REVIEW by Liz Jones

NWR Issue r10

Roald Dahl: Wales of the Unexpected

by Damian Walford Davies (ed)

Roald Dahl is one of those rare writers whose name and work is instantly recognisable; his oeuvre (and his children’s fiction in particular) has sold over two-hundred million copies, has been translated into thirty-seven languages and adapted into twelve major films. Although of Danish parentage, Dahl cultivated a persona of the English upper-middle class country gentleman, one which hides various aspects of the man himself, not least the first nine years of his life which were spent in the then-rural villages of Radyr, then Llandaf, on the outskirts of Cardiff.

Perhaps it is the author’s apparent unwillingness to claim his Welsh identity that explains why Cardiff (and Wales) has apparently been slow to ‘find’ its own Dahl. In the few instances when the author overtly acknowledges his Welsh upbringing (most notably in the author’s fictionalised memoir, Boy), Wales does not get a good press. (In Boy, Dahl recalls his brutal caning at his Llandaf prep school for his part in the self-mythologised ‘Great Mouse Plot’.)

Under this weight of Dahl’s looming anglocentric identity, any attempt to read the author ‘through a Welsh lens’ seems fraught with complexities at best, and at worst, runs the risk of being narrowly reductive in its readings. Yet this eclectic collection of essays does not seek to find an ‘essentialist’ Welsh Dahl or promote a narrow cultural nationalism. Instead, it presents us with a sparkling variety of inventive and productive approaches – (inter)textual, psychoanalytical, psychogeographical – all of which seek to tease out the slippery, palimpsestuous nature of Dahl’s relationship with Wales. This ‘task of defamiliarising Dahl’ though an exploration of ‘Wales in his imagination’ is carried out with a playful aplomb and a breezy knowingness that wears its scholarly research lightly.

The archival research undertaken by Carrie Smith at the Dahl Centre in Great Missenden makes visible a far more marked and affectionate relationship between Dahl and his country of birth than the breezy dismissiveness of Boy would suggest. Among Smith’s discoveries is a nostalgic account for the Western Mail where Dahl, declaring his ‘strong feeling for Wales,’ writes fondly of a boyhood filled with ‘haymaking, hay wagons and horses’. More revealing still, in terms of formative influences on the author’s work, is Dahl’s account of his close relationship with the family’s gardener, Jones. In an original piece which Dahl contributed to When We Were Young (a fundraising anthology for the NSPCC) ‘Joss Spivvis’, as Dahl calls him, regales him with vivid accounts of his boyhood in the Rhondda Valley, including his terrifying first day at work in a coalmine, at the age of eleven.

The influence of Joss Spivvis on Dahl’s books is explored further by Tomos Owen in his creative, yet plausible, reading of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as Welsh industrial novel. Here, the lift that whisked the young Joss at terrifying speed into what felt like the earth’s hot centre, reappears as Willy Wonka’s iconic Great Glass Elevator (also to reappear in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator), which ‘suddenly, as though it had come to the top of the hill and gone over a precipice… dropped like a stone and Charlie felt his tummy coming right up into his throat.’

Siwan M Rosser’s study of Welsh translations of Dahl examines the author’s ‘return journey’ to Wales via a language which he would only have come into contact with through place names (including that of his second family home of Tŷ Mynydd). In this fascinating examination of the boundary between marginal and dominant languages, Rosser argues that while Welsh translations of English children’s books can be problematised as a threat to the language, they can also serve to refresh Welsh-language literature through introducing new (and in Dahl’s case) subversive elements.

In the last essay of this collection, Peter Finch attempts to follow the ghost of Dahl around Cardiff as a starting point for a psychogeographical exploration of the post-devolution capital. Stopping to pause at the Norwegian Church where Dahl was Christened – now a distinctive white landmark on the edge of Cardiff Bay – Finch muses on the historic, commercially-driven connections between Cardiff and Norway; the force which pulled Dahl’s father, Harald, to this city; a place where he, and his ship supplies company, was to thrive.

As with the Norwegian Church, much of this collection succeeds in making visible some previously hidden, deep and interconnected layers of meaning. Its impressive scope leaves us wanting more and also wondering why (yet at the same time, knowing the answer) it has taken so long for Wales to embrace the ‘Welsh’ Roald Dahl.

Finch’s Dahl quest finally leads him to the author’s Llandaf birthplace of Villa Marie (which today, in line with the increased social and cultural capital of Welsh, is renamed Tŷ Gwyn). The house has no outward marker of its literary significance; there is no ‘memorial no mark, no resonance’. If this was America, says Finch, ‘We’d have… marvelled at the Dahl exhibits, engaged with the multimedia display… and would be eating Dahl burgers in the extensive giftshop.’ But in the land of the hidden, Dahl’s birthplace sits quiet and anonymous, there only for those who want to see it.

Liz Jones lectures at Aberystwyth University’s department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies. She is working on a memoir.


previous review: Ben and the Spider Prince
next review: RS Thomas: Too Brave to Dream, Encounters with Modern Art


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