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IN JULY 1822, The Gentleman’s Magazine of Parliament Street, Westminster, reported a terrible accident. Its correspondent described how a few weeks earlier, in the tiny Norwegian hamlet of Grue, close to the border with Sweden, the local church had burned down. It was Whit Sunday and the building was packed with worshippers. As the young pastor warmed to the themes of his Pentecostal sermon, the aged sexton, tucked away in an unseen corner under the gallery, had felt his eyelids becoming heavy. By his side, in a shallow grate, glowed the fire he used for lighting the church candles. Gently its warmth spread over him and very soon he was fast asleep. Before long, a smell of burning was drifting through the airless building. The congregation stirred, but obediently remained seated as the priest continued to explain why the Holy Spirit had appeared to Christ’s apostles as countless tongues of fire. The smell got stronger. Smoke started to drift into one of the aisles. The sexton meanwhile snoozed on oblivious. By the time he awoke, an entire wall of the ancient church was ablaze. He ran out into the congregation, shouting at the worshippers to save themselves. Suffocating in the thick smoke, they pressed against the church’s sturdy wooden doors in a desperate attempt to escape the flames. But the doors opened inwards and the pressure of the terrified crowd simply forced them ever more tightly shut. Within ten minutes, the entire church, which was constructed almost entirely out of wood and pine tar, became an inferno. That day over one hundred people met, as the magazine described it, “a most melancholy end,” burning to death in what is still the most catastrophic fire in Norwegian history.
Only a few people survived. They did so by following the example of their preacher. For Pastor Iver Hesselberg did not join the rush toward the closed church doors. Instead, he jumped swiftly down from his pulpit and, with great practical purpose, began piling up Bibles under one of the high windows by the altar. Then, after scrambling up them to the relative security of the window ledge, he hurled himself through the leaded glass and out of the burning edifice to safety. Some might have called his actions selfish, but all over Europe newspapers praised the cool logic of the enterprising priest, who thought his way out of a crisis and did not succumb to the group stampede. Here was a man of his time, they wrote, a thinker: an individual who stood outside his flock. Grateful for his second chance in life, Pastor Hesselberg evolved into a philanthropist and public figure. A contemporary remembered him as “a strict man who preached fine sermons,” a staunch Lutheran who was also a liberal idealist, visiting the poor and teaching them arithmetic, as well as how to read and write. He even founded a parish library.
Hesselberg ended his days as a distinguished theologian and eventually a member of the Norwegian parliament, where he helped to ensure that all public buildings in Norway would in future be built with doors that opened outwards. His son, Hans Theodor, attempted to follow in his footsteps. He trained for the priesthood and married into one of Norway’s most distinguished families. His wife was a descendant of Peter Wessel, a Norwegian naval hero, who had been killed in a duel in 1720. They settled at Vaernes,* a large farm not far from Trondheim, the ancient capital of Norway, whose magnificent Romanesque cathedral, built on the shrine of Norway’s patron saint, St. Olave, almost a millennium ago, evokes a virtually forgotten age when Scandinavia was a key spiritual center of Christian Europe.
*Most of the Vaernes farmlands have now been subsumed into Trondheim Airport, but the actual building Hans Theodor owned is still standing. He is buried nearby in the cemetery of Vaernes Church.
In Vaernes, Hans Theodor raised eleven children, but he lacked his father’s shrewd judgment and talent for hard work. He drank excessively, managed his estates incompetently, and never practiced as a priest. He was also an incorrigible—and unsuccessful—gambler. Bit by bit, he was forced to sell off his lands to pay his gaming debts. One evening he went too far. He staked the village storehouse in a game of cards and lost. Outraged at this disregard for his responsibilities to his flock, the local community forced him to sell what remained of the farm. Hans Theodor moved to Trondheim, where he died a pauper in 1898. But his children went out into the world and prospered—many entering the burgeoning Norwegian middle classes. Two became merchants, one became an apothecary, another a meteorologist. Yet another, Karl Laurits, trained as a scientist, then studied law and eventually went to work in Christiania, now Oslo, as an administrator in the Norwegian Public Service Pension Fund. In 1884 he married Ellen Wallace, and the following year, his first daughter, Sofie Magdalene, was born in Kristiania.* Thirty-one years later, on a crisp autumn day in South Wales, she would give birth to her only son, Roald.
