The widow of Roald Dahl explains how the author’s legacy is helping sick children, writes Emelia Hamilton-Russell
Roald was fantastic to live with – there was never a dull moment. Every day had to have something special or sparky. He used to ring up friends and say: ‘Cancel what you’re doing tonight. I’ve ordered oysters and it’s about time you learned to shuck them.’ He was a great believer in treats. He used to say ‘life’s tough’, and it was. He was looking after the whole family, writing screenplays to pay for medical expenses, and he never, ever complained.
On the day Roald died, I returned to Gypsy House and went straight to the writing hut. I opened one of the draws in his filing cabinet and pulled out a file at random. In this file was a letter from the American philanthropist Charles Marsh, saying: ‘I want to start a Roald Dahl foundation.’
Roald was a philanthropist all his life, and his philanthropy was eclectic. Parents’ letters would come to him saying: ‘My child is in hospital, can you help?’ He would always write back, of course, but he would alsogo to the hospital and visit the child. If he hadn’t been a writer he would have been a doctor, I’m sure of that.
When you’re very very sick, you have to have the will to survive. And children are incredibly resilient. James and the Giant Peach is a classic example. James’s extraordinary gift in life were his friends. They gave him strength to carry on, just as our nurses around our children give them the strength to survive.
He was always thinking about other people, even though he was in constant pain with his back. He once had this ghastly abscess at the base of his spine. The hospital said: ‘You have to come in and have intravenous antibiotics.’ They put him in a gown and while he was waiting to be hooked up, he looked out of the window and there was a school. So he put on his raincoat and a hat and his shoes and socks, still wearing his hospital gown, and he marched out of the hospital and rang the school doorbell: ‘Is the headmistress in?’
The secretary who answered the door saw this tramp on the doorstep and nearly shut the door in his face. ‘Will you tell her that Roald Dahl’s here,’ he said, very politely of course. The poor lady nearly fell over. She sent for the headmistress and Roald spent the next two hours having a wonderful time with the children before returning to the hospital.
The golden rule is you never give up: if a child, or any of us really, is ill then you must not give up. Roald was like a nurse in that he was always trying to help. And he knew, as all good doctors know, that the most important people in a hospital are the nurses. Surgeons can do all sorts of clever things, but it’s the aftercare that really makes a difference.
‘Marvellous’ [the charity] is about creating a network around a child. As a parent, you need someone who’s going to look after you when you come out of surgery or leave a hospital. That’s when our nurses are there saying: ‘Right, here’s our number, we’ll come and see her tomorrow, and any worries, we’ll be there.’
At the beginning, I had no idea what I was starting. I knew I’d been left a legacy and Roald would want me to do something fantastic with it. And here I am, nearly 80 and still at it. It is a huge responsibility. Ten per cent of all the literary estate earnings go to the two charities, the Roald Dahl museum and Marvellous. And then we fight, fight, fight for donations.
There’s something magical about Roald’s stories, and I hope some of that magic rubs off on the charity. Really, it’s been extraordinary how people have come into our lives at the right moment. It’s him, working up there [she points to the ceiling]. He gives no one any peace.
Emelia Hamilton-Russell is a writer at Spear's