When he was about four years old, Denys Watkins-Pitchford – later to be known by the nom de plume “B.B.” – saw a gnome in his bedroom. “There, between the beds was a diminutive Being,” he writes in his autobiography, A Child Alone: The Memoirs of B.B. “It had a round, very red, bearded face about the size of a small crab apple – it had, I think, some sort of hat on its head… I was stricken with fright as was the small object which immediately, and with great swiftness, bobbed down between the beds.”
It was this brief encounter that the sportsman, illustrator and countryside writer would draw on to write his Carnegie Medal-winning children’s novel The Little Grey Men. A fantasy story about the last gnomes in Warwickshire, it’s a richly detailed, luminous love letter to the English countryside which my mother, born and brought up in a boys’ school in the foothills of the Himalayas, adored. Forty-odd years later, it was a love she passed on, intact, to me.
Sneezewort, Baldmoney and Dodder live on the banks of the Folly Brook, subsisting, as B.B. explains in the introduction, by “hunting and fishing, like the animals and birds, which is only proper and right”. Years previously their brother, Cloudberry, had gone on an adventure to find the source of the Folly and never returned; one spring the three decide to set off in search of him, encountering water voles and kingfishers, wood mice and rabbits, badgers and owls and all sorts of other living things. Watkins-Pitchford was an accomplished naturalist and packed a huge amount of natural history into his story, alongside some wonderfully descriptive place-writing that doesn’t pander to its young readership (as many modern kids’ books do) but trusts them to build up a detailed imaginative picture of a landscape through the seasons. It’s funny, too, and full of camaraderie and kindness (much more so than its sequel Down The Bright Stream, in which one of the characters becomes jealous and bitter, causing Watkins-Pitchford to ruthlessly kill him off). For all their many strengths, though, neither book features many female characters, and while that didn’t stop me loving the stories as a child, when I came to write my own children’s novels in tribute to The Little Grey Men books it was the first thing I had to change.
When, after many years spent living in India, my parents came “home”, to suburban Surrey, my mother read, recommended or gave her six children many books that depicted an idealised vision of rural England: The Wind in the Willows, Lark Rise to Candleford, the Miss Read stories, Alison Uttley’s The Country Child, Cider With Rosie, The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady and even fantasies such as The Hobbit and Puck of Pook’s Hill. Even then I sensed they were somehow talismanic, their beguiling depictions of nature, the countryside and rural life markedly at odds with our dormitory village of Tudorbethan houses and bland bungalows accreted around a railway junction on the commuter line to Waterloo.
Due in no small part to The Little Grey Men and much of the rest of our childhood library, I grew up in love with a vision of England I couldn’t find anywhere, and which may never have existed. I see now that it was a vision with which my mother had her own, uneasy relationship; for to have been Anglo-Indian in the last days of the British Raj was uniquely complicated, and to root yourself and your children in a country you didn’t grow up in is never an easy thing to do.
The Little Grey Men by B.B. (1942)
Melissa Harrison is the author of “By Ash, Oak and Thorn” and “By Rowan and Yew” (Chicken House)