*Confusingly, the capital of Norway has undergone several changes of name. Ancient Norse Oslo was renamed Christiania in 1624 after King Christian IV of Norway rebuilt it following a disastrous fire. In 1878, Christiania was refashioned as Kristiania, and in 1925, the city became Oslo once again.
Roald Dahl himself was not that interested in his ancestry or in historical detail. Though proud of his Norwegian roots, archives and public records were not his domain, and when, in his late sixties, he wrote his own two volumes of memoirs, Boy and Going Solo, he seems to have known nothing of his great-great-grandfather Hesselberg’s extraordinary escape from the church fire or of the streak of reckless gambling and alcohol addiction that had emerged in his descendants. Yet Pastor Hesselberg’s story would almost certainly have fascinated Roald. He would have admired his ancestor’s resourceful ingenuity, as well as his ability to think both laterally and practically in the face of a crisis. These were qualities he admired in others and they were attributes he gave to the heroes and heroines of many of his children’s books. In his own life, too, Dahl would face many moments of crisis and struggle, and seldom were his resources of tenacity or inventiveness found wanting. His psychology and philosophy was always positive. “Get on with it,” was one of his favorite phrases, recommended to family, friends and colleagues alike, and one that he put into practice many times in his life when dealing with adversity—whether that was accident, war, injury, illness, depression or death. Like Pastor Hesselberg, he seldom looked behind him. He infinitely preferred to look forward.
Yet this was only one side of the man. His daughter Ophelia once described her father to me as “a pessimist by nature,” and a depressive streak ran through both sides of his family. Many of his adult stories revealed a jaundiced and sometimes bleak view of human behavior, which drew repeatedly on man’s capacity for cruelty and insensitivity. His children’s writing is sunnier, more positive—though even there, early critics complained of tastelessness and brutality. It was a charge against which he always energetically defended himself, for underneath the exterior of the humorist and entertainer lurked a fierce moralist. But he found it hard because, like many writers, he hated analyzing his own writing. I remember asking him on camera why so many of the central characters in his children’s stories had lost one or both parents. He was taken aback by the question and at first even denied that this was the case. However, when, on reflection, he realized that he had made a mistake, his brain searched swiftly for a way out. He compared himself to Dickens. He had used “a trick,” he said, “to get the reader’s sympathy.” In a rare confession of error, he admitted with a smile that he “had been caught out a bit.” What struck me most profoundly was that he seemed to make no conscious connection between his own life—he had lost his own father when he was three years old—and the worlds he created in his stories. It suggested, I thought, a kind of unexpected innocence and naïveté.
Dahl’s writing career would take many twists and turns over the course of his seventy-four years, and these convolutions were intimately bound up with a complex private life that held many hidden corners, secrets and anxieties. Together they made a powerful cocktail—for Dahl was full of contradictions and paradoxes. He loved the privacy of his writing hut, yet he liked to be in the public eye. He described himself as a family man, living in a modest English village, yet he was married to an Oscar-winning movie star, and kept the company of presidents and politicians, diplomats and spies. He was fascinated by wealth and glamour. He often bragged. He gambled. He had a quick and discerning eye for great art and craftsmanship. He was drawn to the good things in life. Yet he was also a simple man, who preferred the Buckinghamshire countryside to life in the city—a man who grew fruit, vegetables and orchids with obsessive passion, who surrounded himself with animals, who bred and raced greyhounds, and who kept the company of tradesmen and artisans. He was generous, although his kindness was usually quiet and low key. Often only the recipient was aware of it. Roald himself, however, was no shrinking violet. He enjoyed public appearances, and delighted in being controversial. He was a conundrum. An egotistical self-publicist—notoriously brash, even oafish, in the limelight—he could also behave as slyly as the foxes he so admired. If he wanted, he could cover his tracks and go to ground.
