A Home for the Soul and a Fire for the Imagination

When it comes to the tree house what I get asked most is “Who is it for?  You or Luca?”  It’s a good question.

First and foremost I’ve long wanted Luca to have a space he feels is his.  For a good while he was a bit non-plussed by the whole thing, but that changed the moment we put the doors on.  And it changed even more when I fitted a lock and gave him a key.

I think that was the moment he felt the thing became his.

Children often lack any great degree of control over their lives.  They’re told what to do by their parents, by their teachers, indeed by pretty much any adult they come into contact with.  Their possessions mean a great deal to them.  The whole sense of owning something strikes me as being linked to their control of their environment and because that control is so limited anything over which they have control assumes much greater significance than it would to an adult.

These days children seem so much more controlled than when I was growing up in here in the Sussex Weald.  My childhood memories are of trying to ride on sheep and pigs (it was pointed out to us that pigs is quite dangerous under the wrong circumstances) and of throwing apples at bullocks and running hell-for-leather to try to avoid getting trampled.  We ran riot in the woods.  We sawed down trees (also very dangerous).  We flattened cornfields (and made cross farmers very dangerous).  We fought small wars, built small camps, played out small cricket matches, wore out small pairs of boots.  It was the British Empire writ small.

These days parents and their children seem to be held captive by anxiety.  Our roads are full of cars.  Our streets and cyberspace are full of child abusers.  Our televisions are full of adverts designed by unscrupulous adults to exploit the very young.  We start to worry about how they’ll find a job, afford a home and fund a pension before they’ve started school.

There’s a fantastic line from Swallows and Amazons when the Swallows write to their father in Malta to ask permission to sail to an island and camp and he replies by telegram: “BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS, IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN.”  He added the second half to comfort their mother!  I love the attitude.  The motto of the state of New Hampshire comes from a quote by General John Stark, a toast he sent in his absence to a reunion of revolutionary war veterans in 1809: Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.  Life is to be lived.  Risk is part of that.  Too many of us simply exist.

There are many, many upsides to a world in which it’s rare for a child not to live through to adulthood.  Once parents were steeled to the possibility that one or more of their children might not survive – taken by illness or accident.  Now, though they’re safer than ever, we cling to them tighter than ever so unthinkable is it that something bad might happen.

So, though I may find it very hard to practice what I’m advocating, I’d like Luca to have all the freedoms I had as a child and, agonisingly, that means a degree of freedom to come to harm.  However I suspect the harm that comes from running around the woods and camping out in a treehouse is less than the harm that comes from spending life on the sofa glued to the TV or a games console.

Play stimulates the imagination.  Play allows us to practice confronting life’s challenges in a secure environment.  Television and video games may be stimulating but they also leave us far more passive.  Much of the imagining has been done for us already.

That’s why sticks and mud and sandpits and the magical landscape we live in are so powerful.  They are whatever we want them to be – not what someone else has already decided they should be.   That’s also why books and radio score over telly – because we supply the pictures and (in the case of books) the voices as well.

As for me – I’d be less that truthful if I said I hadn’t enjoyed building the treehouse.  It’s been occasionally frustrating and often challenging.  It’s been quite a lot of work.  But I look at it and my heart sings.  I am very proud of it.  It’s almost exactly as I had visualised it.  I took an idea, a thought, a small dream, and I made it real.

There’s still a fair amount to do – I need to finish a few window frames, insulate the roof and floor, put in some rudimentary electrics, make a small mezzanine and a ladder.  I also need to suspend the gable end from the upper branches to take some of the weight off the main frame.   But the end is in sight and I hope that spring will see it complete.

It’s not really quite as warped as this – that’s partly the lens and the panorama stitching.

Then, when Mr. Luca is not at home, I’ll be sneaking up there to write.  It’s a fantastic place to fire the imagination; his, and mine.

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14 Responses to A Home for the Soul and a Fire for the Imagination

  1. Siobhan says:

    Fabulous tree house – fabulous motivation.

  2. Nick. says:

    Looking good Jolph, looking good. Love the front door.

  3. Ahhhh… An Englishman and his, er, tree-castle. (Seriously, are those battlements I see?)

  4. kirpal singh says:

    surely the english have more to offer than mere battlements…!!!!!-but this whole thingie is fascinating-thanks for sharing!!!!!-

  5. I hope you remembered the wifi (but well passworded so only you can use it)!

  6. Thomas says:

    I totally agree with everything you’ve said in this blog. I too built dens and camps and had miniature ‘war of roses’ battles in the woods at the school I practically lived in from the age of 8. However, I was very lucky as you are here. It’s easy to comment on society and the world outside your castle in the trees, but the reality amongst many is that families need to go where there is work and that usually means living in the city. This means tighter, smaller spaces for kids where the TV takes centre stage in the house. Spending a day out in London, for instance, is the equivalent of a small weekly shop in the country. Of course there are still parks to go and play in for free (I’m taking my partner’s little sisters out to Clapham Common when I go visit her at the end of this month), but there isn’t the same real sense of space, freedom and peace one gets from having their own abode in the country.

    I don’t mean to take away the positive images and writing in this blog, as I agree with pretty much all of it. Your psycho analytical observations about children and some of society today is bang on. But if this kind of physical, free and playful life were easy to attain and access countrywide, we may find those Playstation’s, Xbox’s and TV’s getting locked away just that little bit more often in favour of the great outdoors.

    Lovely tree house, well done.


    • I know cities are a tougher environment for children and Luca grew up in South London until he was four – less than two years ago. However even in the countryside the lure of the XBox and TV are strong. In cities we have to work even harder to create safe spaces for our children. However I think there is hope. A generation or two ago children were far freer, even in cities. If we start trying to make our cities safe for our children they might be a lot healthier for the rest of us. Sometimes I think we give up too easily in the face of demands that we fit our lives around the demands of business rather than vice versa.
      That said I found there was far more to do with Luca for free in London – the museums (Nat History, Science, Horniman) parks and play areas. Moving into a village where he has a tiny garden there’s far less to do than in London and the only decent local play area is privately owned and you need to pay about £8 per time to use it or buy a season ticket.
      It’s swings and roundabouts (sorry, that was dreadful)

  7. Will Gibson says:

    Our friend’s have done something on a similar scale. Slightly more rustic, but with a huge decking area out front. It’s for the kids too… until the sun goes down, then it’s drinking den for bigger boys 😉

    • Jonathan Kent says:

      Well I thought I might plonk a table underneath it in the summertime – there’s already a setup for a hammock – and have leisurely lunches while Luca and his friends create mayhem upstairs…

  8. Julian Savage says:

    That is really perfect. The treehouse, obviously, but also the thought behind it and the writing that went with it. Lucky kid!

    It’s now over three years later on…..how is everything going in his domain? Resisting invasion from the French, or worse, the Jolf?

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