It was a place of magic. A place no one from the outside was allowed to step into. A place where the bizarre and wonderful and occasionally unsettling were concocted for a hungry and enthralled public.
It’s how you’d describe Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and it’s how you’d describe the writing space of his creator, Roald Dahl. Believe me, writing spaces don’t come much more writer-y than Mister Dahl’s.
A Place To Write
He wrote in a little brick hut nestled in an orchard at the bottom of his garden in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, and just like Mr. Wonka’s factory he kept it an intensely private space: family members were not permitted entry and even his illustrator and friend Quentin Blake saw its interior only once.
But this was not for entertaining guests or talking over ideas. His writing space was dedicated to writing – and absolutely nothing else – and everything was engineered around that singular purpose. The back on his battered wingback chair was specially hollowed out to give more comfort to his bad back, a writing board he had made himself from wood and green baize sat across its arms, and an electric heater hung directly overhead. If he needed extra warmth he even had a rug and sleeping bag to put over his legs. When writing he kept the curtains closed so that nothing, not even sunlight, could interfere with the creative process. It wasn’t so much a dedicated writing space as a dedicated writing bunker. A writing Batcave.
Though his hut was dedicated to writing it was not without charm. Dahl believed writers should personalise their environment, and in that little hut he surrounded himself with knick-knacks, gifts from fans, and curios that he’d amassed throughout a long and interesting existence. They lined the walls and sat seemingly without order on an old wooden desk beside his chair. Each item was its own story; a fragment of a life with a unique tale, however mundane or exciting. A little piece of inspiration and comfort.
Among the strange objects were a piece of his own hip bone that had been removed, some preserved spinal shavings from his own spine, and several fossils. My favourite is the big foil ball he’d created over the years from the Cadbury’s metal foil chocolate wrappers he’d kept from his lunch. As well as the the weird there was the more normal: old photos, bookmarks drawn specially for him by Quentin Blake, magazines and letters of correspondence.
Dahl liked to have ‘props’ around – little things that could be written about or used as inspiration to start writing. It’s a good idea for a writer who feels a little stuck. Start writing about something on your desk, whether that be a lamp or a preserved piece of vertebra, and who knows into what unexpected tales your imagination might wander. Dahl’s personalisation even went so far as having the front door of the hut painted yellow, his favourite colour, and writing with yellow pencils (Dixon Ticonderogas, if you’re a pencil fan).
Through these little comforts and objects Roald Dahl’s hut became a place of stories. Those of his own life, and those which he created for the public. The former certainly influenced the latter. So don’t worry the next time you think your writing space is too cluttered. Just think of it as being full of possible stories.
A Place of Magic
I think it’s because it’s such a personal space that it’s still of such fascination to people, decades after his death. A place that allows you to get a little closer to a treasured author. He may not have allowed anyone entry, and the shed is now closed to the public, but that doesn’t stop you from having a nose around. The Roald Dahl Museum website features an interactive 360 degree tour! As you look at it I think you’ll agree that it’s not just a museum of writing, it’s also a museum of a life. A place made fascinating by a tall old man who sat with his memories and made such magic from them.
Hope you have enjoyed this week’s Writing Space, please share your thoughts and feedback in the comments below!
Images link to original source.
Robert Smedley is a TV Reviewer and Writer. When not staring at moving images or being creative with ink, he can be found at any bar that serves a good martini.