On this day in history….23rd November 1990

On this day in history : 23rd November 1990 – The death of much-loved children’’s author Roald Dahl…. But did you know he was also an ace fighter pilot, spy, medical inventor and chocolate historian?

Roald Dahl in 1954 – Public domain

Roald was born on the 13th of September 1916 to Norwegian parents living in Llandoff, Wales…. He was named after Roald Amundson, the Norwegian adventurer and explorer who was the first man to reach the South Pole…. Norwegian was Roald’s first language, as this is what the family spoke at home….

When he was three years old his seven year old sister died from appendicitis – and then just a few weeks after his father succumbed to pneumonia…. Soon after his mother gave birth to another little sister…. His father had always believed that English schools were the best in the world and had wanted his children to be educated in them…. With this in mind his mother chose not to return to Norway but to remain in Wales so she could honour his wish…. Roald first attended Cathedral School in Llandoff before being sent to St. Peter’s Boarding School in Weston-Super-Mare…. He was desperately homesick and wrote to his mother every week – but never let on how unhappy he was…. Then in 1929, at the age of thirteen, he was sent even further away, to Repton School in Derbyshire…. He was even more miserable here; corporal punishment was frequently used – Roald detested the cruelty and found it hard to accept that beating children was permissible….

Repton School – Image credit : J. Thomas CC BY-SA 2.0

Roald’s talent for writing was not recognised during his schooling…. He was seen as an accomplished sportsman though; he was captain of the school’s squash team and was good at cricket, golf and football…. He grew tall, ending up at a height of 6ft 6in….

He had other varied interests; he was keen on photography – and he discovered a love of chocolate…. The Cadbury’s factory was near to the school and occasionally boxes of new chocolates would arrive for the boys to try out…. Roald would daydream about making up a chocolate bar of his own to wow Cadbury’s…. It was his passion for the confection that inspired his third children’s book in 1964 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…. He would often refer to chocolate in his stories….

Fair use

Roald left school in 1934 and started to work for the Shell Petroleum company, being posted to Kenya and Tanzania…. In August 1939, with World War Two approaching, he was still in Tanzania and was draughted as a lieutenant into the King’s African Rifles…. Then in the November of 1939 he joined the RAF to become a pilot…. After completing his training he was assigned to No.80 Squadron, flying the RAF’s last fighter bi-planes, Gloster Gladiators…. It was whilst flying one of these that on the 19th of September 1940 he was forced to make an emergency landing in the desert…. The aircraft crashed – Roald suffered a fractured skull and lost his vision…. He was rescued and taken to a Royal Naval hospital where he eventually regained his sight – and in February 1941 he was declared fit enough to fly again….

Gloster Gladiator – Public domain

To rejoin his squadron Roald had to travel to Eleusina near to Athens – where they had been transferred to join the Greek Campaign…. This time he was to fly Hawker Hurricane aircraft and on the 15th of April 1941 he was to take part in his first aerial combat and in which he was to shoot down is first plane…. The following day he shot down another…. On the 20th of April he took part in the Battle of Athens….

Hawker Hurricane – Image credit : Arpingstone – own work – Public domain

By May the Germans were advancing and the squadron was evacuated to Egypt…. For over a month Roald was to fly sorties every day but during the second half of June he began to suffer severe headaches causing him to blackout…. He was invalided out of the squadron, returned to Britain and posted to an RAF training base at Uxbridge – with the idea of him becoming an instructor once his health had sufficiently recovered…. It was whilst on a trip to London in the late March of 1942 that he was to meet Major Harold Balfour, Under-Secretary of State for Air…. Balfour was so impressed by Roald that he appointed him assistant air attaché to the British Embassy in Washington DC….

While in the States Roald was to meet the writer C.S.Forester, who had been commissioned by the Saturday Evening Post to write a piece on Roald’s flying experiences…. He asked Roald to jot something down that he could work with…. However, when he received the account he was so impressed that Roald’s story was published exactly as he had written it – this was to be Roald’s first ever published work….