As a writer, he was the most unreliable of witnesses—particularly when he spoke or wrote about himself. In Boy, his own evocative and zestful memoir of childhood, he begins by disparaging most autobiography as “full of all sorts of boring details.” His book, he asserts, will be no history, but a series of memorable impressions, simply skimmed off the top of his consciousness and set down on paper. These vignettes of childhood are painted in bold colors and leap vividly off the page. They are infused with detail that is often touching, and always devoid of sentiment. Each adventure or escapade is retold with the intimate spirit of one child telling another a story in the playground. The language is simple and elegant. Humor is to the fore. Self-pity is entirely absent. “Some [incidents] are funny. Some are painful. Some are unpleasant,” he declares of his memories, concluding theatrically: “All are true.” In fact, almost all are, to some extent, fiction. The semblance of veracity is achieved by Dahl’s acute observational eye, which adds authenticity to the most fantastical of tales, and by a remarkable trove of 906 letters he kept at his side as he wrote. These were letters he had written to his mother throughout his life, and which she hoarded carefully, preserving them through the storms of war and countless changes of address.
In these miniature canvases, Dahl began to hone his idiosyncratic talent for interweaving truth and fiction. It would be pedantic to list the inaccuracies in Boy or its successor Going Solo. Most of them are unimportant. A grandfather confused with a great-grandfather, a date exaggerated, a slip in chronology, countless invented details. Boy is a classic, not because it is based on fact but because Dahl had a genius for storytelling. Yet its untruths, omissions and evasions are revealing. Not only do they disclose the author’s need to embellish, they hint as well at the complex hidden roots of his imagination, which lay tangled in a soil composed of lost fathers, uncertain friendships, a need to explore frontiers, an essentially misanthropic view of humanity, and a sense of fantasy that stemmed in large part from the Norwegian blood that ran powerfully through his veins.
Norway was always important to Dahl. Though he would sometimes surprise guests at dinner by maintaining garrulously that all Norwegians were boring, he never lost his profound affection for and bond with his homeland. His mother lived in Great Britain for over fifty years, yet never renounced her Norwegian nationality, even though it sometimes caused her inconvenience—most notably when she had to live as an alien in the United Kingdom during two world wars. Although she usually spoke to her children in English and always wrote to them in her adopted language, she made sure they also learned to speak Norwegian at the same time they were learning English; and every summer she took them to Norway on holiday. Forty years later, Roald would recreate these summer holidays for his own children, reliving memories that he would later immortalize in Boy. “Totally idyllic,” was how he described these vacations. “The mere mention of them used to send shivers of joy rippling all over my skin.” Part of the pleasure was, of course, an escape from the rigors of an English boarding school, but for Roald the delight was also more profound. “We all spoke Norwegian and all our relations lived over there,” he wrote in Boy. “So, in a way, going to Norway every summer was like going home.”
“Home” would always be a complex idea for him. His heart may have sometimes felt it was in Norway, but the home he dreamed about most of the time was an English one. During the Second World War, when he was in Africa and the Middle East as a pilot and in Washington as a diplomat, it was not Norway he craved for, nor the valleys of Wales he had loved as a child, but the fields of rural England. There, deep in the heart of the Buckinghamshire countryside, he, his mother and his three sisters would later construct for themselves a kind of rural enclave: the “Valley of the Dahls,” as Roald’s daughter Tessa once described it. Purchasing homes no more than a few miles away from each other, the family lived, according to one of Roald’s nieces, “unintegrated . . . and largely without proper English friends.” For though Dahl was proud to be British and though he craved recognition and acceptance from English society, for most of his life he preferred to live outside its boundaries, making his own rules and his own judgments, not unlike his ancestor, Pastor Hesselberg.
