archbishop of Canterbury, of giving a boy a savage beating, though he did no such thing.

I turned to these letters expecting rawness and honesty. There are some such letters here. One is to McDonald’s widow, acknowledging his debt and describing the little “dance of joy” that McDonald did when he realised that Dahl was still alive. There are also letters written from the hospital in New York where his son, Theo, at just four months, was fighting for his life after being hit by a car. He writes for help to find a more efficient valve for the child’s drip: in the end, he helped to invent one. The urgent focus on practical details is more telling than any emotional outburst. The same goes for the painful precision of the letter that begins, “It happened like this . . .” – and goes on to detail minute by minute the progress of his wife’s terrible stroke.

But, for the most part, the letters are as evasive and exaggerated as his public utterances, oozing the shiftiness of a young man trying to stop his mother worrying too much about him. After the plane crash, he hides from her the extent of his injuries. When his best friend at Repton is expelled for “immorality”, he goes along with the school’s official line: that the boy had a nervous breakdown and had to be sent home. When the housemaster informs Dahl’s mother that the friend had been interfering sexually with younger pupils, Dahl has to reassure her that he had nothing to do with it. It’s a sequence that gives great insight into changing attitudes to child abuse.

I have always had a problem with Dahl. Largely the problem is envy – that a children’s writer could find such a central place in the national culture, and could make so visceral a connection. In his centenary year, with Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of The BFG around the corner, his star has not faded. But I have always been bothered, too, by the suggestion that he was “childlike”. His books are shot through with heartlessness and snobbery. There’s a lot of shooting at soft targets – fat children and old people.

These letters put him in a different light. Maybe the most important decision you make when you create something, whether it’s a cake or a symphony, is who you are doing it for. It is clear from these letters that Dahl’s first and most loyal audience was his mother. He boasts to make her proud. His devil-may-care stance (“Cheerful news: over 30 per cent of our Habbaniya training course have been killed or are missing . . .”) comes from his desire to reassure a woman who had already lost a child. Sturrock’s anthology reads like a novel, tracking Dahl from Molesworth-like childhood (“Send more conkers”) to agonised parenthood. It forces you to read him like a parent and to remember that Dahl – brilliant, bragging, bullying, wounded – was always somebody’s child. 

Love from Boy: Roald Dahl's Letters to His Mother, edited by Donald Sturrock, is published by John Murray (336pp, £20)

This article appears in the 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers