Far From the World, Snug in a Hut

CABIN FEVER: SHEDS AND SHELTERS, HUTS AND HIDEWAYS By Marie-France Boyer. Thames and Hudson 112pp., $19.95

THE news may not be entirely welcome to those of seriously pedagogical bent, but the times I recall most vividly and with most pleasure at boys' preparatory school were Sunday afternoons.

Only one master was in charge of 60 boys between lunch and teatime, and he was not expected to perform much more than a lightweight supervisory role. In essence, we were turned loose on the grounds to do what we wanted, and, if we were on top of the situation, we might avoid for the whole afternoon any contact with adult authority (ubiquitous every other day of the week from early-morning cold shower to dormitory lights-out).

The grounds of this private school were extensive, and much of them consisted of woodland. This was chiefly a mix, I think, of sweet chestnuts, beeches, and a great many large rhododendrons.

It was under these rhododendrons that we made our hideouts.

I call them hideouts now because I can't remember what we called them then. They should certainly not have been dignified with the name of ``hut'' or ``cabin'' - since, by comparison, such structures would count as high architecture. All the same, we did aim at a sort of up-and-over containment that, while never expected to be weatherproof, might just keep out a brief rain shower and was certainly meant to provide secrecy.

The whole idea was intensely exciting - and frustrating for those of us who were not as adept at primordial construction as others. Like savages, we were without tools (which was certainly a good thing ecologically speaking, preventing us from entirely uprooting the woodland), and we worked with our hands, bending the lower branches of the shrubs, burrowing into the rooty leaf mold, tearing up great peaty chunks of it for ``walls'' and ``roofs.'' But we never quite arrived at that perfect barricade against the outside world (and particularly from the patrolling Master on Duty) we hoped for.

Not that we didn't imagine ourselves completely hidden. We would whisper conspiratorially in the brown shadows of these ground nests, as if what we were saying was a matter of life and death. We were spies, desperados, cavemen, wartime shelterers from some imminent air raid - or we were simply oversupervised children fantasizing escape from ``the regime.'' It was all remarkably innocent.

If anyone was heard coming, we would fall gravely silent (or so we thought). Although today I am quite sure that the whereabouts of every single one of those earthy dugouts of ours, and the persons therein, were immediately obvious to the adult staff, we were equally persuaded then that they were not.

Strange, really, looking back, how keen we 8- and 9-year-olds were to be like rabbits or foxes. So primitive were our sub-rhododendron lairs, and so lacking in even the rudimentary principles of building practice (they collapsed frequently), that in evolutionary terms, we had scarcely progressed as far as stone-age man. And yet there we were, privileged children, in the early stages of grooming for (ideally) Oxford or Cambridge. What I still value from this school, however, was not my fitness for university, but the smell and feel of leaf mold and the longing for some unknown place away from the crowd, far from disturbance, a place where nobody can find me.

IF this latter wish sounds either romantic or childish, maybe it is. But it is also simple practicality. My work, writing, is an almost silent business, and to most other people silence signifies nothing happening. Ergo, if nothing is happening in my study, clearly I can be interrupted.

Seen from my point of view, however, the sentence or sequence of sentences that has just inaudibly come to the boil and is about to crystallize into some crucial nugget of sweet prose, can be instantly spoiled and spilled by the slightest distraction. Even a ticking clock is a danger. Turn away for a split second, break the concentration, and the pan boils over with a devastating fizz and stink. It can take 20 minutes at least to retrieve the lost words, and indeed they may never be quite the same.

Prisoners and monks are provided with cells; writers need nothing less. But if a cell is not easy to arrange, then a hut or shed (preferably weatherproof) has often proved an effective alternative.

According to a currently available book called ``Cabin Fever: Sheds and Shelters, Huts and Hideaways,'' by Marie-France Boyer, ``The writer, who can, after all, work anywhere, with just pen and paper, typewriter or computer, often chooses a cabin close to home. `A room of your own' is more often than not `a room with a view usually of the writer's own family, complete with domestic noises and temptations. In order to write in peace, the writer must break away, spending his or her days in a shed, like Dylan Thomas, or in a garden hut, like Henry James, Roald Dahl, Virginia Woolf or Bernard Shaw.''

Dylan Thomas's workshed at Laugharne in Wales, at least, was not devoid of outlook, however. In his recent biography of the Welsh poet, ``Nine Lives of Dylan Thomas,'' Jonathan Fryer writes: ``After lunch, he would write or just think in his workshed, staring out over the estuary or throwing little chunks of bread to the birds, particularly the herons, who reminded him of Edith Sitwell.''

Now I must admit that this, when I first read it, did not sound ascetic and deprived enough. Birdsong, let alone herons of Sitwellian aspect, a view of an estuary, and chunks of bread, all sounded like impossible distractions to me. And the photograph of the shed's interior in Ms. Boyer's fascinating book shows that although the furniture is shoddy and cheap and the table and floor a mess, there are pictures on the walls!

