Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, The Witches, Matilda: Roald Dahl wrote these and all his other beloved children’s books in a hut. Just fifteen feet long and ten feet wide, it served him for 35 years as an office in which no meetings were held and no calls taken. For four hours a day, broken into two-hour morning and afternoon sessions, it was just Dahl in there — Dahl and his paper, his pencils, his sharpener, his coffee, his cigarettes, his increasingly eccentric collection of artifacts from his own life, and here and there the occasional spider web and goat dropping. It was all part of an effort, explains Dahl’s biographer Jeremy Treglown, “not only to recreate his own early childhood but to improve on it.”
“As a boy in the 1920s,” Treglown writes, “Roald used to hide up in a tree in order to write his diary.” But the hut, constructed right behind his Buckinghamshire home, “was a more substantial place to work, where he could commemorate, and fantasize about, his past.”
On his side were items like “his father’s silver and tortoiseshell paper knife,” a “tablet fragment with a cuneiform inscription found in Babylon” — a souvenir from his time in the King’s African Rifles — and, “saved from operations,” pieces of his own femur and spine. In his hut, Dahl wrote “surrounded by these fetishes, snugly wrapped in a sleeping bag, sitting in an old armchair, his feet on a trunk which was filled with blocks and tied to a leg of the chair, to prevent it from slipping.”
“I couldn’t possibly work in the house, especially when there used to be a lot of children around,” says Dahl in the 1982 clip at the top of the post as he approaches his hut. “Even when there aren’t children, there are vacuum cleaners and people bustling about.” He then goes in to demonstrate his writing routine, which involves the pouring of coffee, sharpening of precisely six pencils “to a fierce point” (a step that had its own procrastination value), the brushing away of the previous day’s eraser dust (onto the floor, where it has remained ever since), and the situation with the armchair and sleeping bag. “Finally you get settled, you get into a sort of nest, you get really comfortable,” Dahl says. “And then you’re away.”
The footage also includes views of Dahl’s much more traditionally well-appointed main house, including its billiards table around which he and his local friends would gather for a twice-weekly session. The game had its influence on Dahl’s writing life, and indeed his writing hut. Among his “snooker pals” was builder Wally Saunders, whom Dahl hired to put it up in the first place (and whose formidable stature and ear size would, nearly thirty later, inspire the title character of The BFG). As he explains on the British Children’s program Going Live, he even covered his handmade wooden writing surfaces, which he placed across the armrests of his chair, with green baize, a material he found easy on the eyes.
When Dahl died in 1990, his writing hut went untouched for two decades. But eventually, as explained in this ITV News clip, the simple building couldn’t withstand further exposure to the elements. So began the project to move the interior of the hut, eraser dust and all, to the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Buckinghamshire. Luckily for Wes Anderson, this happened after he came to Dahl’s home to seek permission to adapt The Fantastic Mr. Fox from the writer’s widow Felicity. So compelling did she find Anderson’s vision that she even allowed him into the “hallowed writing hut,” the ideal space in which to commune with Dahl’s spirit. The hut may now no longer be whole, but that same spirit continues to course through the imaginations of generation after generation of young readers.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.