The spirit of genius lingers on

Roald Dahl’s family has launched a campaign to save the hut in which the renowned children’s author wrote some of his best known stories. The small structure, built in the 1950s at the bottom of the Dahl’s garden in Buckinghamshire, England, remains as he left it when he died.

A recent story on the BBC’s web site says that the hut is falling apart and the family is trying to raise £500,000 to move it to the Roald Dahl Museum, where it will be preserved. Apparently the Museum will need a further £500,000 to create an interactive exhibit for future visitors. Roald Dahl (1916-90) rose to prominence in the 1940s with works both for children and adults. The Independent newspaper referred to him as “one of the greatest storytellers for children of the 20th century” and in 2008 The Times placed him sixteenth on their list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”. His short stories are known for their unexpected endings, and his children’s books for their unsentimental, often dark humour.

Dahl was inspired to build the brick and polystyrene shed after visiting Dylan Thomas’s writing den at his home in Laugharne, Wales, the model for the poet’s fictional town of Llareggub (“bugger all” spelt backwards ) in Under Milk Wood. All of Dahl’s children’s books were written in his own hut, to which he made the short daily commute through his garden. Dahl maintained a highly disciplined writing routine, telling his children and grandchildren that there were wolves in the hut to discourage them from interrupting his work.

Dahl always worked alone in the hut, writing in pencil on yellow legal pads. The family hopes the structure will be transferred to the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, by March 2012. The work will be carried out with the help of archivists, conservators, and an interactive design development company – which probably explains why the whole enterprise will cost an astonishing one million pounds.

While delighted by today’s profound appreciation of his symphonies and song cycles, the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler would have been perplexed by the interest shown in his huts. He is known to have composed in three – not including the make-believe one that figures in Ken Russell’s film Mahler (1974), where it bursts into flames. The real huts can still be seen in Austria at Steinbach and Maiernigg, and in Italy at Dobbiaco (which used to be Toblach in Austria).

Mahler acquired a retreat at Steinbach (above), on the banks of Lake Attersee, in 1893 and there began to dedicate his summers to composing and the rest of the year to performing. By 1889 he had abandoned Steinbach and taken up another hut at Maiernigg (right), on the shores of the Wörthersee in Carinthia, where he later built a villa.

Lastly, in the summer of 1908, Mahler moved to the third of his working studios, in the pine forests close to Toblach (right) in the Tyrol. By then, he had only a few summers left – he died in 1911 – but it was there that he composed the heart-rending Ninth Symphony, part of the unfinished 10th, and Das Lied von der Erde.

The legacy of Roald Dahl and Gustav Mahler lies far from their huts. But perhaps the spirit of their genius clings to those tranquil places where their creativity was least impeded by everyday life. Although we should not forget Thomas Edison’s observation in his Life (1932) that, “Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”


One comment on “The spirit of genius lingers on

  1. Erin Green says:

    Great story, Philip!

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