Denys Watkins- Pitchford, alias BB, writer and artist, spent his latter years living in a roundhouse, in Sudborough, in Northamptonshire, the county where he grew up and spent most of his life. There is something fitting about this home because his most enduring literary creation was a saga about gnomes whose home was inside a hollow oak tree, next to the Folly Brook. The Little Grey Men was first published in 1942 but as I write this there are rumours of a television company looking into a new broadcast version and the celebrated nature writer and novelist Melissa Harrison has just announced her own sequel, to be published next March.
I first read the book when I was nine years old before later coming across the story again in a TV version from 1979. On both occasions, it had gripped me primarily as a quest saga, whose heroes were small and insignificant like myself and yet managed to navigate the perils of their imaginary world. Then, about ten years ago, I was idly leafing through the old books in a Bed and Breakfast one winter when I struck upon the familiar title, and upon opening it had a revelation. Here was writing that immediately brought back to me memories of long-absent spring.
‘It was one of those days at the tail end of winter when spring, in some subtle way, announced its presence. The hedges were still purple and bristly, the fields bleached and bitten, full of starling flocks; but the winter was virtually over…’
I chose to write about this book and its author now because of the adventure it recounts, of three of the last gnomes in England, Baldmoney, Sneezewort and Dodder and their search for their brother Cloudberry, who has disappeared on a journey to find the source of the Folly Brook, begins with this overture to spring and ends with the first snow of winter… But as I re-read the Little Grey Men I found myself wanting to go beyond an exploration of its brilliance as a nature diary contained within a story, and consider its subversive nature.
In her book, ‘Not in front of the grown-ups’, the novelist and academic Alison Lurie argued that the best stories for children are far from the tame and improving tales parents usually wish for and instead take a child’s eye view which often mocks the conceits and hypocrisies of adults. An example she gives is the Alice books, where educators of all kinds receive a severe satirical drubbing. Edith Nesbit herself insisted that the most successful children’s stories are written from the perspective of children by writers who have never forgotten what it was to be like a child. BB himself unquestionably saw his own childhood as his golden age; a time when entirely escaping formal schooling he was free to roam the countryside around his childhood home, Lamport Rectory, often in the company of his father’s servants. But I think there is another level to the subversion we find in his writing. The Little Grey Men now reads like a literary sleeping agent for the Green Revolution!
It is a book for children which is not actually about children and neither like Tolkien’s The Hobbit, with which it is sometimes compared, does it have a child-like hero. Gnomes, we can’t fail to notice have grey beards and suffer from many of the disadvantages of immense age, including loss of teeth. Human children are shadowy figures in the background in the book, even less present than human adults, whose most prominent representative, Giant Grum, is more monster than man! The story is about gnomes and wildlife. And the gnomes are also, unlike Scott in Richard Matheson’s Incredible Shrinking Man, not miniaturised humans, but threshold creatures, who have more kinship with voles, otters and blue tits than human beings.
BB’s radical position is that animals, and gnomes, are people too.
Although there are some uncomfortable elements to the anthropomorphism in the book- the depiction of the pheasant as a haughty ‘ Chinaman’ would now surely get BB convicted of orientalism – the overall effect is to give wild creatures character and agency. Whether a child or an adult reader you will discover the birdsong of many common birds and a multitude of details about other animals, from the forgetfulness of squirrels to this unsentimental description of the predatory behaviour of stoats- this one is stalking the gnomes.‘Stoat… came along slowly with frequent pauses, showing his yellowish-white chest as he sat up in the grass. When he ran, his body was arched in a hump, the black-tipped tail held high…’
The cumulative effect of the depiction of wild creatures, botanical changes throughout the year, and even the scent and sound of woodlands and water, is the creation of the same kind of immersive educational experience that so many contemporary nature writers seek to evoke.
Many other themes of contemporary environmentalism are also pre-figured in the Little Grey Men.
Pollution is a threat to the gnomes survival, whether the runoff from roads or toxic sheep dip- in the sequel ‘Down the Bright Stream’ the destructive effects of water extraction which threatens so many chalk streams today is given as horrifying a treatment as the gassing of the rabbits in Watership Down.
BB himself may have lived a very conventional life but the gnomes were as radical about the right to access the countryside as many campaigners today. On being told by the officious pheasant that they had no business trespassing in Crow Wood, they reply.
‘Private property?… There’s no such thing as private property in Nature! The woods and fields belong to all the earth, and so do we.’
Giant Grum, the gamekeeper, whose excessive zeal for protecting his pheasants leads him to wage war on every wild creature and set up a ghastly gibbet to display his victims is the arch-villain. Pan, who steps in to deal with him, proves to be far more effectual than his antecedent in Wind in the Willows!
BB’s favourite writers were WH Hudson and Richard Jefferies and his vision of the natural world as a place of intrinsic value and wonder echoed theirs but there is something very much of the moment in how he made the ordinary landscape of the South Midlands a transcendent territory. The Little Grey Men is an urtext for contemporary writing that celebrates the local and places that at first glance may be considered ‘mundane’.
For this writer, who genuinely did believe in gnomes, all places, including home are extraordinary.
The book ends with a midwinter reunion of the four gnomes.
‘Our last glimpse of them is in the cosy flame light, with their crooked shadows thrown on the interior of the old hollow oak. And the last sound we hear is of the Folly Brook, chuckling on past the Oak Pool as it had done for a thousand, thousand cuckoo years, on its long journey to the distant sea.’
Ian Tattum is a priest in the Church of England who writes occasional pieces about the people who shaped the history of science and human and animal travel-real and fictional.