Aged 31, Catrina Davies was renting a box room in a shared house, working several jobs and never knowing whether she could pay the rent. Feeling like her life was near breaking point, she decided to return to the landscape of her childhood, the far west of Cornwall, and took up residence in a dilapidated shed. Davies has a lot of say on many urgent matters, ranging from mental health and class to nature, economics and capitalism, in this stunning memoir that gets to the heart of the current housing crisis.
Tell us a bit about the shed and what it means to you.
The shed is corrugated iron, with tongue and groove on the inside. It’s about 100 years old, and it was originally a sweetshop. It’s six feet by 18, uninsulated, with a tiny triangular garden. It’s on the edge of a crossroads, near a duck pond. Dad bought it in the 1980s, when he was building up an architectural practice. It was his office. He sadly went bankrupt in the early 1990s. The shed was used sporadically after that, as nobody really knew who owned it. It fell into disrepair, and was quite derelict when I started camping in it. These days it’s my home. It means everything to me. It gives me time and a space to write and make songs. It takes away the fear of homelessness, and it gives me the power to refuse to work for people who treat me badly, or to do work that’s harmful or pointless. It’s where I can go and shut the door on the world, and it’s the outward expression of my inner self. It’s where I feel safest and the thing I’d most hate to lose. I wish everybody had a shed.
You quote from Thoreau’s Walden in the book and seem to have a strong connection to this work. Tell us a bit more about this.
Walden is an iconic book, about a man who lives in a shed on the edge of a pond and rejects what he sees as the blinding materialism of his age. It was published in 1854 and, from the perspective of 2019, Thoreau’s definition of blinding materialism seems quaint, but there are actually quite a lot of parallels between his life and mine. He graduated into a depressed economy, where housing was unaffordable and land was distributed very unequally between wealthy landowners and everybody else. I think what I like most about Walden is the way it makes me feel about my choices. It’s so easy to internalise conventional ways of measuring success, and to feel like a failure. Thoreau reminds me that there’s a sound philosophical justification for a kind of voluntary poverty.
There are plenty of other connections that you form within the book – with nature, the landscape and language, for example. How has your relocation to the shed, and to this stripped-down way of living, helped you form these connections?
The thing about living in the shed is having to go outside all the time. It’s a bit like camping. I have to go outside to use the toilet and clean my teeth, and even when I’m inside it’s a bit like being outside, because the walls are so thin and there’s no insulation. What this has done is gradually change me, so I feel more and more like I’m part of an ecosystem. I know what the weather’s doing, and it changes what I do. I care more about specific birds and plants and things. If they’re threatened, it feels personal. I grieve. I don’t want the things I used to want, especially when I’m aware of their effect on the rest of the ecosystem. I don’t want a fridge, for example. I don’t need one and they’re hideously polluting. I do have a hot shower now, and that has been life changing, after washing under a cold tap for the best part of a decade.
You faced all kinds of problems establishing a life in the shed, from it being partially demolished by a runaway driver to potential eviction by the council. What was the lowest point for you and were you ever tempted to just give up?
It was never really a case of giving up, because the shed was my home and I don’t have another one. It wasn’t like Walden, where Thoreau went and lived in a cabin as a kind of experiment, always intending to write about it. There have definitely been times where the lifestyle has got me down, and the paranoia about the council and what people think has made me really anxious. It can be very hard in the winter, keeping warm enough to work and not getting cabin fever. But whenever I think about leaving I realise how lucky I am, because the only alternative is a very different sort of life, devoted to making the huge amounts of money I’d need to rent somewhere, and probably having to live with strangers. I always come to the conclusion that I’d lose far more than I’d gain.
Despite all the obstacles you faced in finishing this work, what drove you to write and complete this book, and to writing in general?
I don’t know what drives me to write. I don’t exactly enjoy it, not like I enjoy reading, or surfing or playing music. I find writing painful and frustrating, a process of failing and failing and failing to say what I want to say, in the way I want to say it. But I have all these ideas and thoughts all the time, and they won’t go away, and I have this kind of need to make sense of my life and make stories out of it. It’s like life wouldn’t have any meaning or purpose if I didn’t try and squeeze it into a book.
How do you think we start tackling the housing crisis?
I’d really like the government to think seriously about bringing second homes into public ownership. It’s crazy that so many people are homeless – Shelter estimates it at one in 200 in the UK – and yet there are all these empty houses. The Resolution Foundation recently did a study and found that one in 10 people in the UK own more than one property – some own dozens or hundreds – a total of 5.5 million homes that aren’t people’s primary residence. And all the government ever says is we need to build more houses. Concrete production is the most polluting industry in the world, after oil, and we really can’t afford to lose any more wild or part-wild habitats. The world has lost 60 per cent of its wildlife since I was born. We need to move away from a situation where homes are seen as commodities and towards a conversation about what housing is on an emotional level. We need to talk about greed.
What does the word home mean to you now?
Freedom and security.
Do you still live in the shed and will you ever leave?
I still live in the shed. I would like to stay. I’ve recently applied to Cornwall Council for a lawful development certificate, based on the fact I’ve been living there for four years. We’ll see what happens. My biggest dream is making loads of money and buying a bit more land behind the shed and growing more food and planting flowers for pollinators and creating habitats for some of the creatures that are struggling, like barn owls. The land is intensively farmed and it looks so sad and exhausted. I’d love to find a way to make it healthier and to be part of a regenerative farming movement.