As a result, English people found him odd. His best friend at prep school admitted that he was drawn to Roald because he was “a foreigner.” And he was. Though born in Britain, and a British citizen, in many ways Dahl retained the psychology of an émigré. Later in his life, people forgot that. They interpreted his behavior through the false perspective of an assumed “Englishness,” to which he perhaps aspired, but which was never naturally his. They saw only a veneer and they misunderstood it. In truth, Roald was always an outsider, the child of Norwegian immigrants, whose native land would become for their son an imaginative refuge, a secret world he could always call his own.
As with many children of emigrants, Roald would take on the manners and identity of his adopted home with the zeal of a convert. His sister Alfhild complained that her brother did not “recognize more how strong the Scandinavian is in us as a family.” Ironically, however, the one British ancestor he did publicly acknowledge was the Scots patriot William Wallace. Dahl was immensely proud of the family tree that showed his direct lineage to the rebel leader who, legend has it, also stood over six foot five inches tall. Wallace had defeated the invading English armies at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, but he was to meet a grisly end at their hands eight years later, when he was captured, taken to London, and executed. The brutal details of his death would not have eluded Dahl’s antennae, which were acutely sensitive to human cruelty. Wallace was stripped naked, tied to a horse and dragged to Smithfield, where he was hanged, cut down while still alive, then publicly castrated and disembowelled. His body was hacked into four parts and his head placed as a warning on a spike atop London Bridge, along with those of two of his brothers. The English then tried to exterminate the rest of the Wallace family and they largely succeeded in doing so. A few of them escaped, making a perilous journey by boat across the North Sea to Bergen in Norway, where they settled and began a Norwegian Wallace line that survives to this day. Dahl’s grandmother, Ellen Wallace, was a descendant of those plucky fourteenth-century refugees. She married Karl Laurits Hesselberg, the grandson of the resourceful pastor who had escaped the church fire in Grue.
His father’s side of the family were somewhat different. If the Hesselbergs were grand, middle-class, philanthropic intellectuals, the Dahls were grounded in earth and agriculture. They were ambitious, canny, uneducated and rough—albeit with an eye for craftsmanship and beauty. Roald’s father, Harald Dahl, was born in Sarpsborg, a provincial town some 30 miles from Christiania, whose principal industries in the nineteenth century were timber and brewing. Roald described his paternal grandfather Olaus as a “prosperous merchant who owned a store in Sarpsborg and traded in just about everything from cheese to chicken-wire.” But the records in the parish church in Sarpsborg describe him simply as a “butcher,” while other legal documents refer to him as “pork butcher and sausage maker.” They came, as it were, from the other side of the tracks. Indeed, Roald once admitted to Liccy that his mother’s family, the Hesselbergs, thought themselves “a cut above” the provincial Dahls and rather looked down their noses at them.
Dahl is a common enough name in Norway. There are currently about 12,000 of them in a population of 4.75 million. But until the nineteenth century there were hardly any at all. Olaus Dahl indeed was not born a Dahl. He was christened Olaves Trulsen on May 19, 1834, the son of Truls Pedersen and Kristine Olsdottir. After his own given name, he took his father’s first name and added sen (in English “son of ”) onto the end of it in the traditional Scandinavian manner. In this way surnames changed from generation to generation, as they still do in many Icelandic families. Spelling too was erratic—in records Olaus appears also as Olavus, Olaves and Olav. But at some point in his twenties he took the decision to “Europeanize” himself and acquire a fixed family name. Many others around him were doing the same, including his future wife Ellen Andersen, who changed her name to Langenen. Why Olaus chose Dahl, which means “Valley,” is uncertain, although it seems to have been a popular choice with others who came from the lowlands rather than the mountains.
