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!

All Hallows Week: The Ghosts of Wartimes Past

creepy halloweenThe pumpkin sits, uncarved, on the front steps, and the massive bowl of Halloween candy sits undisturbed near the door–so, surely, it’s too early in the season to invoke Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.

But here I go–because it’s never wrong to call on  Dickens (!), and because Europe is a haunted continent.  At Halloween, on Christmas, or any given day, its history is rich and messy, and its ghosts,  like Jacob Marley, won’t be silenced.  In our experience, these specters whisper at you from around each corner.

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In a nearby town  there is an odd sign designating a speed limit for tanks.  I occasionally pass this, and I always laugh and cringe at the same time.   I assume it is a remnant of  Cold War times, although this is just a guess. Maybe troop movements around here are frequent enough that this is still warranted?  Either way, I find the sign both amusing and jarring.  Do I need to be worried about tanks rolling through the city center?  Probably not, but it does make me think of the citizens of Ukraine, where the everyday reality is more raw; and it also conjures a not so distant past in this historically complicated country.

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In Metz, France–the city that brought us a war hero in the unlikely guise of the baker Harelle (see post “The Bread is Mightier than the Sword”)–you can’t help but see the ghosts of the past on each block, beginning with the chapel  of the Knights Templar (to the right)DSC_0775 and running up through the Second World War and the present day streets honoring the likes of Winston Churchill.

I’m always stunned by my ability in Europe to walk a city block in space  and feel that I’ve walked a thousand years through time and history.   William Faulkner may have had the American South in mind when he wrote, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past,” but his words seem to reverberate off the stone streets of Europe.  We tread on hallowed ground and haunted ground–and I couldn’t tell you were the one starts and the other stops.   Especially regarding the somber ghosts of the Second World War.

I find myself pulling against visiting the concentration camps, at the same time that my conscience keeps telling me that this is something I need to do.  I can’t imagine setting foot on those grounds and not feeling physically ill,  possessed of the anguish of the souls who were tortured there. But those anguished souls need us to remember, don’t they?  We owe it to them.   I can tell you, my own Marley-esque specters are visiting me on this one.

Not all ghosts are war-torn and tortured souls, however.   Our historical imps deserve to be noticed too.

So, as a sidenote on Dickens and his ghosts, here’s a travel tip for London:  The George Inn in Southwick.  It sits on the south bank of the Thames, is an old (400 years old, give or take) pub that’s been in business all these long years.

The George Inn, Southwark London
The George Inn, Southwark London

We stumbled on this pub in 2010.  Although we didn’t stumble, really–I dragged my family out of their way to have lunch here, and it was a very good call.

Why make a grand effort to eat at this pub in a city full of pubs?  Partly because of its general history–in business since the 1600’s; still boasting a gallery of balconies where plays and concerts used to take place, it is reported to be the last remaining galleried inn in London; and (here’s the kicker) an old favorite of Charles Dickens.  The food here was great; I had a grilled goat cheese salad that I remember 4 years later! Granted, our waitress was less “waitress” and more “table wench” in attitude–but, if nothing else, it added a Dickensian touch to the meal.  And our inquiries about the history of the inn and its famous patrons lead to a journey behind the bar, where there is a framed document bearing Charles Dickens’s signature.  If my rusty memory serves, it was a copy of his Last Will that he gave to the Inn owner (knowing it would have some value), in lieu of actually paying his bar tab.

In the style of a worthy “old haunt,” this speaks of both mischief and misfortune.  Our Charles Dickens was both debtor and darling, making him the perfect drinking buddy for anyone who might find themselves at the bar here and lifting a glass to old Charlie’s Last Will.  Talented as he was, his life wasn’t perfect.  Nor was it infinite:  so raise a pint and lean in toward the framed document, and I’ll wager that you’ll hear him whispering, “Cheers and carpe diem!”

(Lore has it that Shakespeare may also have been a customer–his Globe theater was close by–but the veracity of this is lost to the haze of time gone by.)

Some ghosts loom large (the scars of a world war);  some ghosts are more personal (unpaid debts).  But in this season of hauntings, it’s best to give them all their due.

Happy Halloween!

Boo!