In the second part of our series exploring Roald Dahl's local links we look at the author's short stories.
Much of Roald Dahl’s life was spent living and working in the Buckinghamshire countryside, and provided the setting for some of his most beloved children’s stories such as James and the Giant Peach. However, his early experience of rural life in the area during the late 1940s and early 1950s also inspired some of his short stories for adults. Published together in the 1988 collection, Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life, these stories explore comical schemes, devious deceptions and countryside occupations with a gruesome twist.
Upon returning to England in 1946, Roald Dahl settled in the Chiltern countryside, moving around the area with his mother. He first lived in a thatched cottage in Grendon Underwood (pictured above), then moved to Grange Farm just outside Great Missenden and later to Wisteria Cottage in Amersham. As well as starting his fledgling writing career, he began breeding racing greyhounds and enjoyed gambling on races in the local area.
It was during this period that he struck up a friendship with ‘kindred spirit’ Claude Taylor, a butcher’s assistant in Old Amersham who was knowledgeable about poaching and hunting. Their misadventures directly influence the more comical tales in the collection such as The Champion of the World, which would later be retold for children as Danny, the Champion of the World and Mr Feasey, a story about two men called Claud and Gordon, scheming to cheat at the greyhound ‘flapping tracks’ near Oxford. The following extract comes from a letter Roald Dahl sent his mother stressing that Dinah, one of his ex-racing dogs, goes to a good home in her retirement and to consult Claude on an appropriate owner.
Another hobby which Dahl used for inspiration in his early short stories was his love of antique art and furniture. Parson’s Pleasure, first published in 1959 in Kiss Kiss, tells the story of an antiques dealer who poses as a clergyman to get into country farms and houses and tricks the owners into selling him rare furniture for a fraction of their real value. As in many of his countryside tales, Dahl references the real Buckinghamshire towns and villages around him, beginning the story with Mr. Boggis driving through the village of Brill and stopping to sketch the picturesque area.
The countryside was spread out before him like a huge green carpet. It was perfect.
Dahl uses the setting as a contrast to Mr Boggis’ shady intentions as he describes his "restless eye…as though he were trying to sniff out some dark secret from the woods and forests around him". In the first draft of the story, he also describes Boggis imagining buttercups transforming into sovereign coins as he passes, as another indicator of his greed. The most fantastical element (removed from the first draft) was a strange light which appears on his map and starts "to glow in the most mysterious manner" highlighting the Buckinghamshire towns and villages to target next.
In these more light-hearted rural stories, we begin to see the humorous yet dastardly tricks and schemes which would make books such as The Twits and Fantastic Mr Fox so memorable, but also the influence of Dahl’s own interests and experiences on his writing which continued throughout his career.
Read the first part of this series, Roald Dahl's Wonderful Natural World.