Olaus’s story is typical of that of many Norwegians in the mid-nineteenth century. He was born into a small farming community, where his parents eked out a miserable existence. There, the short summers were filled with endless chores, while the winter brought only darkness and misery. The fogs swept in from the sea, swathing their primitive homestead and few acres of land in a damp, suffocating cloak of gloom. For much of the year, life was unbearably monotonous. If contemporary accounts are an accurate guide, in one corner of their two candlelit rooms, perched above the snorting animals, his mother would probably be spinning. In another his father was getting drunk. For generations, rural families had lived like this; subsisting, struggling simply to survive, grateful for the land they owned, yet tied to it like slaves. They were illiterate and uneducated. There was little or no scope for self-improvement. They aged prematurely and died young. Olaus would not have been alone in feeling the need to escape from a landscape that drained his energies and sapped his need for change. So, at some point in his late teens, he abandoned the countryside, and went to the expanding industrial town of Sarpsborg, some 20 miles away, where the railway would soon arrive. There he got a job as a trainee butcher and set up home with Ellen, from nearby Varteig. After a few years, he opened his own butcher’s shop.
Early twenty-first-century Sarpsborg is a grim place. Gray and ugly, it is dominated by a sullen 1960s concrete and steel shopping center, which crouches next to the mournful remains of the nineteenth-century town. The outskirts are relentlessly, oppressively industrial. It is a far cry from the ancient splendors of Trondheim, the civilized serenity of Oslo, or the picturesque fjords and fishing villages of the western coast. On a dull Saturday afternoon in November, drunken and overweight supporters of Sparta, the ailing local football team, stagger from bar to bar. The occasional raucous cheer suggests an attempt at rowdiness. But one senses their hearts are not quite in it. Depression stalks the streets. In quiet corners, solitary older inhabitants drink furtively, seeking out the darkest corners of gloomy cafés in which to hide. Others huddle in groups, saying nothing. No trace remains of the butcher’s shop where Olaus plied his trade, or of the house in Droningensgade where he raised his family and where he lived with his servant Annette and his assistant Lars Nilssen. Like so many other older Sarpsborg buildings, they have long since been destroyed.
When Olaus died in 1923 at the age of eighty-nine, Roald was only six. It is not clear that he ever met him, although in Boy he confidently describes his paternal grandfather as “an amiable giant almost seven foot tall.” Some of the other detail he gives about the man is entirely fictitious. For example, he claimed that Olaus was born in 1820, some fourteen years earlier than he actually was. Perhaps he confused him with his great-grandfather Hesselberg, the son of the pastor from Grue, who was indeed born that year. Perhaps not. Yet this lack of concern for detail blinded him to one unexpected anomaly of his own family history. Olaus and his wife Ellen had six children: three sons and three daughters over a period of thirteen years. Harald was born in 1863, Clara in 1865, Ragna in 1868, Oscar in 1870, Olga in 1873, and finally Truls in 1876. Examining the local baptism and marriage records, however, reveals a surprising and perhaps significant detail: Roald’s father was illegitimate. Harald was born in December 1863, but his parents did not actually marry until the following summer. He was christened on June 26, 1864, when he was six months old, and just five days after his parents’ wedding. Whether Harald was aware that he was born a bastard is unclear, but in a small community like Sarpsborg, it was unlikely that fact would have been kept a secret from him for long, and the associated stigma may well have fueled his desire to start a new life elsewhere.
Harald undoubtedly had a hard childhood. In Boy, Roald tells the gruesome story of how, aged fourteen, his father fell off the roof of the family home, where he was repairing loose tiles, and broke his arm. A drunken doctor then misdiagnosed a dislocated shoulder, summoning two men off the street to help him put the shoulder into place. As they forcibly manipulated young Harald’s arm, splinters of bone started to poke through the boy’s skin. Eventually the arm had to be amputated at the elbow. Dahl tells the tale with his usual lack of sentiment, explaining how his father made light of his disability—sharpening a prong of his fork so he could eat one-handed, and learning to do almost everything he wanted, except cutting the top off a hard-boiled egg, with a single hand. It’s a good tale. Suspiciously good. So it is not surprising to discover that Roald confessed to one of his American editors, Stephen Roxburgh at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, that he had invented much of it and that he had particularly enjoyed devising the detail of the sharpened fork. Photographs confirm that his father’s arm was certainly amputated. But it’s also possible that Dahl’s version of the accident hid a more squalid domestic truth and that it was a drunken parent rather than a drunken doctor who was responsible for the amputation. We don’t know if Harald was a fabricator of the truth—his wife certainly was, and she was the one who passed the family legends down to Roald—but he was studious, thoughtful, and had a passion for beautiful things. He had little in common with his father: the obstinate and rough-hewn butcher, who squandered his money betting on local trotting races.