Roald was beginning to move within different circles…. He was to meet and work with British army officer Ian Fleming – author of the James Bond stories…. And he was then introduced to the world of espionage – and to Canadian spymaster William Stephenson, code name Intrepid….. It was Roald’s task to supply intelligence from Washington back to Prime Minister Winston Churchill and to MI6…. By now he had been promoted to Wing Commander and before long he had become Squadron Leader…. But in August 1946 his ongoing injuries from his aircraft crash meant him being invalided out of the RAF – as a flying ace having more than five victories to his name….

On the 2nd of July 1953 Roald married American actress Patricia Neal and they were to have four daughters and one son…. In December 1960 four month old Theo’s pram was struck by a New York taxi cab, leaving him with serious injuries…. Little Theo suffered with Hydrocephalus – an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in his brain…. Roald worked with neurosurgeon Kenneth Till from Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital and hydraulic engineer Stanley Wade to develop a valve – the Wade-Dahl-Till Valve – which was used with a shunt to alleviate the condition…. The valve went on to be used to help nearly 3,000 children all around the world….

Patricia Neal and Roald Dahl – Public domain

In November 1962 Roald’s eldest daughter, Olivia, died from measles at the age of seven…. He was beside himself with grief and guilt at not being able to help her…. (His 1982 book, The BFG, is dedicated to her)…. Roald became a promoter of immunisation…. Then in 1965 his wife suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms whilst pregnant with their fifth child…. Roald had to help her learn how to walk and talk again – eventually she recovered enough to be able to return to her acting career…. A film was made about their story in 1981 The Patricia Neal Story – starring Glenda Jackson and Dirk Bogarde….

In 1972 Roald began an affair with Felicity d’Abreu Crosland – who he later married after he and Patricia divorced in 1983…. With his new wife he lived at Gypsy House, a home he had owned since 1954 in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire…. His first children’s book, The Gremlins, had been published in 1943 – and he went on to write some of the best loved children’s stories of all time: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, Fantastic Mr Fox, Matilda, The Witches, The Twits, Danny Champion of the World and George’s Marvellous Medicine…. He also wrote stories for adults, which were often macabre – and many were adapted for TV and film, such as Tales of the Unexpected and Alfred Hitchcock Presents…. He wrote screenplays and for television…. Roald was a prolific writer – but then with his own life experiences he would never have been short of something to write about…. He has been named one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945 and it is estimated over 250 million of his books have been sold; he has been published in some 60 different languages….

Roald book signing in Amsterdam – Image credit : Bob Bogaerts / Anefo CCO

On the 23rd of November 1990, at the age of 74, Roald died from a rare cancer of the blood…. He was buried at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire – along with his snooker cues, a good bottle of Burgundy, some chocolates, HB pencils – and a power saw!

Image credit : MilborneOne – own work – CC BY-SA 3.0

On this day in history….19th October 1745

On this day in history : 19th October 1745 – The death of Anglo-Irish author, poet and satirist Jonathan Swift – most famous for his masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels….

Johnathan Swift – portrait by Charles Jervas – Public domain

Swift’s English father had settled in Ireland and married the daughter of an English clergyman…. Then in 1667 he died leaving his pregnant wife and young daughter to be cared for by his in-laws…. Swift was born and the fatherless family was supported by his mother’s brothers – who treated him well and at the age of six he was sent to Kilkenny, the best school in Ireland…. Then he went to Trinity College in Dublin, graduating in February 1686 with a Bachelor of Arts degree….

Swift’s birthplace – 1865 illustration by T.Morton – Houghton Library – Public domain

Returning to England to escape the unrest in Ireland Swift joined the household of his mother’s distant relative Sir William Temple, of Moor Park, near to Farnham in Surrey…. He remained here until Temple’s death in 1699 and it was where his writing career began…. He did return to Ireland a couple of times during this period – and on one such occasion took orders at the Anglican Church, ordaining as a priest in January 1695….. He was to become Vicar of Kilroy, near to Belfast….

