Roald Dahl’s Daily Routine


John Fountain. McCann Enterprise

Roald Dahl books sell at the rate of twelve a minute.

Every day of the year.

He is perhaps the most imaginative writer of all time. Yet, as a young man he had no recognisable creative ability at all.

As a budding corporate businessman working for Shell and without any particular creative ambition, his life was destined to be dull, academic and insignificant. Then things took a very dramatic change. The Second World War came along.

You may remember that Roald joined the RAF and signed up as a fighter pilot. After just a few hours of action he was forced to crash-land his fighter plane in the desert and seconds later it caught fire. Somehow he managed to release the canopy, tumble out of the wreckage and extinguish his burning overalls by rolling in the sand.

Having survived that ordeal – along came another. Next the crippled aircraft’s machine guns caught alight and started firing live rounds directly around his body. 8 Browning .303 machine guns (4 in each wing) opened up, pounding the sand just inches from his body. The next day, when he was found by an RAF patrol, his overalls were so burnt and his face so disfigured that he was almost unrecognisable as an RAF officer.

At the underground Army Field Ambulance Station in Mersah, he was patched up, sedated, and sent by train to the Anglo-Swiss Hospital in Alexandria where he was treated for burns, severe concussion and spinal trauma.

Initially, his face was so swollen that he could not open his eyes and it was impossible to assess whether the accident had blinded him. The doctors did not know whether he would ever see again. For almost a month he inhabited a hazy world of total darkness, uncertain of time or surroundings. Concussed, blind and isolated from family and friends, he was disoriented and totally alone.

Remarkably, all this isolation and darkness had a positive impact. Something happened inside Dahl’s brain that electrified his imagination. His thinking changed from that of a corporate businessman to a man bristling with thoughts, ideas and weird stories. His brain became supercharged. And from the darkness and the confines of his hospital bed, he went on to develop a completely different way of looking at life.

Like having all his teeth removed.

He reasoned that natural teeth are just too much trouble. All the cleaning, the regular dentistry, the aches and pains, it was all unnecessary. So, one by one, while still in his twenties, he decided to have every tooth pulled out and wore dentures for the rest of his life. Even in old age, he continued recommending false teeth to everyone he met.

When his ex-wife, the actress Patricia Neal, suffered a series of massive strokes that left her paralysed, unable to walk, partially blind and with severely impaired speech, Dahl devised a brutal recovery regime. He had no experience with treating stroke victims yet his tough approach is now standard therapy for stroke victims. Against all expectations, she returned to the screen to win a further Oscar nomination and worldwide admiration.

When his son Theo had a skull injury, Dahl found a toymaker who constructed a new valve to his own design. The design that Dahl came up with went on to be used on over 3,000 other children. It even saved the life of his agent’s son.

And when it came to his work, his approach to putting pen to paper was so disciplined and methodical that he abided by the same process every day – without fail.

He only wrote in the hut in his garden and he always worked the same hours of the day. And for usually no more than two hours. “Two hours of writing fiction leaves this writer completely drained. For those two hours he has been in a different place with totally different people.”

He wrote every day including weekends and Christmas.

His lunch was always the same: Norwegian prawns and half a lettuce.

He wrote with six yellow pencils in a jar beside him – “Always six, there must be six”.

He always wrote upon American legal paper, which he had imported as it was slightly larger than the UK size. He had a thermos full of coffee and an electric pencil sharpener next to him. And while seated in the same armchair, looking out of the same, small, grimy window, his mind was then free to create masterpieces of fiction.

And when the time came that he could feel a story starting to come together, and the words falling into place. At that very moment when he knew he was onto something great, he would stop.

Get up from his desk.

And do something else.

He explains his thinking thus; “Hemingway, a great American writer, taught me the finest trick when you are doing a long book, which is, he simply said in his own words, “When you are going good, stop writing.” And that means that if everything’s going well and you know exactly where the end of the chapter’s going to go and you know just what the people are going to do, you don’t go on writing and writing until you come to the end of it, because when you do, then you say, well, where am I going to go next? And you get up and you walk away and you don’t want to come back because you don’t know where you want to go. But if you stop when you are going good, as Hemingway said…then you know what you are going to say next. You make yourself stop, put your pencil down and everything, and you walk away. And you can’t wait to get back because you know what you want to say next and that’s lovely and you have to try and do that. Every time, every day, all the way through the year.