Harald and his brother Oscar must have elected to leave Norway some time in the 1880s. Writing a hundred years later, Roald describes the decision in characteristically simple terms:
My father was a year or so older than his brother Oscar, but they were exceptionally close and soon after they left school they went for a long walk together to plan their future. They decided that a small town like Sarpsborg in a small country like Norway was no place to make a fortune. So what they must do, they agreed, was to go away to one of the big countries, either to England or France, where opportunities to make good would be boundless.
Both went to Paris, but their motivations for leaving were almost certainly more complex than Roald made out. To begin with, the two brothers were nothing like the same age. There was a seven-year gap between them. So, even if Oscar had just left school when he departed for France, Harald would have been a young man in his twenties. The fact that Roald also maintained his grandfather “forbade” his two sons to leave and that the two men were forced to “run away” suggests it took a while for the slow-burning Harald to pluck up the courage and defy him. Two more of Olaus and Ellen’s children also left Norway at this time: Clara went to South Africa and Olga to Denmark. Only Ragna and her youngest brother, Truls, stayed behind. Truls became his father’s apprentice and eventually took over the butcher’s shop, staying with him, one suspects, largely for business reasons.
The two older Dahl brothers left Norway on a boat. It’s quite possible they worked on ships for a considerable period of time before they ended up in Paris, for both of them later went into careers that involved quite detailed knowledge of shipping. What exactly they did when they got to the French capital remains unclear. Family legend has it that they went there to be both artists and entrepreneurs—an improbable combination of skills perhaps, but one that would define Roald, in whose mind there was always a natural link between making art and making money. It was the same with his elder sister Alfhild. Sitting in the garden of her house in the Chiltern Hills, a stone’s throw away from where her brother lived, her weathered features broke into a wrinkly grin as she recalled her father and uncle, seventy years earlier. “They left Norway to become artists, you see,” she told me. “They went to make their fortune. They just assumed they could do it.” It was as if her brother were speaking. The crackly voice, the clipped, matter-of fact delivery, the wry chuckle.
The big picture, too, is similarly vivid and compelling, always uncluttered with qualifications or a surfeit of detail. For Alfhild, Harald and Oscar were typical Nordic bohemians, who came to Paris for its glamour, its freedom, and its artistic energy. Fictionalized versions of these Scandinavian visitors appear in literature of that period—Oswald in Ibsen’s Ghosts, for example, or Louise Strandberg in Victoria Benedictsson’s play The Enchantment. They left the stern world of the North for a “great, free glorious life” among the boulevards and cafés, where geniuses mixed cheek-by-jowl with the indigent, where anarchists plotted social revolution, and where painting was in a ferment of change that had not been seen in one place since Renaissance Florence.
Fading sepia photographs give us a glimpse of the lost world they lived in: days at the races, fancy-dress parties, lunches on summer lawns in Compiègne and Neuilly. And then they painted. It was the golden age of Norwegian painting, and in Paris Harald would almost certainly have mixed with the leading Scandinavian painters of the day, including Edvard Munch and Frits Thaulow. Not that Harald was a modernist. He was a craftsman, who carved mirrors, picture frames and mantelpieces, and painted rural scenes. A few examples of his work survive—subtle, well-crafted landscapes in the Scandinavian naturalistic style. At Gipsy House, one of them, an impressionistic pastel in green, blue and brown, still hangs by Liccy Dahl’s bedside. It is reminiscent of the dismal rural setting from which Harald’s father had fled. A clump of straggly spruces tremble by the side of a placid lake, like a skeletal family tentatively approaching the chilly waters. No sunlight illuminates the scene, nor is there any sense of human habitation. In the foreground, reeds are tugged by a gust of wind. In the background, the bare mountains rise up into the haze toward the distant sky.