After Temple’s death he returned to Dublin for a longer period…. By now he was becoming recognised in London, for his satirical wit as a writer…. His popularity grew, especially for his religious and political essays, such as A Tale of Tub…. Swift became a writer of political pamphlets, first for the Whigs and then the Tories…. But when King George I came to the Throne in 1714 the Tories were ruined…. Swift’s career in England was over….he retreated to Ireland and turned to poetry….

However, his greatest work, Gulliver’s Travels, was yet to come, being published in 1726…. It was originally entitled Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World and was written under the pseudonym of ‘Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships’…. The prose satire was an immediate success – and was to go on to become one of our classics of English literature…. It is often thought of as being a children’s book but is actually a sophisticated satire of human nature and was based on Swift’s own life experiences….

First edition of Gulliver’s Travels – Public domain

Swift died on the 19th of October 1745 – and was buried in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin – where he had served as Dean from 1713-1745….

Swift at the Deanery, St. Patrick’s – illustration from 1905 Temple Scott edition of ‘Works’ – Public domain

On this day in history….3rd October 1916

On this day in history : 3rd October 1916 – The birth of James Alfred Wight – better known by his pen-name James Herriot and the author of the much loved All Creatures Great and Small….

James Alfred ‘Alf’ Wight – James Herriot – Fair use

James ‘Alf’ Wight was born in Sunderland and while he was still a young child the family moved to Glasgow…. After graduating Glasgow Veterinary College at the age of 23 he briefly worked at a practice in Sunderland before moving to a rural practice in the town of Thirsk, Yorkshire….

In 1941 James married Joan Danbury and they were to have two children, Jim and Rosie…. He joined the Royal Airforce in 1942 but was discharged after being declared unfit to fly following a surgical operation…. He and Joan then lived with her parents for a while before returning to Thirsk in 1946….

The original practice at 23 Kirkgate, Thirsk – Image credit : Peter K Burian – own work – CC BY-SA 4.0

James had always had a desire to write but his busy schedule as a veterinary surgeon meant there was never enough time…. It was his wife who managed to persuade him, once he had turned 50, to put pen to paper…. He wrote several stories which were rejected by publishers – and then he wrote All Creatures Great and Small…. It was followed by If Only They Could Talk, which was published in 1970…. Sales were slow – but then both books were published as one volume in the United States, under the title All Creatures Great and Small and became a massive success on both sides of the Atlantic…. A sequel of books followed, as did two films – All Creatures Great and Small in 1975 and It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet in 1976…. And then came the hugely popular television series….

The BBC series All Creatures Great and Small ran from 1978 – 1980 and then again a sequel 1988 – 1990…. In all a total of 90 episodes were made – with the characters played by Christopher Timothy (as James), Robert Hardy, Peter Davison, Mary Hignett, Carol Drinkwater and later Lynda Bellingham….

The cast of All Creatures Great and Small (TV series) – Fair use

In 1977 James and his family moved to the small village of Thirlby, about four miles from Thirsk…. Such was the popularity of All Creatures Great and Small – and with so many fans now visiting Thirsk – a move was required to gain a little more privacy….

James was awarded with an OBE in 1979….and in 1989 he retired from veterinary work, passing his practice on to his son Jim, who had also qualified as a vet…. His daughter, Rosie, became a GP doctor….

In 1991 James was diagnosed with prostate cancer…. He died on the 23rd of February 1995….

On this day in history….5th September 1969

On this day in history : 5th September 1969 – The death of Scottish naturalist and writer Gavin Maxwell, author of Ring of Bright Water….the story of the otter he brought back from Iraq and raised in Scotland….

Gavin Maxwell c.1950 – Fair use

Maxwell was born into Scottish aristocracy – at The House of Elrig, near Port William, South Western Scotland…. He was the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Aymer Maxwell and Lady Mary Percy…. His maternal grandfather was the 7th Duke of Northumberland and his paternal grandfather was Sir Herbert Maxwell, 7th Baronet and a natural historian, archaeologist and politician….

