‘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.
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.
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