Little Grey Men

1941 offers a rural odyssey with BB’s little grey men.

The Little Grey Men – first edition jacket

I had a somewhat unplanned summer hiatus from this blog, but as the autumn term beckons I am back in the blogging saddle with the 1942 Carnegie winner, The Little Grey Men by ‘BB’. ‘BB’ was actually Denys Watkins-Pitchford, a Northampton-born naturalist who produced beautiful nature drawings. He also illustrated The Little Grey Men; my copy carries black and white illustrations by him, but is missing the watercolour plates that were in the first edition. (It also replaces his jacket illustration with one by Edward Ardizzone, which I have to say I like a lot more.)

The book focuses on Baldmoney, Sneezewort and Dodder, ‘the last gnomes in England’:

Rather surprisingly, [Baldmoney] was extraordinary like the pictures of gnomes in fairy books, even to the pointed skin hat and long beard. He wore a short coat and waistcoat of mouse-skin with a strip of snake-skin round his middle; moleskin breeches tied in below the knee, but no shoes or stockings. He had no need of these, for gnomes are hairy little folk; in summer time they sometimes dispense with clothes altogether. Their bodies are not naked like ours, but clothed in long hair, and as to their feet, if you had not worn boots of shoes since you were born, you would have no need of them either. He carried a hunting knife in his belt, made of hammered iron, part of an old hinge which he had found in the stream.

However extraordinarily like the pictures of gnomes in fairy books these particular gnomes may be, the book is pretty far from the kind of book that suggests to me. This is definitely not a fairy story, and apart from being very small, the gnomes do not really resemble fairies in terms of supernatural qualities. In fact, they’re a kind of cross between small woodland creatures and rural working men: the charcoal burners in Ransome’s books would definitely get on well with them. As you might expect from Watkins’ Pitchford’s biography, this is intentional: the introduction to the book explicitly tells us that ‘the birds and wild animals are the Little People’, and the book as a whole is clearly very interested in the idea of an enduring country heritage which is embodied in these gnomes who have been there ‘since before Julius Caesar’. So there’s a definite return here to some of the concerns we’ve seen in earlier Carnegie medallists. There’s a much more prominent environment concern, though: there are frequent allusions to the way human beings are impacting on the environment, such as the effect of tarred roads on the stickleback population (the runoff poisons the water, apparently).

There are some quite pleasing details at the beginning about the gnomes and how they live (Dodder has a prosthetic leg which is based around an acorn cup, and they consult the kingfisher on the best material to use to replace the twig which forms the actual leg). Then the main conflict of the plot kicks off: their brother Cloudberry departed some months ago on a journey to find the source of the stream, but never returned. The rest of the novel follows their (successful) quest to find Cloudberry, a quest which takes then away from their sanctuary in the woods and into territory controlled by men. The main drama takes place when they reach a wood controlled by a gamekeeper, the ‘Giant Grum’, who kills all the small creatures who enter his territory and who, they fear, may have killed Cloudberry. This precipitates the strangest part of this book. The gnomes and woodland creatures call on the God Pan to help them kill the Giant Grum, who obliges by providing Dodder with 6 oak leaves which he stuff into the Giant’s gun barrel, causing the gun to explode and kill the Giant (who is of course the gamekeeper).

This incident is… weird. From the point of view of the gnomes and the other woodland creatures, it’s completely justified. The Giant Grum is a wanton killer who they all live in fear of. And from the point of view of the naturalist, the ecological monosystem which the Giant Grum seems to be creating with his policy of ‘kill all life except pheasants’ is also clearly a problem (although the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust claim that pheasant woods are actually quite good for ecological diversity) – I’d be interested to know if this is the common view today). But the sudden murder of one of the only human characters in the book is a bit startling, coming in the middle of a fairly gentle children’s books, and it’s made more startling by the way Giant Grum is presented immediately beforehand:

Giant Grum had no appetite for breakfast, and his wife was worried. All night he had tossed and turned in his sleep, muttering, groaning. His wife wanted him to stay in bed.

‘You have the flu, I’m sure; lie still and let me send for the doctor.’

But he would not. ‘No, the fresh air will do me good; I must go down to the pens. It’s fresh air I want. Perhaps this hot weather has got me down a bit.’

[…] He strode along with his dog at his heel. Two hundred yards from the house was a clearing and here the pheasant pens were ranged row on row. At intervals were poles from which were suspended the bodies of crows, jays, and magpies, who came to rob him of his precious chicks. As soon as he came within sight of the clearing he stopped short. Something was wrong, not a pheasant was to be seen! Usually they came running to him like chickens to be fed, but the place was deserted.