The ‘House of Elrig’ – Photo credit : Les Dunford CC BY-SA 2.0

Maxwell had a public school education and from an early age had an interest in natural history…. Giving in to pressure from his family he attended Hertford College, Oxford, where he obtained a degree in estate management….

During World War 2 Maxwell was an instructor with the secret organisation ‘Special Operations Executive’ – he was invalided out in 1944 having reached the rank of Major…. After the War be bought the Isle of Soay, off of Skye and began to pursue his real passion in life, natural history….

In 1956 Maxwell travelled to Iraq, where he was to explore the reed marshes of Southern Iraq with explorer Wilfred Thesiger…. Maxwell had always had a desire to have an otter as a pet and whilst in Iraq he managed to obtain one…. However, sadly it was to die shortly after; Maxwell was devastated…. It was as he was preparing to return to England that Thesiger managed to find another one for him – a smooth coated otter, very dark in colour and about 6 weeks old…. Maxwell named him Mijbil and returned home to Scotland with him….

Maxwell and Mij settled into a new home, ‘Sandaig’, in the Glenreig Community, a remote part of mainland Scotland…. The property had originally been a small holding for the lighthouse keeper of the Sandraig Lighthouse…. It was here at Sandraig that Maxwell raised Mij – although in his books he calls his home ‘Camusfearna’ – ‘the bay of alders’….

Mij seemed different to other otters and when Maxwell presented him to the London Zoological Society they confirmed that he was a previously unknown sub-species…. And so he was named Lutrogale perspicillatra maxwell – ‘Maxwell’s otter’…. Although Maxwell was to keep several other otters Mij became the focus of his life…. The title for his book ‘Ring of Bright Water’, which was first published in 1960, came from a poem by Kathleen Raine…. In 1969 a film of the same name, based loosely on Maxwell’s book, was released starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers….

Cover of first edition – Fair use

The relationship between Maxwell and Raine was complicated…. She was infatuated with him – and was to describe him as ‘the love of her life’…. Only she was to be left frustrated by his homosexuality…. They had a close friendship – but this was to deteriorate through her indirectly causing the death of Mij…. I wont spoil the story if you have not read the book – but it was a sad state of affairs…. The best-seller is both heart warming and a tear jerker…. It is described as a literacy masterpiece but at the same time it has a dark side…. Nowadays we have a different view about keeping wild animals and raising them as pets….

In February 1962 Maxwell married Lavinia Renton but not surprisingly this marriage ended within less than a year – they divorced in 1964…. The house at Sandraig was destroyed by fire in 1968 and Maxwell moved into the lighthouse keepers’ cottages situated on an island between Skye and the mainland…. He was to die of lung cancer the following year….

Statue of Maxwell’s otter at Montreith by Penny Wheatley – Photo credit : Roger Nunn CC BY-SA 2.0

On this day in history….17th August 1945

On this day in history : 17th August 1945 – George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ – the book which tells the story of a group of farm animals who rebel against their human farmer – is first published….

First edition cover – Public domain

Orwell was a democratic socialist and a critic of Stalin…. He claimed the story reflected the events which had led up to the Russian Revolution of 1917…. In his essay ‘Why I Write’ in 1946, he stated that Animal Farm was the first book in which he had attempted to ‘fuse political purposes and artistic purpose into one whole’….

Following his experiences during the Spanish Civil War Orwell had written ‘Homage to Catalonia’ in 1938 – but it did not sell well and he decided fiction was the best way to get his message across…. He saw Stalinism as ‘corruption of original socialist ideals’ – he wanted to expose and condemn Stalin’s methods….

George Orwell – Public domain

Animal Farm was written between November 1943 and February 1944 – at the time when the UK was in a wartime alliance with Russia against Nazi Germany…. The British held Stalin in high esteem and Orwell hated this…. His book was initially rejected by UK and US publishers – but became a success as the relationship with Russia moved towards the Cold War….

The original title had been ‘Animal Farm : A Fairy Story’ but US publishers dropped the second part of the title when they published it in 1946….