The visual arts were an important and little understood aspect of Roald Dahl’s life and formed a continuous counterpoise to his literary activities. All his life he bought and sold paintings, furniture and jewelry—sometimes to supplement his literary earnings. He even opened an antique shop. That connection between business and art, which came as naturally to him as breathing, would puzzle and irritate many of Dahl’s English literary contemporaries, who resented his skill at making money and disliked the pride he took in his own financial successes. It frequently caused misunderstandings. The British novelist Kingsley Amis was typical. In his memoirs, he described his only meeting with Dahl. It was at a party given by Tom Stoppard in the early 1970s. There, Roald apparently suggested to Amis that, if he was suffering from “financial problems,” he should consider writing a children’s book, and went on to describe how he might go about doing so. Amis, who had no interest in children’s fiction, felt he was being patronized by Dahl’s suggestion that his own writing was not bringing him enough money. Dahl, for his part, was in precisely the kind of English literary environment he loathed. He knew that Amis, like most of the guests, did not respect children’s writing as proper literature and this attitude made him feel vulnerable. Drunk and ill at ease, he probably felt that the only way to keep his head up with Amis was to talk money. The clash of attitudes was bitter and fundamental. Noting that Dahl departed by helicopter, Amis concluded: “I watched the television news that night, but there was no report of a famous children’s author being killed in a helicopter crash.”
The need for financial success was in Roald’s blood. His father and his uncle Oscar had both evolved into shrewd businessmen. When the two brothers eventually separated in Paris, Oscar travelled to La Rochelle, on the west coast of France, with his new wife, Thérèse Billotte, whom he had rescued from a fire in 1897 at the Bazar de la Charité. As with the fire in Grue, this had killed over one hundred people. Billotte was from a family of painters. Her grandfather was the French writer and artist Eugène Fromentin, most famous for his naturalistic depictions of life in North Africa, while her uncle, René Billotte, was a commercial landscape painter, whose murals of exotic scenes still decorate Le Train Bleu, the elaborate gilded dining room of Paris’s main railway station to the South, the Gare de Lyon. In La Rochelle, Oscar started a company of fishing trawlers called Pêcheurs d’Atlantique. His fleet began the practice of canning its catch on board ship, and became so successful that Roald could justifiably boast after the war that his uncle was “the wealthiest man in town.” With the money he made, Oscar indulged himself. He purchased the Hôtel Pascaud, an elegant eighteenth-century town house, and filled it with exquisite objects. Roald would later fondly describe it as “a museum dedicated to beauty.”
Oscar was a complex character. He was an aesthete but, like his father Olaus, also something of a bully. Roald would always have a turbulent relationship with him. During the war Oscar remained in Occupied France, collaborating with the Nazis, while his son fought in the Resistance. One family legend has it that, after the war was over, he was publicly tarred and feathered by a group of bitter locals and that father and son never spoke again. However, what is certain is that this exotic French uncle, with his Viking appearance and fastidious taste, left an indelible impression on his young nephew—if only for his facial hair.
My late uncle Oscar . . . had a massive hairy moustache, and at meals he used to fish out of his pocket an elongated silver scoop with a small handle on it. This was called a moustache-strainer and he used to hold it over his moustache with his left hand as he spooned his soup into his mouth with his right. This did prevent the hair-ends from becoming saturated with lobster bisque . . . but I used to say to myself, “Why doesn’t he just clip the hairs shorter? Or better still, just shave the damn thing off altogether and be done with it?” But then Uncle Oscar was the sort of man who used to remove his false teeth at the end of dinner and rinse them in his finger-bowl.
Harald’s temperament, like his mustache, was less extrovert than his brother’s. And he remained in Paris a little longer. However, some time in the 1890s, when he decided that he was tired of the vie bohémienne, he headed not to La Rochelle but to South Wales, to the coal metropolis of Cardiff, where he had heard that enterprising Norwegians could make their fortune.