January 6, 2008
Philip Pullman used to write in a shed in his backyard. Roald Dahl did, too. But here is my new favorite story of a writer and his lair, from Witold Rybczynski’s heart-bendingly good book The Most Beautiful House in the World:
George Bernard Shaw was largely indifferent to his physical surroundings — his house at Ayot Saint Lawrence, where he lived during the last forty-four years of his long life, was a nondescript Victorian rectory. But Shaw too was a builder, and the writing room that he erected in his garden was a Shavian combination of simplicity, convenience, and novelty.
He called it “the Shelter,” but it was really a shed, only eight feet square. It contained the essentials of the writer’s trade — a plank desk, en electric lamp, a wicker chair, a bookcase, and a wastepaper basket. Beside the desk was a shelf for his Remington portable — like [Mark Twain], Shaw was an early amateur of the typewriter. There was also a telephone (modified to refuse incoming calls), a thermometer, and an alarm clock (to remind him when it was time for lunch).
Inside the door was a mat where the fastidious writer wiped his shoes. The shed was austere — a vegetarian’s workplace, one might say; the pine boards and framing were painted white on the inside and left to weather on the exterior. The door, which was placed in the center of the wall, included a glass pane and had a fixed window on each side; a small window on the rear wall opened for ventilation.
The Shelter incorporated an unusual technical feature. Shaw wrote in the morning, and it was to warm the unheated interior that he had located almost all of the glazed openings on one side. To increase the effectiveness of these windows, he devised a curious solution: instead of resting on a foundation, the floor was supported on a central steel pipe, which permitted the entire room to be manually turned, like a revolving Victorian bookstand. This way, Shaw could benefit from the morning sun at different times of year. According to his secretary, however, the hut was never rotated; once it was loaded with furniture and books, it was probably too heavy to move.
I love the one-way telephone.
And seriously, this book was terrific — not just quirky housing anecdotes (though there are plenty of those), but deep, accessible thoughts on what houses can and do mean to us.