“November is, of course, the month of fireworks and Guy Fawkes.”
Roald wrote lots of letters home from his boarding schools, St Peter’s School in Weston-Super-Mare, and Repton School in Derbyshire. He used to have to send home one a week, although sometimes he wrote more than that, and his Mama, Sofie Magdalene, kept all of them. He started writing these letters home in 1925, when he was nine years old and carried on writing to his mother until her death in 1965 – so that’s 40 years of letter writing! Now all of these letters are kept in the archive at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre.
Above: inside the Roald Dahl Museum's archive store. © Tilly Burn.
His letters home are like his very first stories, where he’s entertaining his Mama (and sometimes his sisters) with tales from school, and talking about all the fun antics he and his friends got up to.
When writing the November chapter of My Year, Roald used lots of his letters from around November relating to bonfire night. Nearly every year Roald would send home a letter describing the fireworks displays at school, naming his favourite fireworks and the bonfires he and his friends would create. In this letter home he’s thanking his Mama for sending him fireworks, and he writes that the bonfire was so big, that by the next morning it was still raging!
Above: extract from one of Roald Dahl's letters home. © Roald Dahl Story Company.
Roald particularly loved celebrating with lots and lots of fireworks, and he writes about this in My Year saying:
We were allowed to go out on to the football field in the dark… The field was seething with boys from seven to twelve years old, all setting off their own fireworks with their own matches… We had jackie jumpers, Roman candles, crack-bangers, fire-serpents, big bombers, rockets and golden rain.
Setting off fireworks with your hands is an absolutely dangerous thing to do, and Roald also wrote that he’d “never approve” of any child doing it today! However, in Roald’s opinion, a decent childhood was all about taking risks. Of course, it wasn’t the safest idea to leave a lot of boys unsupervised in a field playing with fireworks, and those risks have consequences… Roald ended up burning himself, and he writes in a letter home to his Mama that he had to go to Matron, the school nurse.
In this letter he writes that Matron put “some yellow oil on it [the burn] which made it better.” This just goes to show that fireworks are definitely not be played with, as Matron’s yellow oil remedy doesn’t sound fun at all.
Above: letter Roald Dahl wrote home from school. © Roald Dahl Story Company.
Clearly this experience didn’t put Roald off fireworks, and his childhood love of fireworks never went away. For his 70th birthday he had a fireworks display too, with fireworks spelling out ‘Happy Birthday Roald Dahl, Love from us all’.
So make sure you ‘Remember Remember the Fifth of November’ but stay safe around the fireworks! Unless, that is, you fancy a trip to Matron’s office with her yellow oil…