Voyage upriver

The ‘Roi des Belges’, the Belgian riverboat Joseph Conrad commanded on the upper Congo, 1889

‘BB’ (D J Watkins-Pitchford):
The Little Grey Men
Oxford University Press 2012 (1942)

“This is a story about the last gnomes in Britain,” begins the author’s introduction to this story, winner of the Carnegie Medal in the dark days of the second world war. The author, long the art master at Rugby School in Warwickshire, clearly based his tale on a countryside he knew well for not only is this an affectionate piece of nature writing set on and around a brook, ‘BB’ himself illustrated the text, and included a handful of songs with piano accompaniment credited to, perhaps, his father.

Two gnomes, Baldmoney and Sneezewort, set off one spring morning up the Folly Brook in search of the long-lost Cloudberry who, a year before, had himself gone in quest of the stream’s source. They leave behind the older, rather grumpy, Dodder who’d lost a leg to a fox many years ago; thus begins a voyage upriver, full of delights but also fraught with danger and mortal perils.

The Little Grey Men is charming and old-fashioned (with all that implies), a mini-adventure for us but a hardy expedition for the gnomes that undertake the journey. Will they achieve their goal or will it all end in disaster, not least from the prying eyes of Giants?

As it happens — this being a classic children’s book — some things at least turn out well, as can be gauged by the fact that ‘BB’ followed this up with Down the Bright Stream, heading in the opposite direction. This odyssey hinges on the archetypal plot Voyage and Return but mostly seen (except for a couple or so instances) from the gnomes’ point of view, as interpreted by the omniscient narrator.

Strictly speaking gnomes (the word was coined by Paracelsus during the Renaissance) were earth-dwellers, and these three did indeed live under a tree bole, but they are equally at ease in the water and, curiously, in the air. You may have also noticed that their names are taken from the common names of native plants.

Dodder by ‘BB’

So, the tale. The travellers, familiar with coracles, decide instead on a clinker-built boat for their journey, one which will take them past a mill, up rapids, through a wood patrolled by a wicked gamekeeper, under a bridge and through an ocean-like lake on an estate. They are variously cast away, carried aloft on a heron and a goose, and find themselves in dire straits from a fox. For, despite being creatures who have lived for more than two millennia, they are still susceptible to death’s sting.

Paddle Steamer ‘Jeanie Deans’

A few literary analogies suggest themselves. First, we are introduced to a model boat called the Jeanie Deans, named after a steadfast character in a Walter Scott novel. In truth several vessels were named after her, including a paddle steamer which saw action as a minesweeper during the war, with which ‘BB’ might have been familiar from the news; the model in this book, commandeered at one stage by the gnomes, is not in fact a paddle steamer, however.

The Little Grey Men immediately reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness novel, in which a boat travels up the Congo in search of an ivory-trader called Kurtz, just as the gnomes quest for Cloudberry. There is also an episode which put me in mind of ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ chapter in The Wind in the Willows (1908) and a scene in E Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle (1907).

But the more I read on the more the parallels with The Hobbit (1937) struck me: diminutive creatures living in holes in the ground undertake a perilous journey in which other creatures, both friendly and inimical, are encountered and obstacles overcome, before safely returning home. Unlike The Hobbit, which was nominated for but didn’t win the Carnegie Medal, The Little Grey Men did receive the accolade, though it is now considerably less known.

Like Tolkien’s work, Watkins-Pitchford’s suffers terribly from a patronising tone, its avuncularism matched by the contemporary condescension towards women. Other aspects grated too, such as an acceptance of blood sports like foxhunting, though this was mitigated by his repulsion against the wanton killing of birds and animals by gamekeepers, though I was not at all convinced that the manslaughter of one individual could be justified.

What, however, will remain with me will be the author’s lyrical reflections on nature, on the changing seasons (the book goes from spring to the onset of winter) and on the variety of delights that the countryside offers; through pastoral idyll, frost and tempest alike we are allowed to share vicariously the joys of a corner of the West Midlands that may still just be clinging on to a near pristine state.