Giant Grum is clearly not just a giant, but a perfectly ordinary man who is doing his work conscientiously. This section is so sympathetic that I wonder whether Watkins-Pitchford doesn’t want us to direct our anger elsewhere, but if this is the case then the book as a whole fails. The gamekeeper, after all, is just an employee who is maintaining a pheasant wood for the benefit of his wealthy employers. We briefly meet these employers later on, but they are infinitely more sympathetic than Giant Grum. Indeed, insofar as there is a focalising child character it is the small son of the landowner, who is conveniently also afraid of the gamekeeper and relieved to learn he has gone away for a long holiday from which he is not expected to return. So we’re not encouraged to lay the sins of Giant Grum at his employers’ doors where, presumably, they really belong.

These inconsistencies in tone are particularly interesting if you read this book against its historical context. The idea of a violent struggle for access to the land makes sense when read against the birth of the Ramblers Association, notably the mass trespass of Kinder Scout only a decade before this book was published. The title of the first chapter in the game wood certainly seems to situate the book within this context: it’s called ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted!’ But that struggle was closely connected with issues of class and the question of whether landowners have a right to fence off land which is part of the common heritage of the people, so if Watkins-Pitchford was intentionally alluding to that it would make more sense for the actual landowners to come across in a more unsympathetic fashion. If anyone knows more about where he stood in relation to this movement I’d be most pleased to hear about it.

The other interesting historical context for this book is, of course, the war. It’s only briefly mentioned, but the very forceful return to a narrative which intensely treasures the wild spaces of Britain I think partly reflects the sense of the country as a precious space which is to be defended. Owen Dudley Smith sees the violence of the gamekeeper’s death as reflective of the war, but I’m not really convinced by that reading.

This is one of those books where my adult reader and my child reader don’t really align. As an adult, I find this book fascinating, because it’s so clearly engaging with lots of ideas about land and heritage and rural tradition. But I did actually read this book as a child, and I did not like it at all. I remember being quite unsettled by it, in fact – I don’t remember Giant Grum’s death, but it may have been this that bothered me. I think, though, that it was more that the presence of gnomes made me thing I was going to get a more fantasy oriented book, and in fact it’s much more interested in nature and fishing and so on. It’s certainly quite a slow book by modern standards, and I suspect for this reason it would be less engaging to many contemporary children. However, it’s still in print, so someone is buying it!

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 7/10 – I think this is a better book than We Couldn’t Leave Dinah, but I liked it less.

Plot: 8/10

Characterisation: 7/10

Themes: Countryside, heritage, land, fantasy

Publisher: Eyre and Spottiswood

Illustrator: Watkins-Pitchford

Author’s nationality/race: White English






We Couldn’t Leave Dinah

Another wartime story, this one with ponies: We Couldn’t Leave Dinah. Needs more gymkhanas.

Caveat: I read this fairly recently, but couldn’t find my copy this week to refresh myself, so this might suffer slightly from the vagaries of my memory. Also (ironically), this post is even more spoilery than usual, so don’t read if this will bother you.

1941 saw the Carnegie Medal continue its focus on war with Mary Treadgold’s We Couldn’t Leave Dinah, a pony story cum wartime adventure set on the Channel Islands. Caroline, Mick and Thomas Templeton – English residents of fictional island Clerinel, and all members of their local Pony Club – are faced with evacuation to the UK as fears of a German occupation of the island grow. The Germans invade the same night as the evacuation, and in the chaos Caroline and Mick manage to get themselves left behind, and end up concealing themselves and their ponies in a cave originally meant as the new headquarters for the Pony Club. With the help of their French friend Peter, they manage to organise a way off the island for themselves, though not before Mick is forced to teach the daughter of the German general occupying their home how to ride (he masquerades as their French servant). In the process, he uncovers some information which can be used against the Germans. They depart the island in possession of this information, but leaving behind their pony Dinah, who they conclude will be safe with the Gernam child Nannerl until they can return for her.

