Saturday, November 19, 2011

The workhouse and the writing hut

There are 2 structures at risk in England that are associated with fiction. Campaigns are underway to save the workhouse that likely inspired the setting for Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) and the writing hut where Willy Wonka sprung from the fertile mind of Roald Dahl (1916-1990):

The workhouse (1st image)
The notorious Cleveland St. Workhouse, which eventually became part of a London hospital, is slated for demolition to make way for a residential building. A petition to save the Victorian building has been helped by author and historian Ruth Richardson's discovery of its importance to the young Dickens. “I can tell you, I nearly fell off my chair in the library!” she said. Richardson uncovered the fact that he had lived only 9 doors down from the workhouse and would have walked by it on a daily basis. “Dickens lived within earshot of the workhouse for several years – first as a child and again as a young newspaper reporter. He’d have heard the stonebreakers’ hammers and the howls of pauper lunatics, smelt it on the wind."

The writing hut (2nd image)
The humble hut was built in the late 1950s and used exclusively by Dahl every day for 30 years. Ensconced in the garden of his home Gipsy House in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, the hut is not expected to survive another winter. The plan is to move the interior of the hut - item by item - inside the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre to allow the public to experience its magic interactively. Rob Smedley describes, "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’s personalisation even went so far as having the front door of the hut painted yellow, his favourite colour, and writing with yellow pencils." Although the Dahl family has been criticized for asking for help to pay for the move when they can well afford the cost, they have made a sizeable contribution. Half of the necessary funds have been raised, and the Museum is making no public appeal for funds.

It's not certain that Roald Dahl would have approved, but former model Sophie Dahl says, "When my grandfather died he left in his wake an aching gap, but also a palpable magic and limitless imagination, which is not exclusive to my family. It is now time for us to save the hut, but even more importantly, to share it." Ruth Richardson, who has now written a book about her findings, is convinced that Dickens would feel that the workhouse should be preserved: “I think he would agree with us, that the historical and literary importance of the site deserves genuine recognition, not just obliteration.”

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