Wednesday 6 May 2020

Carnegie digressions by Paul May

My voyage of discovery through the winners of the Carnegie Medal has already taken me to some unexpected places. For example, after reading Eve Garnett’s The Family at One End Street I learned of her love of the north and her many journeys north of the Arctic Circle. 

A few years ago I cycled around the North Sea, and I’d recently read an excellent book by Peter Davidson called The Idea of North, which the Telegraph review sums up nicely: ‘A deeply researched and beautifully written survey of the concept of north in legend, history and the arts, and in the psyche of “northern” people’. 

So when I learned that Eve Garnett had written a biography of Hans Egede, the Norwegian missionary and explorer of Greenland, I naturally had to read it. To Greenland's Icy Mountains is a lovely book, illustrated with Garnett’s characteristic line drawings and with many of her own photographs, and full of vivid, beautifully written descriptions of landscape and nature in northern latitudes.

That was one diversion. Then there were two contrasting biographies. Angela Bull’s life of Noel Streatfeild was lively and entertaining and I read it with real pleasure. Theresa Whistler’s massive life of Walter de la Mare was by turns detailed, informative, fascinating and tiring. Whistler’s book took her thirty-five years to write—that’s twice as long as it took James Joyce to write Finnegan’s Wake. Like Angela Bull, Whistler had full access to all of her subject's papers. Unfortunately for her, de la Mare ‘kept all letters received, and . . . hoarded also (on principle, as seed corn) all scraps, notes, revisions, false starts, draft on draft—even his earliest rejection slips.’ Add to this the fact that Whistler knew de la Mare well and clearly revered him and you can see both why the book might have taken so long to write and why it took me a long time to read. It is hard to imagine my own life written down in such detail. I can’t tell you what I was doing this time last year, or come to think of it last week, let alone fifty years ago.

Theresa Whistler wrote a couple of children's books too, so they needed reading, and then there were all the writers who de la Mare knew. There were a lot of them, most importantly perhaps Edward Thomas. I am not short of things to read, thanks to the postman.

So, back to 1942. One thing I’ve already learned about the Carnegie is that some very odd books have won it. The Little Grey Men by ‘BB’ is a very odd book, but despite (or perhaps partly because of) its oddness, it is a classic. It’s a tale of Britain’s last four remaining gnomes. One of them has disappeared on a journey to find the source of the Folly Brook and the others set out to search for him. The gnomes are an interesting creation. Like hobbits they have been nearly wiped out by the modern world, keep themselves to themselves, but are still to be seen by those with sharp eyes, especially children. This is a theme which will recur later with The Borrowers.

‘BB’, whose real name was Denys Watkins Pitchford, was a Rugby schoolmaster and ‘sportsman’ who was also an illustrator, painter and poet. He was convinced that he had seen a gnome himself, as a child, but while the gnomes are entertaining enough characters, this book is all about the author’s passionate love of the English countryside. The gnome’s eye view of what is, in reality, ‘a small brook rush-grown in places, bushed in by hawthorns, with many a bend and miniature beach’ transforms it into a place of mystery, adventure and beauty. Reading the book I felt I was seeing the landscape as I saw it as a child, from lower down and close up—a magical world. The gnomes themselves act as a symbol of this magic which is in effect not magic at all, but the reality of childish perception. Watkins Pitchford says: 

‘As a boy I believed with Llewelyn Powys that if “I could become invisible and be transported to the tall elder hedge across the field, or in a trice, to be on the other side of the green hill where the red-legged moorhen has her nest amid the basket rushes of the ox pond”, I would surprise the little people about their business.
            And in the magic of the white twilights of new summer I still get that feeling. When it fades I shall no longer write books for children.’ (Peter Davidson—see above—wrote a wonderful book about twilight called The Last of the Light).

