A-Z of Places

We are shed people: Dahl, Gorey & Riddell

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2015 has been a year of literary pilgrimages for me, beginning in late Spring with a visit to the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden. This small but superbly designed exhibition is built from the ephemera of his solitary working life, preserved and restaged with something approaching religious awe.

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The centrepiece is his entire shed, which has been moved from the garden of Gypsy cottage up the road and meticulousy rebuilt behind glass. Of course all anyone really wants to do is have a poke around his personal effects, but we settled for a go in a replica of his writing chair which comes complete with hole cut into it to accommodate an abscess his back, one of the many ailments that afflicted him following his much mythologised plane crash during the second world war..

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Some of the other ephemera included the ball of silver foil he collected from bars of Dairy Milk during his time at Shell Oil, his last Marlboro and the Dixon Ticonderoga pencil and yellow legal paper he wrote his last words on – both of which are rather brilliantly on sale in the gift shop.

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There’s also a jar of spinal shavings (another memento from the plane crash), and a hip bone removed in yet another operation. These are the sort of relics that other master of the macabre Edward Gorey would surely have appreciated. I visited his Cape Cod home (now a museum) where he lived and worked from 1986 until his death in 2000. Alhough there is no writing shed to speak of, the entire house has the feeling of being a creative space, an extension of Gorey’s interests and personality. 

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Like Dahl he also collected curiosities, but on an almost industrial scale. Only a fraction of his hoard remains on display in the place he called Elephant House, but his collections were many and varied according to Kevin McDermott who photographed the house shortly after he died:‘‘Old wooden potato mashers, blue glass bottles, Day of the Dead figures interspersed with old teapots, frogs lined up against a wall, a kitchen counter collection of rocks, painted eggs, salt and pepper shakers, stuffed animals…

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Hidden among the now tastefully exhibited objects is the greatest scavenger hunt in the history of the world, one which even my hardened 10 year old warmed to. Dotted around the house are all 26 deceased Gashlycrumb children.

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Amy fallen down stairs was unavoidable.

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We found Una drowning in the kitchen sink.

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And poor Yorrick was on the windowsill, his head quite caved in.

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Most horrifying of all was George, smothered by the living room rug. We never did find poor Neville who died of Ennui.

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Heading north to Boston we found the amazing Granary burial ground, a place which may have inspired Gorey’s distinctive Gothic style, with many of the gravestones featuring carvings of some extremely Goreyesque skulls.

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I left Elephant House with more than a few new treasures, best of all was his utterly unique book, the ‘Tunnel Calamity’.

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This concertina shaped book is read by peering through a small porthole in the cover and stretching out the pages, moving the tunnel to bring different characters into focus. There’s no text, so it’s entirely up to you to make up your own story from what you see.

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In June I had the great privilege of visiting the home of a living breathing children’s book legend. Chris Riddell, the new children’s laureate, invited me to his Brighton home to talk about TV projects. And here we are sitting under his apple tree in a sketch he drew that day for the laureate log.

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Sketch from Chris Riddell’s Laureate Log

While Chris was busy talking to ITN, I snuck a look inside his studio in the company of his neighbour – and long standing collaborator Paul Stewart. This rather beautiful stone outbuilding which he shares with his wife Jo, a printmaker is considerably less poky than Dahl’s writing shed and comes complete with hayloft.

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Photo by Chris Riddell

We are shed people.’ Chris said to me at one point, talking about his fellow writers and illustrators, and it’s interesting how all three spaces I visited this year were so closely connected with the personalities of their inhabitants.

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Unlike Dahl’s designed by Heath Robinson writing den and Gorey’s house of detritus,  Chris’s studio is beautifully organised, his dangerously sharpened pencils lined up ready for the master draftsman to get to work. It clearly works for him, his output is vast and of an astonishingly high standard, even as laureate he’s still creating book upon book, behind all of which are dozens of unpublished sketches.

The view from Alan Garner's window. Photo by Erica Wagner.

The view from Alan Garner’s window. Photo by Erica Wagner.

One ‘shed’ I didn’t get to visit this year, which will be to my eternal regret, was Alan Garner’s (although I like to imagine he writes in a cave). I had been planning to visit him at Toad Hall as part of a film crew for a BBC Four documentary about that massive telescope at the end of his garden, but sadly it wasn’t to be. I’ll console myself instead with First Light, a new book of criticism, or by watching the excellent documentary on Bernard Lovell. UK viewers can catch it on iPlayer for another month, or anyone can buy a copy from BBC Store.

3 thoughts on “We are shed people: Dahl, Gorey & Riddell

  1. Another delightful piece!!! I love those unfortunate Gorey dolls, what a brilliant idea! So jealous you got to go there – in fact I have written about Cape Cod this week too, where I fell in love with the Brewster Ladies’ Library and one very lovely book many years ago.
    I have a Joan Aiken museum/shed in Highgate which you would be welcome to visit if you are ever up this way – https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/ shows her desk, and @LizzaAiken has an outside view. It’s a lovely refuge – & internet free zone – that takes me a long way back!

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