Mrs Roald Dahl & me
September 13 would have been Roald Dahl’s 96th birthday. To mark the occasion, his widow, Liccy Dahl, tells her grandson, Oscar Perche, about her husband’s life – and why his remarkable legacy must live on
I am greeted at the door, as always, by Pesto, Liccy Dahl’s yapping, over-excited Jack Russell. She orders him to quieten down before welcoming me with a warm hug.
I say ‘as always’ because Liccy is my grandmother and my monthly visits to see her at Gipsy House, the Buckinghamshire home she shared with Roald Dahl, tend to begin the same way.
Mimi – as all her grandchildren, me included, call her – always says that Roald seemed to possess the gift of ‘grabbing a child by the collar with the very first page of his books’.
His books, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The BFG, The Fantastic Mr Fox, have been read by millions. Many have been turned into films. But since his death on 23 November 1990, Liccy has worked hard to ensure that his legacy continues to benefit children in a number of different ways.
On 13 September, Roald Dahl would have been turning 96. But for the past six years, his birthday has been marked and celebrated by Roald Dahl Day. In fact, the celebrations now run through most of September, culminating with Dahlicious Dress Up Day on Friday, 28 September. This sees schoolchildren dress up as their favourite Dahl character to raise funds for Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity.
Remarkably, the idea of celebrating Roald Dahl’s 90th birthday in 2006 was a result of his young fans writing to him. Most of them were unaware that he had passed away, and many enquired about how he and his family intended to celebrate his birthday.
The resulting 90th celebration was meant to be a one-off, but proved so popular that it was declared a yearly event.
‘It just caught on,’ says Liccy. ‘I think the schools love it because it gives them a chance to celebrate a man whose work helps so many teachers throughout the world. Teachers often told Roald that when they had an unruly classroom, they would promise their pupils a reading from one of his books, and they would succeed in getting peace and quiet.’
Liccy tells me this with audible pride in her voice. She is sitting on the chair that Roald Dahl ate his meals from, at the head of a long table overlooking the back garden.
And this very garden will also be open this weekend (on Sunday, 9 September) as part of a special day of celebrations in Great Missenden, where Roald lived and worked for much of his life.
‘Children will be able to run around the garden,’ she tells me, beaming with excitement.
‘There will be all sorts of activities. There will be Wonka’s van – one of the vans used in Tim Burton’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory film, where a storyteller will sit, and Danny’s Caravan, which inspired Danny The Champion Of The World. There will be a theatre group doing small plays, an RAF brass band, stalls selling Gipsy House jam, and teas with delicious cakes, and visitors can picnic in the meadow.
‘We have also moved the interior of Roald Dahl’s hut to the museum so that people from all over the world can see it. When they visit the garden, they will also be able to see the hut itself, which still stands there.’
My grandmother had left the hut in which Roald worked exactly as it was, from his hip bone and the massive foil ball, which he made by squashing together his daily Kit Kat wrappers, on his table, to the leftover cigarette butts in his ashtray.
‘The hut, inspired by a family visit to Dylan Thomas’s hut in Wales, was built with one skin of brick but it leaked and had no damp course and it was in real trouble,’ she explains. ‘It really needed to move.’ This year, the Roald Dahl celebrations are paying particular tribute to The BFG, which is celebrating its own 30th birthday. Everyone will be encouraged to ‘Dream BIG’.
‘Well, the BFG was actually his favourite book. He felt that it was the best book he’d written; it was his classic,’ Liccy reveals.
Many of the celebrations will focus on the lilac-painted Roald Dahl Museum just down the road. There will be storytelling and chocolate making, as well as the usual exhibitions, and the recently moved writing hut.
Quentin Blake, Roald Dahl’s illustrator, and Michael Rosen, one of Roald’s biographers, will also be broadcasting live online from the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre at 2pm on 24 September. They will be talking, drawing and answering questions via Puffin Virtually Live. They will also take you behind the scenes and read out sections of Roald Dahl’s book. You can register at www.puffinvirtuallylive.co.uk
All of the money raised from the Gipsy House garden opening will go to Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity (originally The Roald Dahl Foundation) which was created by Liccy after his death.
‘When Roald died, I realised that he had left an amazing legacy to the world, and all through his life he helped other people with rare and sometimes fatal medical conditions,’ she explains. ‘So I decided to start the Roald Dahl Foundation, with the aim of helping three areas close to his heart: haematology, neurology and literacy.’
Indeed, he lost his daughter, Olivia, to measles, because of neurological complications. His first wife, the late actress Patricia Neal, suffered a stroke and his son, Theo, was hit by a car and suffered brain damage as a baby. And Liccy’s daughter, Lorina, died from a brain tumour 23 years ago.
‘As a family, we were deeply affected by neurological conditions,’ she says.
Indeed, during his lifetime, Roald Dahl would offer help to families with children who had neurological conditions.
‘People knew about the tragedies in the family and they would write to him when they were faced with, say, a head injury. He also used to go and visit children in hospitals who were unconscious and read to them because he very much felt the brain was alive and that by reading familiar stories to them they might regain consciousness. He was always a great comfort to the parents.’
Roald Dahl always did this without looking for any recognition, and Liccy only recently found out that he had once helped out a local family whose daughter suffered from a brain tumour.
‘There was a child in our village who had a brain tumour which, fortunately, was benign. I was walking down to the museum one Sunday morning and she came across the road from the housing estate and said: “You may not know, but when I was small and very ill, your husband gave some money to my parents to help us out because I had to be taken in to Great Ormond Street Hospital – and now here I am working in his museum! It’s wonderful!”’
Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity (now known as Marvellous) supports children with neurological and blood conditions such as acquired brain injury, neuro-degenerative conditions, epilepsy and blood diseases.
‘We have 47 Roald Dahl nurses spread throughout the UK, helping families affected by the conditions that they have to go home with and handle for the rest of their lives. But we do many other things as well,’ says Liccy.
Not only do the families need help to come to terms with their children’s illnesses, but they also need financial help for expensive equipment, such as wheelchairs, and fun days out; the charity raises money for all of this, and to improve children’s facilities.
So not only will children be having fun during these celebrations, the events will also be helping less fortunate children in the process. Roald Dahl would have loved it.
Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity exists to help make seriously ill children’s lives better, providing nurses and carers, equipment, toys and more. For further information, visit: www.roalddahlcharity.org
Daily tip from the lady archive
“PEOPLE cannot help being influenced by their surroundings and their environment; therefore how all important it is that both of these should be healthy and cheery, for health and happiness both go hand-in-hand.”The Lady. The Blessing of Old Health, 18th November 1920