Roald Dahl: Writer, Winker, Soldier, Spy

On this day in 1916, the great Roald Dahl was born in Wales. You may know him from his children’s stories. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is probably the most famous, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. His stories are humorous, dark, and scathingly true in their assessment of human nature- in all its kindness and cruelty. Dahl was mischievous, naughty even, and we loved him for it.

But you may not know that this mischievous, naughty man–with a strong sense of who the good guys really are and the ability to cut through the baloney that haughty adults so often peddle– was also a soldier and spy. He flew missions over Africa and Greece with the RAF in WWII. His flying career was cut short, owing to lingering problems from a crash landing in Libya . . . or maybe someone simply realized that his tall and erudite man, with plenty of heart and a strong sense of purpose, had just the right mix of twinkle and trouble to make an effective wartime spy. But a spy of a certain sort.

In 1942, Dahl was assigned to the British Embassy in Washington, DC. He was to apply his charms and intellect to the most important mission at the time– making the pitch for US involvement in the war in Europe.

After the US became involved in the war, Dahl continued his work. He had the strenuous job of wining, dining, and charming both politicians and socialites (whose connections and financial influence often pressured the establishment). Legend has it that Dahl seduced many socialites in service to his country. Don’t take my word for it; read the book The Irregulars: Road Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington.

I think probably kindness is my number one attribute in a human being. I’ll put it before any of the things like courage or bravery or generosity or anything else.

It seems that Dahl was a scoundrel, but a scoundrel with courage, purpose, and a wicked (but never malevolent) sense of mischief. He was one of the good guys, but refused to take himself too seriously. He fought hard, wasn’t opposed to getting his hands dirty, and still believed that kindness was the greatest quality of all. What’s not to love about that?

And so I leave you with a little morsel for your delight- one of Dahl’s last poems, but one that proves he still had a twinkle in his eye and a ribald sense of humor. Enjoy!

A Hand in the Bird
1989

I am a maiden who is forty,
And a maiden I shall stay.
There are some who call me haughty,
But I care not what they say.
I was running the tombola
At our church bazaar today,
And doing it with gusto
In my usual jolly way
When suddenly, I knew not why,
There came a funny feeling
Of something crawling up my thigh!
I nearly hit the ceiling!
A mouse! I thought. How foul! How mean!
How exquisitely tickly!
Quite soon I know I'm going to scream.
I've got to catch it quickly.
I made a grab. I caught the mouse,
Now right inside my knickers.
A mouse my foot! It was a HAND!
Great Scott! It was the vicar's!

11 thoughts on “Roald Dahl: Writer, Winker, Soldier, Spy

  1. He’s a complicated sort of fellow, isn’t he? I can never work out whether I’d have actually like him or not. But he’s brought much joy to my children’s story sessions. Who could forget this particular Little Red Riding Hood: ‘The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers. /She whips a pistol from her knickers’?

    1. LOL- Dahl definitely did right by Little Red!
      You’re right– as much as I’d love to have shared a pint with Dahl, and I expect he would have been witty and engaging, you always wonder about a mind that could conjure such dark characters and present them in a children’s book. The bad guys were awful, and some of the not-necessarily-bad-but-certainly-not-good guys (I’m looking at you Willy Wonka!) were very creepy.

    1. You are welcome! I enjoyed the book The Irregulars, which tells a few tales on Dahl. Learning that he was a spy was a little less surprising than learning that Julia Child began her career in what is now the CIA – now that was unexpected! But still, an interesting turn of careers for Dahl.

  2. I reckon he was a complicated chap, but had a twinkle in his eye that could draw people in. I remember reading ” The Swan ” as a teenager though and being a bit shocked by how dark it felt. He had a talent for writing in a way that keeps you reading, that’s for sure.

  3. Roald Dahl was definitely a complicated man. He devised therapy for his wife (Patricia Neal) after her stroke that allowed her to make a successful recovery and completely changed the way stroke patients were treated, but at the same time, he was cheating on her for a lot of that recovery. And he definitely had some racist views. But I do adore his writing, for adults and children, and he certainly would have been an interesting person to know, if not always a nice one!

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