Mary Treadgold was inspired to write the story after reading many terrible pony books  while working as editor of Heinemann, and this is generally referred to as a pony book. I was quite excited about this, because I had my prescribed horsey phase as a small girl and can still get excited about winning the gymkhana with the pony tricked out in lovingly restored tack found in the old stables. As the summary above demonstrates, however, there’s quite a lot more going on in this book and I found it rather lacking in pony detail. Even though the children are obsessed with the Pony Club, it felt more like a plot device than a central focus. I liked the book less as a result, although this says more about me than about the virtues of the plot. The drama of the plot focuses around the danger that the children will get caught and their accidental involvement in an English spy ring operating on the island, and while I’m willing to accept this in theory, in practice I’m more excited about who wins the gymkhana.

The most interesting part of the novel (to me, anyway) is the way that it explores changing identities and allegiances in the context of war. The book begins with a fancy dress party organised for the Pony Club by the new President of the Pony Club, Peter, who is one of the French residents of the island. The party provides an excuse for a group of Germans to land in disguse and take over key strategic points on the island, thus facilitating the invasion. This sets up a running tension through the book: Caroline sees the Germans and later puts two and two together, and so the children are faced with the prospect that Peter’s father – and possibly Peter himself – are in fact German collaborators. At the end of the book, it’s revealed that Peter’s father did collaborate with the Germans, but only because they have family in Germany who are being held hostage against his cooperation. The genuine sympathy with which Treadgold portrays this character is important given that she was writing shortly after the establishment of the Vichy government in France: it’s made clear that this has been an agonising decision. The introduction of the German child, Nannerl, is also key: although they imagine she will be a horrible Nazi, she turns out to be a small, rather comical figure who shares their love of horses and desperately wants to learn to ride.  They find her desperately annoying and inconvenient, but in the same way as they are annoyed by their younger brother, and during the course of the book they win her over. At the end of the novel, they are not only sure that Nannerl will take good care of Dinah, they make her an honorary member of the Pony Club and look forward to the possibility that they might meet again as fellow members of the Club in happier times. There’s something rather wonderful about the fact that the wartime committee chose a book with such a clear message about the potential for unity across nationalities, and with such a sympathy for those caught between what was moral and what was safe.

Despite these good qualities, Treadgold’s portrayal of the actual non-English characters is rather clunky, and there is just a shadow of a sense that whatever the good qualities of other nations there’s something special about being English. There’s also a bit of a gendered quality to the characterisation: once the two children are living in the cave Caroline is largely quite anxious, while Mick gets drawn into the discovery of a possible spy ring and becomes much more brave and adventurous. There are some nice bits of characterisation in this section (when my copy eventually reappears I’ll come back and add a quote), but this story does feel more gendered than any of the previous winners.

Plotwise – lack of gymkhanas aside – this does clip along well and there’s a reasonable level of realism. Based on the title, I had always imagined this was a story in which the children actually refused to be evacuated, but in fact although they’re sad about leaving their pony, it’s pure accident that they don’t make it onto the boat and they’re pretty panicked about it. And despite my quibbles about the gendered nature of it, I like the fact that hiding out in a cave is not portrayed as all a jolly good adventure – it’s all a bit nervewracking and uncomfortable.

This is the second winner I’ve come to which is out-of-print, but it survived much longer than Visitors From London: the last edition in WorldCat is 1982, two decades later than the last edition of Kitty Barne’s book. I find this surprising in terms of quality: this isn’t a bad book, but it’s nowhere near as vivid or interesting as  Visitors from London. I suspect that the pony story aspect helped a lot here, since it lends itself to marketing – I’ve noticed that other stories with a pony element tend to have that played up on the jacket, however slight the focus on ponies within.

1941 was slim pickings for children’s publishing, which probably helped Treadgold: Ransome’s Missee Lee came out this year, but was ineligible since at this time authors couldn’t win more than once (not sorry about this, Missee Lee is the most problematic of Ransome’s books by a long chalk), and P.L. Travers also published an evacuation story, I Go By Sea, I Go By Land. I haven’t read the latter, so I’m not sure how We Couldn’t Leave Dinah holds up in comparison (cue yet another book purchase, whoops). I’m not convinced it is really an outstanding book, but on the whole I’d rather have this one celebrated than no award at all. Marcus Crouch, though, suggests that the award was premature in terms of Treadgold’s writing career – I enjoyed this one enough for that to pique my interest in her other works.


Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 6/10

Plot: 6/10

Characterisation: 5/10

Themes: War, evacuation,  ponies, nationhood, adventure, spies

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Illustrator: Stuart Tresilian (but my paperback edition had none of the illustrations, so I can’t comment on these)

Author’s nationality/race: (A new category, I realised the other day I’d like to keep track of this, and also not note race only when the author was non-white. Not that this is likely to be an issue for a while.) White English