But it seems I am wrong, for in Thomas's case, his move to this place ``temporarily removed [his] poetic block.'' He wrote ``Over Sir John's Hill'' there. This poem was ``pre-eminently a place-poem, celebrating the view from the workshed and the birds that Dylan watched, particularly one heron,'' Mr. Fryer says.

Boyer's book is well illustrated, with all kinds of variations on its theme - huts on stilts, floating huts, tentlike structures, mud huts, bathing huts, huts for fishermen, huts made out of upturned boats, huts on mountainsides and beaches, in woods and gardens, in farmyards or out in meadows, and huts made of corrugated iron or a conglomeration of disused doors. The author discusses huts that range from desperate signs of dispossession and poverty (the huts of shanty-towns and cardboard cities), to the holiday retreats of the wealthy.

Really, the inventiveness mankind has brought to bear on this purely vernacular notion of a temporary roof-over-one's-head is as extraordinary as it is unpretentious.

IT is the sort of book that evokes one's own experience - huts you have known. I recalled the seaside cabin at Scarborough, on England's northeast coast, from the summers of my childhood and the feel of the wooden floorboards against bare feet wrinkled with endless swimming in the salt water. Here the adults would sit in deck chairs and pretend to enjoy the sun, and here primitive snacks were prepared, particularly tomato sandwiches into which would creep a degree of sand from childish fingers, adding a unique crunch.

The book also brought to mind the potting shed on my father's market garden in Yorkshire, where I learned to take cuttings for the first time, and where I remember one old gardener teaching me the words of ``Pop Goes the Weasel.''

Huts can be small worlds of their own, taking on the character of their users. This is very true (and Boyer makes particular mention of these) of the sheds and huts on urban plots in community gardens. To these escape the leek and marrow growers of cities, and to these escape husbands in need (they believe) of respite from the domestic confinements of home. It may be that many a marriage is made tolerable by these hut-shaped escape clauses that only purport horticultural function.

And the book reminded me of the lines of beach huts on the sands at Ostend and Southwold, holdovers from a more modest culture from the past when bathing huts were actually wheeled into the brine so ladies could enter the water unseen. Yet today's stationary huts have color and character and are still used. They line the shore and seem to gaze out to sea.

Surprisingly, given the richness of reference and research that went into her book, Boyer has left out three writers and one film that could easily have been included.

The first writer is Shakespeare, no less, author of the immortally romantic lines from ``Twelfth Night'' when Viola (disguised as Orsino's squire) tells Olivia how she (or rather he), if she (or rather he) were Orsino, would woo the unresponsive Olivia:

Make me a willow cabin at

your gate,

And call upon my soul

within the house,

Write loyal cantons of

contemned love,

And sing them loud even in

the dead of night;

Holla your name to the

reverberate hills,

And make the babbling

gossip of the air

Cry out ``Olivia!''

It makes one suspect that Shakespeare wrote his plays in a garden shed - or at least in a ``willow cabin.''

The film that deserved inclusion is Bill Forsyth's ``Local Hero,'' in which an old Scottish character called Ben inhabits a ramshackle shack on the beach. The shack has no door, only a window, and the tramplike Ben lives in it all year round. When a Houston oil company wants to buy the area as the site for a refinery, only Ben - of all the money-hungry locals - has the sense to resist. And he can afford to, not only because his values are nonmaterialistic, but because he owns four miles of the beach.

BEN'S beach shack is a symbol in the film, an impermanent but definitely obstinate contrast to all the monumentally towering skyscrapers of Houston. The gentle twist of the film's story somehow manages to suggest that Ben's tumbledown shelter will still be there when Houston has returned to dust.

Henry David Thoreau's hut by Walden Pond has, I believe, long since returned to dust, but he, the archetypal hut builder, might reasonably have found his way into Boyer's book. His hut, all 10 by 15 feet of it, built by his own hand at a cost of $28, 12-1/2 cents, set him musing about the irrelevance of elaborate architecture and the virtues of building your own uncomplicated dwelling:

``Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?''

The third writer I suggest Ms. Boyer work into future editions is W.B. Yeats. He had the ``poetic faculty'' all right. It was he who wrote ``The Lake Isle of Innisfree.'' It memorably begins:

I will arise and go now, and

go to Innisfree

And a small cabin build

there, of clay and wattles made;

Nine bean rows will I have

there, a hive for the honey bee,

And live alone in the bee-

loud glade.

Four lines that supply the perfect quote (to be pronounced in tones of dreamy loudness) to suit such an occasion as getting up in the morning and going to work.

Particularly if that work takes place in a shed at the end of the garden.

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