This is the year that Denys Watkins-Pritchard was born, one hundred years ago, a minor children’s author who bought joy to many schoolboys lurking around public libraries. Although Tolkien was the pre-eminent fantasy author, there were others to delve into on rainy afternoons, and under the pseudonym of ‘BB’, Watkins-Pritchard produced his own elegies to the passing of a pre-industrial England.
The most famous books were The Little Grey Men and The Little Grey Men Go Down The Bright Stream. The adventures of the four last gnomes in England, with the fantastical names of Cloudberry, Dodder, Sneezewort and Baldmoney, and their escape to a rural Ireland remind me of the ‘rural retreat’ that pervaded English literature from the beginning of the industrial age. As with the Cottingley Fairies, that famous fraud perpetrated on the gullible, BB recounted seeing a gnome:
The seeds of the idea for The Little Grey Men were sown when, as a small child, BB saw ‘a diminutive being.3 It had a round, very red, bearded face about the size of a small crab apple. It wasn’t a dream I can still see the little red astonished face.’
When myths and fairie-tales wove a stronger spell on the populace, brought up on rural tales of an idyllic past, the ring of authenticity provided that extra magical effect for the young audience, an extension of Peter Pan into real life.
There is a strand of merging reality and fantasy in British children’s books and plays that can be traced to J.M. Barrie and probably precedes his Neverland. This proved a strong influence throughout the twentieth century and ‘BB’ tapped into the long retreat of magic that was to pervade the work of Alan Garner as well. Some may explain this as the workings of modernity or industrialism or empire but these authors wished to infuse their own pasts with a magical glow and pass it on to new audiences as part of their long summer childhood.
Sometimes, as I take the Bluebell Light Railway, I can imagine that it is passing through the Forest of Boland.