‘BB’ continued to write for children for many years, and his Bill Badger books were widely read for a generation and more. In its structure and in some of its episodes The Little Grey Men has echoes both of The Wind in the Willows and of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and like The Wind in the Willows it features an appearance by the god, Pan. The journey up-river towards Giant Crum’s lair in Crow Wood is a journey into fear which culminates in death, murder even. This is the greatest oddness in the book and BB’s ‘sportsman’s’ perspective on the natural world requires some unpicking. Giant Crum is a gamekeeper, and Crow Wood is a fenced-off pheasant reserve where Giant Crum hangs the corpses of owls, stoats, weasels and all kinds of small animals. BB was a specialist in shooting wild geese, and fishing for carp, yet he was also, you may think bizarrely, a conservationist. His hatred here is for the artificial and commercial rearing of birds for shooting, and of the fences. Quite how this justifies the actions of the gnomes is not clear!

Denys Watkins Pitchford—'BB'

The gamekeeper conservationist lives on, however. On the country estate where I used to live (in a humble rented cottage I should say) the gamekeeper was happy to shoot buzzards and foxes and allow lamping for hares (you drive into a field in a land rover with a floodlight and shoot the hares immobilised in the beam), and at the same time he promoted himself as a conservationist. 

The Little Grey Men won the Carnegie in 1942. No book was deemed suitable in either 1943 or 1945, but in 1944 it was won by Erik Linklater’s The Wind and the Moon. If The Little Grey Men is odd, this book is odder. All the way through it betrays its origins. Linklater was instructed by his wife to take their two young daughters for a walk in the rain. Of the genesis of his story he says: ‘in its simple, original form it was entirely purposive. It was designed—and told at the top of my voice—to drown the loud, ill-tempered howling of my two small, rain-soaked daughters.’

Eric Linklater

Unlike BB, who was trying to capture a child’s magical view of the world, Linklater deals for the most part in a kind of whimsical invention which for me became very wearing indeed, and almost had me screaming like the rain-soaked daughters before I had finished. I thought the book was incoherent, rambling, over-long, slightly condescending in tone (as you might expect from a story made up on the spur of the moment to calm children) and there was just TOO MUCH WHIMSY! It is also at least two books in one. In the first half the ‘naughty’ children over-eat until they roll around like giant footballs, then starve until they are thin, and are then turned into kangaroos and live in a zoo while the author pokes adult fun at the legal system over the heads of his juvenile readers. In the second half of the book the girls set out to rescue their father from a cruel tyrant in a foreign country with the help of a golden puma, a white falcon, their dancing teacher and a couple of sappers left over from the Boer war.

Some people love this book. Marcus Crouch says: ‘summary makes nonsense of a story full of gay invention, good humour and suspense. It is a long story but it has no longeurs.’ (I disagree!)  New York Review Books, who have their own edition, say: ‘ Written at the height of World War II, this tale of hilarity and great adventure is also a work of high seriousness; after all, “life without freedom,” as the valiant puma makes clear, “is a poor, poor thing.”

I’ll be very interested to hear from any modern fans. Linklater, according to Crouch, ‘had won high distinction as novelist, poet, dramatist and biographer. He was also, moreover, a man of affairs and of action.’ I can’t help wondering whether the editor in the children’s department at Macmillan wasn’t a little intimidated and reluctant to offer editorial suggestions. It truly is a long book—about 90,000 words—and I don’t think it would make it unscathed past a modern editor.

In the interests of balance I should say that I am unlikely to be well-disposed to any book that is said to be full of gay invention and hilarity. And in case you were wondering, I read this before the onset of the current lockdown. For an alternative view (I wouldn’t want to put anyone off) you might be interested in this by James Meek in the Guardian from 2005.

Slightly Foxed have a nice edition of The Little Grey Men with Denys Watkins Pitchford's original scraper board illustrations, and New York Review books have a good one of The Wind on the Moon but it isn't readily available here, though I have seen their editions in independent bookshops eg the Book Hive in Norwich. There is also a UK paperback edition.


Nick Garlick said...

Paul, I'm enjoying these blogs of yours. I may not decide to read all the books you write about, but it's certainly entertaining to discover what you have to say about them.

Paul May said...

Thanks , Nick. I'm glad you're enjoying it. As someone who is happy to abandon a book if I'm not enjoying it after 10 pages or so (life's too short) I can see this is going to be a challenge. I should have got myself sponsored!

Penny Dolan said...

New Carnegie treats - or not - for this new month

Thank you, Paul May,

Nick Garlick said...

I'm a confirmed 10-page-book-abandoner. So more power to your arm. (Eyes? Brain?)