If you stop when you are stuck, then you are in trouble!”

My favourite thigh-slapping, foot-stomping, head-shaking strapline

A great slogan can be an enormously powerful thing. Like the catchiest tune, they worm their way into our brains.

Write a good one and you’ll be the envy of all your copywriting chums. Write a brilliant one and you’ll be drinking from crystal glasses that ping for a long time after you pinged them. There have indeed been some belters. Check out the advertising slogan Hall of Fame. The numerous quizzes. And there’s even a website where you can click a button and make your own.

Clearly the world loves sloganeering. So it’s weird that these little gems have fallen out of favour. The death of the strapline may be overstating the situation, but there’s a growing school of thought that considers them as bygone marketing relics. There’s certainly evidence that taglines have diminished in importance. When you see classics such as the Stella Artois “Reassuringly expensive” making way for #BeLegacy you sense you’re witnessing a dying craft. But the fact is, a great line will still instantly separate a brand from the competition, and enable it to grow a lot stronger than any hashtag.

There are two key ingredients if you want to pen a corker. First, of course, is clarity. Second, and much more of a challenge, is memorability. Only the best really stick in the mind and that’s why the first strapline that I remember still towers above the rest. Ladies and Gentlemen, please pay your respects to: “Lipsmackin’ thirstquenchin’ acetastin’ motivatin’ goodbuzzin’ cooltalkin’ highwalkin’ fastlivin’ evergivin’ coolfizzin’ Pepsi.

Back in the 70s when it first appeared, this epic line blew everything else out of the water. It was long. It was mad. It was stupendous. For me and my classmates it was a line that we all loved. We memorised it until each and every one of us could rattle it off by heart. We had it daubed over our exercise books. Up our arms. Across our plimsoles. ‘Lipsmackin’ became our chant and the last word was always hissed PEPPPSSSSSSSSSSSSIIII.

Now as a copywriter myself, I’ve always wondered how a line like that happens. It’s not something you just stumble upon. And there’s been nothing else like it since. So where does something as fresh as ‘Lipsmackin’ come from?

In fact, the line was penned by the legendary Creative Director Dave Trott back in 1974. At the time he was a junior writer at BMP. Not so long ago, he took to the internet to explain how it came about.

“It was pretty much my first ad at BMP.

The brief was so long with so many things to say: refreshing, modern, young, energising, delicious, bubbly, stylish, I couldn’t get them all in one line.

So I thought what if it was one huge long line ¨Then I remembered Tom Wolfe’s book “Candy coloured tangerine flake streamline baby.”

Then I remembered a DJ on pirate radio (Emperor Rosko on Radio Luxemburg) who used to talk about a record as “A real knuckle-cracking thigh-slapping foot-stomping head-shaking toe-tapping rocker”.

And I just put the two together, and my boss, John Webster, loved it and made it all happen.”

Birth of The Simpsons

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Matt Groening is the guy who created the iconic and legendary animated sitcom, The Simpsons. One of the most successful animated sitcom creators of all time, today he has 12 Emmy Awards under his belt and a net worth estimated at $500 million. Currently airing its 27th season, The Simpsons is the longest-running American sitcom, the longest-running American animated program, and in 2009 it surpassed Gunsmoke as the longest-running American scripted primetime television series. Ever.

The Simpsons is an absolute tour de force of quick-witted comedy. All the more impressive is that the show’s earlier seasons still hold up today, a remarkable feat which speaks to the sheer level of talent involved in putting those first few brilliant seasons together. But how long does it take to come up with the concept and framework of such a show? A year? Maybe two? J.K. Rowling came up with the idea for Harry Potter while delayed on a train travelling from Manchester to London King’s Cross. But she spent the next five years creating the Harry Potter universe and developing the characters.

Groening was a faster worker. He came up with his crowning achievement while waiting in the reception area of a TV production company. In fact, he created the outline for The Simpsons, sketched out the characters, pitched the idea and sold it – all in the same hour.

Here’s how it happened: The year is 1985 and TV producer James L. Brooks is producing a new TV show for comic Tracy Ullman. There’ s a small part for an animated short and Groening has been invited along to talk about his alternative rabbit cartoon Life In Hell and how he might translate it for the small screen.

This is Matt Groening’s big break. Life In Hell had launched his career as a cartoonist. It had carried him through some tough years. Now the time had come to reap the benefits and merchandise the hell out of it.

