Little Grey Men

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

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littlegreymen
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

 

 

 

 

 

Visitors from London

A forgotten treasure: Kitty Barne’s Visitors from London

The first Carnegie Medal winner published during the war years (The Radium Woman having slightly predated the start of the war) tackled the war itself: Kitty Barne’s Visitors From London  is an evacuation story. It’s actually a sequel to Barne’s earlier novel Family Footlights, which is about the same family, but since I haven’t read Family Footlights I can say with some confidence that it stands alone. This is a summer holiday story with some genetic similarity to Arthur Ransome’s books, but with a wartime twist. The book takes place in the first months of the war, when Operation Pied Piper was put into action. The four Farrar children are spending the summer in the country with their Aunt Myra, but what promises to be a peaceful holiday is interrupted by the news that evacuees are to be billeted at the nearby farmhouse, Steadings. The Farrars and Aunt Myra are roped into preparing for the evacuees and taking care of them: hijinks ensue. By the end of the summer, the evacuees have mostly retreated back to London (as many did during the ‘phony war’) and the children return to their boarding school.

This is the first of the winning novels which isn’t still in print; according to Keith Barker it was the first of the Carnegie books to go out of print. Both Barker and Pat Thomson (writing in Carousel) seem to find this unsurprising and regard the book as rather dated. This baffles me, because I found it utterly fresh and engaging. One of the criticisms often levelled at children’s books of this period is that their child characters are preternaturally goodtempered, well behaved, and respectful to their elders. It’s a criticism I previously took at face value, but reading this book really underlines how lazy a characterisation of the period it is. All Barne’s characters are very distinct, realistic, and not above a bit of family discord: I particularly enjoyed the youngest girl, Sally, who has frequent burst of outrage when things don’t go her way. I also loved the evacuee Lily, an enormously competent twelve-year-old who has cared for her two younger siblings since the death of her mother. Barne does a great job of depicting the complex jockeying for position between the evacuees and the Steadings people, between members of the different families, and between children and adults. Typically, it’s the children who win out in these scenarios, often by subtly manipulating the adults – as when 10-year-old Jimmy succeeds in deflecting the wrath of a local warden bent on accusng them of breaking the blackout by informing him in a concerned manner that he’s left his car running – an offence during wartime.

Barker suggests that the book is rather patronising towards the evacuees, but although they are certainly a source of humour I found Barne’s treatment of all the working-class characters both respectful and (as far as I can judge from this historical distance) realistic. Lily is comical in her role as miniature mother, but Barne also makes it clear that she is in fact a very competent parent who loves her siblings and does a good job of looking after them. She has a moment of triumph right at the beginning of the book when it’s discovered that despite all the talk of ‘iron rations’ she is the only person who has had the sense to bring a  tin opener, and there’s also a nice indication that she is smart and has potential to do more than work in a factory (the fate she expects once she turns 15). Along with Lily – an honorary ‘mother’ there’s Mrs Fell, ‘pretty free with her slaps’ and deeply suspicious of the country; Mrs Jacobson, ‘dark, plump, good-humoured, inclined to make the best of things’; and Mrs Thompson, controlled by her husband, terrified of the bombs and just about everything else; all accompanied by their children. In other words, we don’t have a generic portrait of the working classes here, but a much more nuanced portrayal of diverse people from very subtly different backgrounds who respond in different but understandable ways to the strange situation in which they find themselves.

Some of the themes which were present in the other books I’ve written about so far resurface here. There is a strong sense of the value of the countryside as a source of enduring stability and tradition. At the start of the book, Gerda (the eldest Farrar girl) imagines the farmers’ wives who have inhabited the old house ‘whisking in and out of the doors, hanging up their bacon on those hooks, making their cheeses in that small dairy’, and the book is full of such details of country life. The knowledge of the shepherds  – Old Tolhurst and Young Tolhurst (like Ransome’s Billies, both are old men) – is given special respect both by the characters of the book and by the narrative voice. One of the evacuees, Fred Fell, is immediately drawn to the shepherds and proves to be a natural at keeping sheep; in an interesting linking of place and race, Young Tolhurst suggests that the name ‘Fell’ suggests it is in his blood. Yet the book is not solely backwards looking. Barne pokes a little fun at middle-class attempts to revive ‘traditional’ ways through the character of Mrs Meredith-Smith, who vainly attempts to persuade children to play the ancient Sussex game of stoolball, and is generally portrayed as well-meaning but rather sentimental. More fundamentally, the success of the whole community is derived not from a return to ‘traditional’ ways of being but from a willingness to accept change and work together. I share Kim Reynolds’ view (in her forthcoming book Left Behind) that Barne presents the Steadings community as a sort of democratic experiment: everyone has to work together and accept one another’s peculiarities in order to achieve a greater good.