This is the 6th read in my 20 Books of Summer, number two on my list here. It is also, mirabile dictu, my 900th post

27 thoughts on “Voyage upriver

  1. 900 posts! I am in awe! And this sounds a charming book, notwithstanding the issues pertinent to its era. Gnomes, hobbits and Heart of Darkness (a book I had huge issues with) …. it’s not often they appear together in one post. An achievement worthy of the 900th 🙂 🏆 😀

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    1. Thanks, Sandra—this achievement is all down to a life of gradually acquiring indolence from no longer having to work for a living! Though how much longer I will be able to keep up this pace of roughly one post every two days, and every second post a review, is open for debate! We’ll see…

      Yes, this book is a strange one. I always feel that, unlike modern works where I can focus almost totally on literary matters, older classics require me to caution against outdated attitudes in respect of gender, race, class and a host of other cultural assumptions.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, it’s a sign of our times to be particularly aware of such sensibilities. When I’m reading I can invariably acknowledge to myself exactly that and not feel affronted. Heart of Darkness is the stand-out for me: I could not get past my horror and distaste for Conrad’s attitudes. I tell myself that one day I’ll try again now I know what to expect. One day….

        As for indolence – 900 articulate and thought-provoking posts seems more industrious than indolent to me!

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        1. I looked again at my Conrad review (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-darkness) and see that I found some aspects of it distasteful, but may have put that down to Marlow as narrator rather than Conrad’s own views. But who knows? I didn’t at the time, but ought to research his life more.

          Me industrious? Only when I’m enjoying something!

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    1. Hah! I thought they were quite twee names until I thought that sneezewort sounded familiar. Turns out they are all plant names: cloudberry is an “amber-coloured edible fruit similar to the raspberry or blackberry”, sneezewort (Achillea ptarmica) is “a species of herbaceous perennial flowering plant”; dodder, meanwhile, is “any leafless, twining, parasitic plant in the morning glory family (Convolvulaceae)” and baldmoney (Meum athamanticum) is an “aromatic perennial plant belonging to the family Apiaceae” also known as spignel.

      Researching further, I find that Harry Potter read up in the Half Blood Prince’s book that sneezewort is “moste efficacious in the inflaming of the braine, and [is] therefore much used in Confusing and Befuddlement Draughts, where the wizard is desirous of producing hot-headedness and recklessness”.

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  2. 900th post! Congratulations! And the topic is quite interesting; especially considering your reference to Conrad 🙂 What is really catching, however, are the botanical names of the gnomes 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Ola, I think I’m getting the hang of this blogging mullarkey now!

      Flower names: in a small way this author has begun what Jo Rowling went overboard for in the HP books — names like Lily, Petunia, Lupin, Narcissa and so on — though she tended to use more familiar epithets rather than obscure ones like Baldmoney or Sneezewort!

      I maybe shouldn’t have pushed the Conrad parallel too much if it wasn’t for what I saw as the less acceptable attitudes expressed; now I’m thinking that there must be other narratives that use the theme of a riverboat going upriver. I remember seeing the film Fitzcarraldo many years ago about an obsessive who tried to take a riverboat up an almost impassable South American waterway, and thinking I ought to look out for it again.

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      1. You’re too humble by far, Chris! I always enjoy reading your entries, and I learn a lot from them 🙂

        J.K. went too far with the flower names, I agree – especially that the persons bearing them were nothing like their names! (Pansy Parkinson, or Petunia Dudley… I still shudder at the thought!)

        Yeah, Fitzcarraldo was one of a kind 😉 Most Herzog’s movies are, come to think of it…

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        1. I am rather prone to litotes and other forms of understatement, it’s true, but it’s a form of defence, I suppose, more than false modesty! I’m forever qualifying statements, knowing that there’s nearly always an exception to a rule, so would (almost) never distinguish anything in absolute terms, least of all by accomplishments… 😁 But I’m glad I can be informative as well as entertaining, thanks!

          Going overboard with names: I guess the example is there with the Puritans giving girls especially virtuous forenames — Faith, Hope, Charity, Modesty, Felicity and Chastity, for example.