Yet the cartoonist is not excited about the opportunity. He’s concerned that TV exposure will look like he’s ‘sold out’ his popular strip about rabbits. His gut instinct is telling him to decline the offer. “I had this good gig going with my weekly comic strip, and I was actually afraid that if the animated cartoon didn’t work out, there would be a taint on my weekly comic-strip job. So I created The Simpsons on the spot, thinking that if it did fail, I could just go back and draw rabbits, and no one would be the wiser.” 

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Groening realised that the only way to resolve the dilemma would be to create something to offer in place of the rabbits. “While I was waiting—I believe they kept me waiting for quite some time—I very quickly drew the Simpsons family. I basically drew my own family. My father’s name is Homer. My mother’s name is Margaret. I have a sister Lisa and another sister Maggie, so I drew all of them. I was going to name the main character Matt, but I didn’t think it would go over well in a pitch meeting, so I changed the name to Bart.”

As the minutes pass, Groening comes up with a storyline that revolves around a modern dysfunctional family – something that will touch a nerve with everyone. He set’s the story in a fictional American town in an unknown and impossible-to-determine US state. He decides that every episode will revolve around this typical American town and it will act as a complete universe in which characters can explore the issues faced by modern society.

And although the family is dysfunctional, the stories will examine their relationships and bonds and see how much they care for one another. The father is a safety inspector at the local Nuclear Power Plant. He is married to a stereotypical American housewife and mother. They have three children: a ten-year-old troublemaker; a precocious eight-year-old activist; and a baby who rarely speaks, but communicates by sucking on a pacifier.

In reception, Groening quickly puts pen to paper. He sketches out the characters and colours them in yellow. He places the sheets under his arm and enters the office of James L. Brooks to pitch the idea.

Years later, Groening would say of that meeting, “Looking back, I think I had completely unjustified self-confidence. It might not have worked out, of course. And I didn’t necessarily think it would. I certainly didn’t think it would be my ticket to stardom, or anything like that. But I did feel this is what I have to do. I may not make any money at it, in fact, I very likely won’t. I just had this conviction that I had to carry on doing it and see what happened.”

It’s a remarkable story. But the point of bringing it to your attention today is not because of Groening’s speed of delivery, or the balls required to pull it all together a few feet from his clients’ office.

This is a tale about trusting in your gut instincts. Believing in your talent. And knowing that, unlikely as it may seem, a better idea is waiting to happen.


Beyond the brief

Some creative briefs can be uninspiring. Not just dull, but limiting and restrictive. Some years back, one such brief landed on the desk of a young French product designer named Philippe Starck. It was from his client the kitchenware company Alessi and the request was for the design of a tray. One of those flat things with rounded edges for transporting teacups and suchlike.

The brief was full and the specific request was for a stainless-steel design (trays play a star role in the Alessi catalogue) that was simple to manufacture, not too expensive to make and very attractive.

Now, as any product designer will tell you, there is little fame and glory to be had from a tray design and Philippe Starck knew this right from the off. Like any ambitious designer, he wanted to impress his client. But he wasn’t sure a tray design was going to do it. So he ummed and ahhed. He stared blankly out of the window. And months passed without word from the Frenchman. Finally an envelope arrived at the Alessi offices from the Italian island of Capraia. Tucked inside the envelope – a folded paper napkin, daubed in ketchup, smeared with grease and accompanied by some pencil sketches of weird squid like objects that Starck later confirmed was the design of citrus squeezer. Just click on the pic below to see Starck’s doodles in all their glory.

The inspiration for the Juicy Salif lemon squeezer happened while on holiday with his family. Starck was about to tuck into a plate of squid and, glancing down at his plate, noticed the slice of lemon was missing. The designer was seized by the shape of the mollusc and the action of squeezing a lemon. This ignited an idea and he grabbed a pencil and started drawing squid-like objects on his paper napkin. Once lunch was over and a siesta had been taken, Starck mailed the napkin to Mr Alessi and called his office a few days later to explain what it all meant.

First produced in 1990, the squeezer is as controversial as many of Starck’s designs. Some say it doesn’t work very well, even Starck has said: “It’s not meant to squeeze lemons, it is meant to start conversations.”

Salif stands 29 centimetres high, is made from cast and polished aluminium and is still available for £43 for It ranks among the greats of modern design and has a place in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

It didn’t meet the brief, it went beyond it.