Ruth Gervis, who illustrated the first edition, also deserves credit for her charming and lively pencil drawings. Her contribution to this means that the Carnegie Medal in its early years had something of a family quality: as I mentioned in my Ballet Shoes post, Gervis was Noel Streatfeild’s sister, and Kitty Barne was their cousin-in-law. (The literary connection, however, was that they were published by Dent.) She’s a brilliant illustrator, and surprisingly for a wartime book was given quite a bt of latitude: there are 40 illustrations scattered throughout the text.

Why did this book not ‘stick’ when it’s so lively? The last reprint by Dent seems to have been 1960, and then there was one by Cedric Chivers (who seem to be largely a book binding firm – anyone know more about them?) in 1972. This is about the time that books by people who were children in the war started to appear – Carrie’s War came out in 1973. So perhaps this didn’t quite chime with the vision of the war which was being created in retrospect. Or perhaps the impulse to create a new literature in the 1960s contributed to this being mischaracterised as rather more staid and nostalgic than it really is. Whatever the reason, this seems to me to be a prime candidate for a reprint.

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 9/10

Plot: 9/10 – a little episodic

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Home, heritage, history, modernity, war, evacuation, change

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Ruth Gervis

 

 

Pigeon Post

Pigeon Post gets the Carnegie Medal off to a good start with a realistically plotted story which celebrates the rural landscapes of Britain.

The Carnegie Medal kicked off in 1936 with Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post, the sixth book in the Swallows and Amazons series. Whenever I see this mentioned, the general consensus always seems to be that it was a ‘safe’ award which was really recognising Arthur Ransome’s body of work as a whole. Keith Barker, in his history of the Carnegie, says that Arthur Ransome himself said it wasn’t his best work. Well, I’m here to say that all these commentators are wrong, wrong, wrong. This far exceeded my expectations.

This is one of the Lake District books, and brings together all the main characters from the previous five books: John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker (the Swallows); Nancy and Peggy Blackett (the Amazons) and Dick and Dorothea (the D’s). There’s very little sailing in this book: instead, the plot centres around their efforts prospecting for gold up on the fells. There’s an enemy – the mysterious Squashy Hatted man who seems also to be  seeking gold – and a more realistic external threat in the form of a severe drought which has everyone in the area worried about fell fires.

I love the opening of the book, which gives a great ‘Previously, in the Swallows and Amazons series…’ via a dialogue between Titty and Roger and a farmer’s wife on the train, who knows Mrs Blackett:

“Aye, and her daughters too, and her brother Mr Turner that’s for ever gallivanting off to foreign parts …”

“We know him too,” said Roger. “We call him …” And he stopped short. There was no point in giving away Captain Flint’s name to natives.

“You’ve been here before, likely,” said the farmer’s wife. “Oh yes,” said Titty. “We always stay at Holly Howe … at least mother does … but Mrs Jackson’s got visitors for the next two weeks … Mrs Blackett’s having us till then because mother didn’t want Bridget to give us all whooping-cough.”

“We’ve come straight from school,” said Roger. “Eh,” said the farmer’s wife. “I know all about you. You’ll be the young folk that were camping on the island down the lake two years since when Mr Turner had his houseboat broke into. And you were here again last winter when the lake was froze over. But I thought there was four of you …”

“Five, with Bridget,” said Titty. “John and Susan must be here already. It isn’t so far from their schools.”

“And weren’t you friends with the two at Mrs Dixon’s?”

“Dick and Dorothea Callum,” said Titty.