          The only other Herzog film I recall watching is Nosferatu, I should really range a bit more widely.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. You’re welcome! And a bit of pride is actually not a bad thing at all – in right proportion 🙂

            My favourite was Increase Mather 😀

            I’m not sure how you stand with war movies, and I do not count myself as a great connoisseur of his movies, but Rescue Dawn is an interesting one, very signature Herzog for its un-Herzog theme ;). For the heavier Herzogian experience, I can recommend Aguirre The Wrath of God 😉

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            1. Yes, Aguirre is one of Herzog’s films I see most often referenced, so I’ll bear that in mind (particularly as war movies — litotes alert! — aren’t my favourite genre). 🙂

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    1. I’m an inveterate bookshop browser, Jean, and tend (especially in secondhand shops) to grab any title that I find intriguing — and this was one of them!

      When I was a library assistant in my early twenties I remember shelving books by this pseudonymous author ‘BB’, never much attracted to the subject matter but thinking what an awkward pen name it was.

      Now that I know he took it from the size of the lead shot he used to, er, shoot geese I like him a little less, but I may still look out his other books.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Tempting as you’ve made this one sound, I think I will resist it, for now. Not least because I’m still only one book into my summer reading list.

    I was drawn by the thought of a Heart of Darkness mirror, but The Hobbit? Not so sure. I found that one difficult, for the reasons you’ve listed. Nice review, and last, but not least, congratulations on having created 900 consistently high quality posts.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Coming as it is from a published author and writing tutor your compliment is gratefully accepted, Cath, thank you! And don’t feel at all obliged to read this — life’s too short, this book won’t change your life, and it’s better to go with your priorities rather than be swayed by a guarded review! Good luck with your summer reading, at least I’m fortunate to have the time and leisure to keep up to date with my self-imposed goals. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Chris, for the compliment and the confirmation of my decision. I think you missed a word or two off your list of advantages, you’ve also got the commitment and the interest to stick to your ‘self-imposed goals’. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Isn’t “Journey and Return” one of the seven basic plots? (I haven’t read that book, but the concept intrigues me.). I’ve been avoiding Heart of Darkness but seeing these parallels might help me get through it.

    Read with my son a couple of years ago and he loved it. I think the descriptions of nature made far more impact on him than the more unsavory elements. I was a little shocked by the summary execution of the gamekeeper but this seemed appropriate enough to him, as do the usual fairy tale punishments to children. I just hope it will caution him to be careful with guns.

    I believe the music was written by the author’s brother – my edition is currently in a box stuck in customs, but I think there was an introduction that mentioned this.

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    1. Voyage and Return is indeed one of those basic plots, Lory — https://wp.me/s2oNj1-plots — and, as is often the case, this novel also includes a couple of other ones too, Overcoming the Monster and The Quest. I’m glad your son was able to appreciate the nature writing, something I wouldn’t have had patience for either as a teen or pre-teen. I expect he saw the gamekeeper incident as part of the Giant-killing trope it was no doubt meant to be!

      I saw that DJ’s father’s name was Walter but hadn’t realised he had a brother with the same name; it makes a little more sense that his brother would have arranged the songs, or indeed composed them.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Congratulations on your 900th post, Chris! That is awesome and I look forward to many more! 🙂 This sounds like a book I would enjoy. And it’s interesting that all of their names are plant names. I guess it ties in with the connection to nature. It also sounds like there is some beautiful nature writing included.
    The Hobbit-like journey combined with beautiful descriptions of nature are appealing to me. I will be adding this one too my TBR! :).

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  6. Congratulations on your milestone! I’m tickled that it’s about a childhood favourite for me – my copy is still on the shelf, although I’ve no idea when I last reread it. But you make it very tempting. I’d never really considered the parallel to The Hobbit, although as it sits nestled with The Borrowers, Watership Down and The Animals of Farthing Wood in my collection I clearly had trends and topics that tickled me even when I was in single digits 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Borrowers and Watership Down are certainly excellent companions for this (haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting the denizens of Farthing Wood); published not long after The Hobbit I can’t believe that ‘BB’ wouldn’t have been just a tiny bit influenced by Tolkien’s tale, though in no way is it a slavish copy. I also wonder if a lingering echo of these titles resonated with Pratchett, to produce the Wee Free Men and the Carpet People (though I’ve yet to read the latter).

      Anyway, if you’re inspired to reread it I’ll take that as a huge compliment! And thanks for the wishes—on now to my thousandth post!

      Liked by 1 person

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