Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

Welcome to the Dahl-house
Business Standard, November 2005
A new museum celebrates the life of Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl apparently despised museums, along with beards, committees and speeches, says his widow Felicity Dahl. But the new Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre seeks to prove him wrong. Full of delightful surprises and unexpected curiosities, much like Dahl’s own books, it’s probably the next best thing to a tour of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The museum is located in the picturesque town of Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, about 40 minutes from central London. Dahl’s own home, where he lived and worked until his death in 1990, is close by.

You can’t miss the museum. Across its façade stretches the fizzing description familiar to Dahl’s fans: “swizzfigglingly flushbunkingly gloriumptious”. Enter, and you will be startled by the looming shadow of a giant, a model of Dahl’s lovable creation the BFG (or Big Friendly Giant). As you walk in, you will see—and smell—two “chocolate doors”, usually surrounded by hordes of drooling children. The aroma of genuine Swiss chocolate wafts from a discreetly concealed atomizer. An innocuous wooden bench turns into a snapping crocodile, and even the toilets are not what they seem, making strange “whizzpop” noises that may alarm the unwary visitor.

So far, so very Dahl. Once inside, you can leaf through Dahl’s formidable “ideas book”, which contained his inspirations, rough drafts, and drawings. Dahl’s imaginative plots and macabre characters were achieved by dint of much hard labour, as the display shows, with each book going through several drafts. Here, for instance, you can see the original drafts of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, “Matilda” and “James and the Giant Peach”, which was originally intended to be a giant cherry. There are also interesting tidbits of information for fans. Sophie, the protagonist of “The BFG” was inspired by his granddaughter, the supermodel Sophie Dahl. But Dahl originally intended his hero to be a boy called Jodie. The name “Willy Wonka” came from a type of boomerang which his elder brother used to make, and which Dahl called a “skilly wonka.” There are rough drafts of Dahl’s arduous attempts to devise the characteristic vocabulary of the BFG: nonsense words such as “whizzpopping”, “frobscottle”, and “glumptious”. In the original version of “Matilda”, the plucky heroine died, but luckily for her fans, Dahl changed his mind.

The museum also contains a replica of Dahl’s musty writing hut, where he sat in a famously grotty old chair. There’s a replica of his “Treasure Desk” which was littered with strange curios. The most gruesome, and naturally the most popular with children, is the top of one of his thigh bones, removed during a hip replacement operation. Another curiosity is a chunky cannon ball of chocolate bar wrappers rolled tightly together, collected by Dahl after years of eating a daily bar of Cadbury’s chocolate.

There’s also much to learn about Dahl the schoolboy, and Dahl the family man. He was unhappy at his posh boarding school Repton, where the children were often beaten and bullied by the teachers and older boys. While he was there, he wrote almost 600 letters to his mother, many of which are displayed in the museum. His experiences of corporal punishment at Repton lead to his lifelong fascination with the triumph of small children over cruel and sadistic adults, a constant theme in his books. The one thing he did enjoy about Repton was the chocolate tasting. A cardboard box was given to every pupil in Dahl’s class. Inside were 12 boxes of Cadbury chocolates with different fillings, and the boys had to comment on each one. Dahl dreamt about becoming an “inventor of chocolate”, and he later used this as fodder for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”.

But there’s more to the museum than Dahl. “This is a truly hands on museum for both adults and children. We also wanted it to be about other writers, not just Roald Dahl,” says Sue Davies, director of the museum. The museum tries to encourage creativity and writing for everyone. The Automatic Grammatiser, for instance, allows children and adults to build random words and phrases into a story, much as Dahl did, which is then projected onto a wall with flashing lights. As Dahl fans will know, one of Dahl’s short stories featured a machine with the same name which could churn out bestselling novels. Children can cut out pictures and put them together to come up with a bizarre face, again a tool Dahl employed when trying to describe a villainous character. There are recordings by famous authors, ranging from J.K Rowling and Philip Pullman to P. D James and Benjamin Zephaniah, on how to write a book. A huge shadow globe allows children to conjure up stories with finger puppets. An ingenious bottle or “dream catcher” allows them to record their dreams, and each child is given their own “Ideas” book to jog their imaginations.

The day I visited, the museum was filled with children from the school Dahl attended as a small boy, the Cathedral School in Llandaff, Cardiff. Dahl is very much a part of their lives, prescribed as part of their curriculum. But many of them say that they also read him for pleasure, because he’s really “scary and cool.” “This museum is interesting because it’s not like the usual museums, with miles of glass cases and things you can’t touch,” said 11-year-old Becky. One child was drawing a picture of a hideous one-eyed villain in his ideas book, and his classmates suggested impishly that it might be their teacher. In the visitor’s guestbook, comments ranged from “grinkledilliously fantastic” to “bumswigglingly superbrilliant”. Dahl would have been very proud.

See www.roalddahlmuseum.org for details on the new museum and how to get there.