We get a quick primer on all our characters, and set up a few things which are instrumental to the plot: the absence of Mrs Walker, (which results in a recurring anxiety on the part of Mrs Blackett about what the children are getting up to), the fact that the Swallows aren’t at the Jacksons (and thus won’t have access to their sailing boat), and Captain Flint’s penchant for foreign travel. It also subtly works to establish the Walkers as belonging in this community, which is a recurrent theme in this book.

Ransome is often criticised for writing essentially static characters – Geoffrey Trease was particularly vocal about this – but the care he takes to set things up here belies that. It’s important to Ransome to set up a reason why they’re not simply repeating the activities of the first book (which would be boring) – a love of sailing is really central to the Swallows’ and Amazons’ personalities, so it would be out of character if they just randomly decided to do something different. It’s also important that we know who these characters are, because they are slowly growing and changing and the adventures of the previous books actually matter. The whole book is actually full of lovely little character moments: one of the best scenes is when they are trying dowsing and it actually works for Titty, who totally freaks out. Her reaction is perfect for her character: she’s the most imaginative and sensitive of the Walkers, not used to being in the limelight (as second youngest), and  not really expecting anything to happen since the older children, whom she respects, haven’t managed to get it to work. I also love the way Susan is portrayed in this book: Susan is one of the characters who gets short shrift from a lot of critics because she’s a kind of ‘miniature adult’ who is mostly concerned with washing up and bedtimes. She’s definitely not the character who most readers identify with, and she’s partly there to fulfil a plot function by being the ‘serious’ one who grown-ups trust to make their undsupervised adventures safe. In Pigeon Post, though, we actually get a glimpse of what it’s like for Susan to be the one who plays this role: it comes across most powerfully in the moment when the older ones realise that the younger children are in the middle of a fell fire, and Susan reacts with the kind of horror that only comes with being the person who really feels responsible for everyone else’s wellbeing. I’m certain Susan’s character resonates more for me at 35 than she would have when I was 8, but I think it’s still important to the book as a whole that she’s there – and Ransome’s readers in 1936 were substantially more likely to have responsibility for the younger siblings than children of the same age are today.

I find Pigeon Post an interesting pick for the very first Carnegie Medal, because it is deeply concerned with the land, with ideas of belonging, and with heritage and history. The earlier books in the Swallows and Amazons series involve a lot of games in which the children imagine the British landscape as a foreign space, but that’s more or less absent here. The prospecting plot is motivated by their desire to prove to Captain Flint that rather than travelling overseas, he should ‘look for things here’, and the whole plot thereafter is concerned with uncovering valuable things in the landscape. Their prospecting does eventually bear fruit (although they find copper rather than gold), and Titty’s success at dowsing also allows them to find water, which in the context of the drought is even more precious. They draw on various bits of ‘traditional’ knowledge: a local story about finding gold in the fells, the water divining, making charcoal, and the use of homing pigeons for the titular pigeon post. The tension that runs through the book is also fundamentally to do with belonging: the farmer whose land they are staying on is deeply concerned about the possibility that they will accidentally set fire to the fells, and it’s clear that she sees them as lacking in a real appreciation of the importance of the land and the degree to which a fire would be devastating to local livelihoods. The climax of the book, in which the children save the farm from a fire with the aid of a well they have created and a homing pigeon who alerts the local fire volunteers, serves to resolve this conflict and confirm them as ‘belonging’ to the land. What we have here, then, is a beautifully constructed narrative about identity.

In case it is not clear, I LOVE this book and think it absolutely holds up after 80 years. I know from teaching Ransome’s books that my students, at least, tend to find him heavy going, and I think it’s probably the case that his appeal today isn’t what it was in the 1930s. This is a longer, slower novel than most children (or adults) are used to now. That said, I think that there are still children who would enjoy this book. There’s also nothing in it that would make me cringe at giving it to a child, which is nice for a book from 1936. A++ inaugural Carnegie committee.

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 10/10 (let’s start by setting the bar high!)

Plot: 9/10

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Home, heritage, history, camping and tramping

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Illustrator: Arthur Ransome

Competition

There were two highly commended books in 1936: Howard Spring’s Sampson’s Circus (Faber and Faber) and Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (Dent). We’ll be hearing from Streatfeild again…